Point Breeze eminent domain bill passes, spurs debate on affordable housing (updated)

Those speaking out against the city's plan, passed in Council this morning, to take by eminent domain 17 privately owned properties in Point Breeze (including some owned and supposedly set for ground-breaking by an active area developer) argued that the scheme represented a flawed and inefficient approach to affordable housing in Philadelphia.

"Bill 120755 is not a housing bill: It's a vacant property bill," developer Ori Feibush, who has said he owns some of the properties in question — but who is not on record as owning any of the properties, according to Yvette Ousley, director of communications at Councilman Kenyatta Johnson's office. "You keep saying the word, 'affordable,'" Feibush said. He told Council if they meant it they should attach a maximum sale value to the bill, ensuring the houses developed on the land would actually be affordable. He pointed out that four "affordable" houses in the neighborhood are currently on the market for $250,000 or more. 

Several affordable housing builders and community activists spoke in favor of the legislation, as a step toward retaining affordability in the gentrifying neighborhood. The city's reason for taking the properties was to combine them with other vacant lots, in order to make more appealing plots for affordable housing developers. But those speaking out against it said rental subsidies or rehabbing run-down properties in the neighborhood — or building on what critics claim is a total of 311 city-owned lots in the area — would be a more effective way to provide affordable housing. Chris Sawyer, an activist on blight, says he's brought that issue up to city officials and been "met with silence as to why the city won't gut and rehab the vacant houses it owns." 

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who sponsored the bill, said it was given to him by the administration and that some property owners whose land was being condemned did not respond to the city's attempts to contact them. Ousley says that Johnson's office did, however, meet with the owners of the majority of the properties in question, and removed five of Feibush's own properties from the list previously.

Ousley said she sees Feibush's claims that he has properties at stake and set to be developed — but that he won't identify because he "doesn't trust Council" — as a diversion enabling the developer to put forward his own vision for the neighborhood. "There are no properties that are set for groundbreaking that are on the list," Ousley said. "But saying so allows him to continue waging this online war against this affordable housing initiative and against Councilman Kenyatta Johnson. The reality is a lot of the statements he's making are untrue, and while others have refused to call him on it, we're going to."