“Philadelphia is not a city of palaces for the few, but a city of homes for the many — which is better.”
This was the verdict of Talcott Williams, a journalist at the Chicago World’s Fair, on the Philadelphia “working-man’s house.” Unlike other cities at the time, which pushed the poorest into squalid tenements and often-poorly equipped high-rise apartments, the vast majority of Philadelphians lived in rowhouses, with the number owning their own homes “four to six times greater than any other great city of the world.” It was this exhibit that led Chicago to embark on its own version of the rowhouse in pursuit of the same goals.
Over time, the rowhouses expanded, and we added the twin to our housing stock, but the result of more homes and high ownership continued. This model of affordable comfort in housing, combined with a history of lower-than-average real estate taxes, powers Philadelphia’s middle class and working poor. Yet more and more public officials and thought leaders have voiced concern that this legacy is in danger, citing rapid increases in sale prices in the neighborhoods closest to Center City as proof. In Graduate Hospital and Point Breeze, blocks where homes had once sold for $50,000 now have neighbors who may have paid more than $500,000. As Philadelphia’s economy begins to grow after a long period of stagnation, more neighborhoods will begin to see demand increase for housing, especially those closest to Center City and other major amenities.
City Council’s proposed solution to the affordable housing crunch — a bill calling for Inclusionary Zoning, which mandates a certain amount of affordable housing in each development — is well-intentioned, but completely misses the point. Most construction projects in Philadelphia don’t have 10 or more units, and every year Council takes more land out of multifamily designations and into single-family. The bill also targets only Center City, which is a significant fraction of the city but still only one neighborhood. With rules like these, perhaps Council will meet its affordable housing goals somewhere during the lifetime of my great-grandchildren, but no sooner.
Instead, Council should focus its efforts on our existing housing stock. After all, Philadelphia is still a city of homeowners, with a 52.2 percent home ownership rate as of 2014. We can help our poorest homeowners remain in their homes by increasing the Homestead Exemption by $10,000. By decreasing the real estate liability evenly for all Philadelphia home owners, we’ll have the strongest net benefit on those at the most affordable levels of Philadelphia housing.
In addition, if Philadelphia is serious about getting affordable units into Center City, it should allow for more density. When the former Please Touch Museum had a proposal that involved condos, the city allowed a few people to veto it in favor of less-dense condos. Most economists would argue that the best way to lower prices is to increase supply. Yet directly off the Parkway, the city declined an opportunity to do just that.
The city also needs to begin fulfilling its commitments to our poorest neighborhoods in terms of services. When the city decides to stop street cleaning, maintenance of neighborhood green spaces, timely repaving, leaf cleanup, and other services, it makes more of our neighborhoods look broken, desolate, and unsafe. It contributes to a climate of fear, crime, and hopelessness. No matter what part of Philadelphia you visit, there is city-owned property sitting in disrepair and blighting an entire block, city streets and sidewalks that resemble obstacle courses rather than public right-of-ways, and green spaces that look more like the Upside Down from Stranger Things than somewhere you’d want to take your child to play.
Instead of ramming through an Inclusionary Zoning bill that will do more harm than good, Council should focus on doing things it should be doing already, like maintaining our distressed neighborhoods, increasing density in Center City, and using the homestead exemption to further protect our most vulnerable homeowners. Philadelphia has a tremendous legacy of home ownership across the economic spectrum. Let’s protect it the smart way.