Once again, Philadelphia City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson is in the middle of a highly questionable city land transfer. He not only set in motion a chain of events that turned an affordable housing plan into a bonus for a developer, but his actions undermine efforts to build a coherent plan for a changing city.
In 2014, Johnson steered two city-owned lots on Bouvier Street, between Dickinson and Tasker, to a non-profit called Chosen 300 Ministries for $15,000, ostensibly for an affordable housing project. Less than a year later, the nonprofit flipped the lots, which the new owner eventually sold to a for-profit developer, reported staff writer Craig R. McCoy. Using those two lots and two others, the developer is building four townhouses and plans to sell them for $500,000 each. The extraordinary jump in value dramatizes just how volatile land prices in Point Breeze can be and the need to stabilize the neighborhood for poor and moderate-income residents.
Point Breeze is just a microcosm of the city, though. Like the city as a whole, the community is undergoing change and increased development — and spurring concerns that longtime residents could lose out. But how a city grows — and who gets to benefit — is far more complicated than a single Council member’s transactional approach. That’s why the outsize power they have for approving or vetoing sales and disposition of individual land parcels in their districts is so problematic.
To be sure, Johnson is not alone — Council President Darrell Clarke has been accused in the past of favoring donors for development deals. But more recently, Johnson has been in the middle of other city land transactions made under the guise of creating affordable housing. Since he took office in 2012, Johnson has steered 11 city properties in Point Breeze to developers who paid between $7,800 and $23,000. The developers turned the properties into housing which was marketed for $400,000 and up.
This is no way to meet the city’s growing housing affordability problem– or, for that matter, how to coherently plan a city.
The Planning Commission is working on Philadelphia’s first citywide affordable housing plan — and that is welcome only if Council doesn’t undermine it.
Council has a very important role to play in representing its constituents and balancing citywide development — especially as the plan evolves from a housing policy that was based on the city’s decline to one which is based on the city’s new growth. But Council needs to stop micro-managing housing policy.
Mayor Kenney and Council should extricate housing policy from the stultifying grip of politics. Council members rightly argue that they have intimate knowledge of the districts they represent, but doesn’t qualify them to control every piece of city-owned land.
It’s hard to be confident that an entrenched Council will change its ways, but in the last two decades, we’ve seen mayors put a dent into the culture of favors, and aspire to a government that is efficient, ethical — and fair. Councilmanic privilege belongs in the last century, not in the city’s future.