On Thursday, before Mayor Jim Kenney’s budget address, City Council introduced five bills to address the problems of unaffordable housing and housing discrimination that have plagued the city for years. The bills represent a new effort by Council to address issues of poverty in the city, and followed release of a report called “Narrowing the Gap: Strategies to Alleviate and Prevent Poverty in Philadelphia.” The report gives examples from other cities and states on how Philadelphia might promote fair and affordable housing, improve access to and quality of jobs and education, and expand the social safety net.

Each bill tackles a different aspect of the housing issues that low-income Philadelphians face every day. They include:

  • Prohibiting landlords from asking current or prospective tenants about a criminal record, with the exemption being a history of sexual assault.
  • Mandating that a third of units built on public land that was sold for redevelopment be affordable.
  • Instructing landlords to prove that they have a rental license when they file for an eviction. The bill also would create a Low-Income Tenant Legal Defense Fund.
  • Requiring listing services to include a rental license number for every advertised unit.
  • Creating a tax incentive for landlords who post affordable rents.

These bills could make a difference in widening access to affordable housing. It’s likely that they will pass. Real estate magnate Allan Domb co-sponsored the bills that were crafted by Council President Darrell L. Clarke, which might be a signal that landlords are on board. In addition, the bills would create compliance requirements and not require major changes to the budget — but that might be their downfall.

A law is only worth the resources we spend on enforcing it. And enforcement of the five bills will be spread among agencies and departments without any additional resources. Many of these departments struggle to keep up with their existing enforcement requirements. That includes Licenses & Inspections, which already fails to enforce the requirement for landlords to have a rental license; close to 40,000 units do not.

Another agency involved would be the Human Relations Commission, which enforces fair housing laws and probably would be entrusted with enforcing the prohibition against landlords asking tenants about criminal records. The commission, too, isn’t always able to enforce fair housing laws, such as the law prohibiting landlords from discriminating against voucher holders. An Urban Institute study from last summer found that two-thirds of landlords discriminate against voucher holders.

Without proper investment in enforcement, none of these bills will make a difference in the lives of low-income renters.

In the coming weeks and months, Council will hold committee hearings on these bills as well as the budget. If Council doesn’t intend to invest resources in enforcement of these bills, it’s hard to see the point of enacting them….unless the goal was just to take some action during an election season instead of actually helping the poor.