Instead of Inclusionary Zoning, Philly should focus on existing housing stock, allow for density in Center City, and fulfill its commitments to our poorest neighborhoods in terms of services.
by David Compa
“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