City Council on Thursday approved bills pausing demolitions in a South Philadelphia neighborhood rich in Black history, expanding death benefits to families of city workers who died of COVID-19, and prohibiting landlords from rejecting potential tenants based only on their credit scores.
In its final meeting before lawmakers begin their summer vacation, Council also gave final approval to the $5.27 billion city budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, and a small cut to the city wage tax.
After weeks of protracted negotiations with Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration, lawmakers last week reached a compromise on the financial plan that will guide the city as it recovers from the pandemic and faces soaring rates of shootings and homicides. Councilmember David Oh, who pushed unsuccessfully for a larger investment in arts and culture funding, cast the lone vote against the budget.
Council’s amendments to Kenney’s budget proposal add more money for violence prevention programs outside police, arts and culture funding, and the Land Bank, which manages city-owned vacant properties.
Lawmakers approved a slimmed-down version of a wage tax cut proposed by Kenney, but declined to adopt his proposed reduction of the business income and receipts tax.
Councilmembers Kendra Brooks, Jamie Gauthier, and Helen Gym voted against the tax cut measure, which passed, 13-4, saying the city cannot afford to forgo revenue at a time when it needs more money for services. Maria Quiñones-Sánchez also voted no to register her objection to what she described as a lack of boldness in the overall budget.
Brooks, who voted against last year’s budget because it didn’t cut police funding, said she voted for this year’s spending plan, despite a small Police Department increase, because it also makes substantial investments in antiviolence programs. She said Thursday that she still wishes the budget went further.
“Instead of meeting this bold level of funding with an equally bold vision, we have chosen incremental change,” said Brooks, who authored the separate bill approved in a 16-1 vote Thursday restricting landlords from rejecting tenants for no other reason than their credit scores, which she said can be used as a cover for racial discrimination.
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The budget sets aside $155 million for initiatives that the administration and lawmakers have labeled as violence prevention, ranging from workforce programs to help young people find jobs to assisting neighborhood organizations that use trusted community members to intervene in potentially violent conflicts. Lawmakers heralded $68 million in new antiviolence spending as the highlight of last week’s budget deal. But much of that was already in the budget and was merely reclassified as antiviolence funding.
Kenney and Council President Darrell L. Clarke announced Thursday that the city will form a “violence prevention and opportunity monitoring group” to help community groups apply for $20 million in new community grants and measure the impact of those investments.
Council also passed a flurry of non-budget bills on Thursday, likely its final virtual meeting of the coronavirus era. Clarke said he expects lawmakers to return to City Hall for in-person meetings in September. All legislation approved Thursday now heads to Kenney’s desk to be signed into law.
A bill by Brooks that regulates how landlords evaluate potential renters passed, 16-1, with Oh voting no. Among other provisions, it bans landlords from rejecting applicants for no other reason than their credit scores, which she said has been used as a cover for racially discriminatory practices in the rental industry.
Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson authored the bill that will place a one-year moratorium on demolitions of houses on the stretch of Christian Street known as Doctor’s Row. That area extends from Broad Street to 20th Street and was home to a historic upper-middle-class Black community in the early 20th century. The neighborhood, sometimes referred to as South Philadelphia’s “Black Main Street,” has seen a significant number of historic homes torn down in recent years as development interest has increased in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood.
The bill passed, 17-0.
Another bill approved Thursday, proposed by Councilmember Bobby Henon, will soften Pension Board eligibility rules to ensure that families of city workers who died of COVID-19 but can’t prove their loved ones contracted the virus on the job will still be eligible for death benefits.
Typically, those benefits go to families of police officers or firefighters who die in the line of duty. It’s more difficult to prove where people infected with COVID-19 contracted it. Henon’s bill, which passed, 17-0, will create the presumption that city workers who were working in person prior to dying of COVID-19 contracted the virus on the job.
Families can receive 80% of the expected pension payouts of city employees who die from work-related causes. Henon’s proposal followed an NBC10 investigation showing that some workers’ families could have missed out on the benefits.
Although they were departing for the summer, lawmakers set the stage for debates to come in the fall. Gauthier, for instance, introduced legislation that would institute a version of the controversial development policy known as mandatory inclusionary zoning in parts of her West Philadelphia district. Quiñones-Sánchez is pursuing a similar experiment in her Kensington-based district.
City law currently requires developers seeking the mixed-income housing bonus to set aside some units for affordable housing or pay into the Housing Trust Fund. Very few choose to include affordable units on-site. Mandatory inclusionary zoning would require on-site affordable units for larger projects in certain parts of those members’ districts.
Staff writer Laura McCrystal contributed to this article.