When Philadelphia City Council members adjourned for their summer vacations in June — after a year in which they were forced to meet virtually as they fought high-stakes battles over taxes, housing, and violence prevention — they were hopeful that things might be different in the fall.
But when lawmakers returned to business on Friday, they were again meeting virtually after the delta variant surge forced Council President Darrell L. Clarke to abandon his plan for a return to in-person meetings. And they were still talking about taxes, affordable housing, and gun violence.
Council met on Friday, instead of its usual Thursday session, to avoid conflicting with the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.
Here are some big questions looming over Council’s fall session:
When will Council resume in-person meetings?
It’s unclear. Clarke told lawmakers two weeks ago that he plans to return to an “in-person environment as soon as that makes sound medical sense.”
Until then, Council members will conduct their meetings through Microsoft Teams, and broadcast them on Channel 64 and the Council website.
Many lawmakers complained about being unable to meet in person during June’s budget negotiations, saying the talks dragged on in part because of the virtual environment.
“It’s important to look somebody in their eyes,” Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr. said. “Some of the things just don’t translate well in emails or texts.”
What do lawmakers plan to do about housing?
Many Council members are in agreement that Philadelphia’s affordable housing crisis needs to be addressed. But they are far from on the same page about how to address it.
Some, like Clarke, are pursuing measures that restrict development in fast-changing neighborhoods in their districts.
Additionally, Clarke on Friday introduced legislation to make changes to the Zoning Board of Approval, which he says often ignores neighborhood concerns when green-lighting projects. The proposal would amend the Home Rule Charter to add two community representatives to the board and to require that the mayor’s appointees receive Council approval.
Councilmember Helen Gym wants to turn emergency housing protections adopted during the pandemic — such as an eviction diversion program — into permanent city services.
One proposal that is likely to take center stage this fall is a plan by Councilmembers Jamie Gauthier and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez to implement a policy known as mandatory inclusionary zoning for parts of their districts.
The debate will be wonky, but it’s a big deal.
Currently, developers seeking to build above height limits in Philadelphia are required to either include affordable units in the project or make payments to the Housing Trust Fund. If approved, the legislation will mean that, for parts of North and West Philadelphia, developers seeking approval to build above height limits will have to ensure that 20% of the units are affordable.
“They aren’t going to create affordable housing out of the kindness of their hearts,” Gauthier said on Friday.
Councilmember Mark Squilla said he is concerned that the policy will inadvertently drive up housing costs by increasing development costs, a sentiment likely to be pushed heavily this fall by lobbyists for the development community.
“A lot of times we do things thinking, ‘This is a great benefit,’ and it ends up there are unintended consequences,” he said.
Why are they still debating taxes?
After weeks of negotiations over a bevy of tax cut proposals, Council in June approved a watered-down version of Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposal to reduce the wage tax.
But few were happy with the outcome, and lawmakers cast aside the mayor’s push to modestly lower the business tax, Councilmember Allan Domb’s proposal to dramatically reduce the wage and business taxes, and Majority Leader Cherelle Parker’s proposed parking tax cut.
As politicians often do, Council members and Kenney agreed to figure it out later. So they formed a Tax Reform Working Group that will present recommendations by the end of the year, said Quiñones-Sánchez, who is on the panel.
But whatever the group produces, the debate will be defined by members pulling in opposite directions. Domb, for instance, plans to keep pushing for significant tax cuts, while progressive Councilmember Kendra Brooks wants the city to move away from a cost-cutting mindset.
“We can’t do another year with a business-as-usual budget and the way we approach city services with this austerity mindset,” Brooks said.
What happened to all that antiviolence funding?
After approving $155 million in spending on violence prevention programs in this year’s budget, Council members say they plan to devote the fall to monitoring how the Kenney administration spends it.
“The hard part is who to fund and how those funds will impact the number of shootings in Philly,” said Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr., who chairs the Public Safety Committee.
The funding was earmarked to go to a wide variety of strategies, from boosting small neighborhood groups that focus on violence intervention to increasing funding for jobs programs.
Brooks said the city has to be more transparent about its processes for spending the money than it has in the past.
“We still have yet to see a clear distribution as to where that went,” Brooks said. “There’s too much uncertainty.”