What’s up with Philly’s real estate right now? There’s a ton going on when it comes to housing trends, gentrification, neighborhood issues, and, of course, the 10-year tax abatement. We have a Q&A with a reporter who has been covering it all.

But before we get to that, we preview the first of the Eagles’ must-win NFC East games. The Birds play the Giants tomorrow night as they cling to their playoff lives.

The week ahead

  • While the Giants have a losing record, the Eagles have already shown that facing losing teams doesn’t guarantee a win. In fact, a few notable Birds are injured ahead of Monday’s game and might not play. So, you could get a closer game than anticipated.
  • Last week, Philadelphia City Council took a step toward changing the city’s controversial 10-year tax abatement policy for the first time since its enactment two decades ago. The legislation will now await a final vote before City Council, which has just two meetings scheduled before the end of the year.
  • Look for a story this week by reporter Aubrey Whelan that explores how the county that includes Pittsburgh saw a 40% drop in fatal overdoses in 2018 after suffering a record high in 2017. The reduction could provide clues to how Philadelphia could handle its own opioid crisis.

This week’s most popular stories

Behind the story with Caitlin McCabe

Anna Orso / Staff

Each week we go behind the scenes with one of our reporters or editors to discuss their work and the challenges they face along the way. This week we chat with Caitlin McCabe, who has been following the ongoing developments and controversies surrounding Philadelphia’s 10-year tax abatement, which was enacted about 20 years ago.

As a housing and development reporter, what kinds of stories capture your attention?

Residential real estate is such a broad topic to cover — especially in Philadelphia — and often includes stories about gentrification, historic preservation, housing trends, new construction, and more. That makes my job really exciting; every day can be totally different. But the stories I care about most deeply are the ones that focus on the ways that real people are interacting with the housing market. Real estate can be heavy on data and statistics — stories about mortgage rates or housing inventory are important, too! — but it’s also a subject that deeply affects the quality of our lives. So, I try to focus on stories that reveal something about the way that people are being shaped by housing. That might be a story about local renters who can’t find landlords who will accept their Section 8 vouchers or homeowners who are living in water-damaged homes due to low-quality construction.

Through your reporting and observations of Philly’s housing landscape, what do you envision happening to the city come 2020?

Philadelphia City Council will have four new members arrive in January, and there’s a good chance that they will move Council’s policies more to the left. I imagine that means we may see a more progressive housing policy that builds on the momentum that the group generated this year. Last month, Council unanimously passed a “Right to Counsel” bill, which will provide free legal counsel to low-income tenants facing eviction. And, a bill to modify the 10-year tax abatement will likely pass next week. Even so, many anti-abatement advocates have said that abatement reform should have gone further. So we may see more debate over that in 2020.

Outside of Council, Philadelphia’s housing market currently remains strong. Prices are still rising and sales are above the city’s longtime average. However, other housing markets across the U.S. are starting to slow down, and since Philly normally lags other markets, we could start to see some cooling next year. That could be good for first-time and lower-income home shoppers, who have had a harder time finding homes because of the rise in housing prices.

What’s been the hardest part of covering real estate and housing?

Like any other subject, it can be difficult at times to try to keep all the plates spinning. Because real estate covers so many different things — not to mention many neighborhoods — there can be a lot of news happening at once. Preservationists might be advocating for a church to be saved, while at the same time, a property is being damaged by unpermitted construction next door. A new $25 million condo might be hitting the market while other Philadelphia residents face foreclosure.

That being said, the variety keeps me on my toes and teaches me a lot. And I love hearing from readers about what issues I should be covering in their neighborhoods.

For those interested in buying a house here in Philly, are there any resources you’d suggest that would help with the process?

Philadelphia has a few different programs that are useful, including some for those who are trying to purchase a house for the first time. This year, officials announced the expansion of a program that gives first-time buyers and other eligible residents up to $10,000 when they purchase a home in the city. A couple making up to $86,520 would be eligible.

For current homeowners, the city’s homestead exemption can be a helpful tool for bringing their property taxes down. The exemption allows residential property owners, who use the home as their primary residence, to deduct $45,000 from their property assessment before the tax bill is determined.

And, of course, anyone buying new construction or a property that has been renovated in the city may be eligible for the tax abatement.

The city also offers a few resources for homeowners who need help making home improvements. The Restore, Repair, Renew program offers Philadelphians with credit scores as low as 580 the ability to borrow as much as $24,999 for 10 years at a fixed interest rate of 3%. To be eligible, residents must meet income guidelines and have no public liens or violations from the Department of Licenses and Inspections. Some residents may also be eligible for free home-repair programs.

What have been some major issues around housing and development that you plan on covering or think need more coverage?

Philadelphia has seen an increasing number of building collapses and reports of property damage in the last few years — so much so that L&I is talking about instituting new regulations to try to curb construction accidents. It will be interesting to see which regulations are implemented, which actually work, and how active the District Attorney’s office becomes in these cases. So far, L&I has referred three construction accident cases to the DA’s office.

At the same time, Philadelphia has increasingly become a renter’s city — shifting away from the longtime reputation of being a city of homeowners. I’ll be watching what this means for new construction projects, as well as what it means for the people who live across the region.

You can stay in touch with Caitlin by following her on Twitter at @mccabe_caitlin or by emailing her at cmccabe@inquirer.com.

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