Last week, city officials received responses to a request for proposals (RFP) for the sale and redevelopment of a former city fleet garage at 11th and Reed Streets, in the heart of South Philadelphia’s thriving Passyunk Square neighborhood. Given the neighborhood’s surging popularity for residents and businesses, the site has significant market value as a development that mixes residential and commercial tenants.
This is just the first of a few high-value city-owned properties to be put on the market. In coming years, two city-owned buildings on prime Center City real estate will be put up for sale — the current Police Department headquarters and the Police Department’s 6th District building. All these properties represent opportunities to create lasting value for taxpayers, but if the first RFP is an indication, with no requirement for affordable housing, the city may be opting for a one-time cash windfall. That’s a shame. But it’s not too late, because the mayor and City Council must ultimately approve the sale of the property.
Neighborhoods are stronger when residents from diverse income levels can afford to live together. However, the affordability of South Philadelphia is rapidly declining. According to U.S. census data, the percentage of rental housing in South Philadelphia under $750 a month (in constant 2017 dollars) plummeted from more than 50 percent at the turn of the millennium to barely 25 percent in 2017. The need for truly affordable housing in Passyunk Square and South Philadelphia is acute. Census data from 2017 suggest that renters in the neighborhood needed to earn at least $41,600 a year to spend 30 percent of their income on rental housing, which is accepted as the ideal limit to spend on housing. Just two years later, a renter needs to earn about $55,000 to afford even a modest one-bedroom apartment, demonstrating the real squeeze that low- and moderate-income Philadelphians are experiencing.
The redevelopment of the former fleet building is an opportunity to build affordable housing alongside market rate units. Both longtime neighborhood residents and newcomers stand to benefit. Older residents on fixed incomes — a staple of the South Philadelphia community — face the burden of aging in place in rowhouses that are difficult to live in and maintain. The waiting list for affordable housing for seniors can be 5 to 10 years long. The construction of apartment homes accessible to residents with limited physical mobility and fixed incomes would mean my older neighbors could remain in their community. Additionally, low-income Philadelphians from across the city should have access to the tremendous assets that make my neighborhood a great place to live.
City leaders would be wise to make affordable housing a reality in Passyunk Square — one of the city’s most amenity-rich neighborhoods — without having to secure land or produce a taxpayer outlay for the cost of construction. At least 40 percent of residential units constructed at the site should be affordable to a family of four earning about $43,000 a year or a single senior citizen with about $18,000 a year in retirement or Social Security benefits. There are simply no other opportunities in South Philadelphia to create this many affordable units so rapidly or at such little direct cost.
Creating affordable housing does have a cost: Developers will expect to pay less for a property that must meet these requirements. However, a commitment to affordable housing will create decades of value. Taxpayers will avoid the social costs of homelessness and the costs of health-care facilities for seniors who can instead age in place. Furthermore, generations of families will be put on a path to prosperity, and seniors will continue to contribute to the civic life of their neighborhood. The RFP process does not require that the sale go to the highest bidder, so the opportunity to trade a one-time payment to the city’s treasury for the lasting value citizens deserve from the sale of public land is available to the mayor and City Council. Let’s hope they make that trade.
Andrew Stober is a resident of the Passyunk Square neighborhood in South Philadelphia.