After years of austerity, disinvestment, and abandonment, it is time for stakeholders and developers to commit to Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. Imagine more jobs with living wages, affordable housing, parks, and green spaces. These are some of the promises of community benefits agreements (CBAs).
Mayor Jim Kenney exercised six pocket vetoes last week, killing bills that were approved by City Council. One such bill sought to establish guidelines for CBAs around “high-impact projects," with impact defined by how much space the project will disturb and/or take up.
Kenney provided a reasonable explanation for his veto, writing of CBAs: “While they have an important purpose, we as a government have not done enough to ensure that standards of process and conduct are followed by these [registered community] organizations.”
He was right: The proposed legislation needs time and refinement to ensure that the regulations truly promote development without displacement. Ultimately, the city needs developers to invest in the long-term health and wellness of the communities around their projects.
CBAs create the structure for neighborhood stakeholders to have genuine discussions about the benefits and harms due to development. In the last year, community processes have started for several developments leading to agreements that truly benefited residents.
Last year, Post Brothers agreed with local community organization Richard Allen New Generation to provide 10% of the construction jobs to the West Poplar neighborhood, with half the jobs committed to people of color and women. They’ve so far lived up to that promise, and further supported 25 West Poplar residents’ education at Orleans Technical College. Requiring a geographical hiring preference for individuals in surrounding neighborhoods directly impacted that community.
More broadly, anti-displacement groups like the Philadelphia Tenants Union and Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities have gained momentum in recent years to push back against development-related harms. While developers have profited from Philadelphia’s hot real estate market and policies like the 10-year tax abatement, renters have been evicted on a large scale.
We know that the costs for evictions and disruptive displacement go to the individuals and the city’s budget. Individuals lacking stability in their living arrangements face social costs: mental health issues, trauma, family separation, job loss, and chronic illnesses. These costs can never truly be accounted for properly.
Still, community benefits agreements can provide some accountability for developers to the communities in which they are entering. Public processes can be messy, but they are necessary. Everybody in this city belongs in this city. We cannot simply remove our neighbors and replace them. We must mitigate harms related to rapid development with community benefits that lead to permanent affordable housing and an increase in wages for the surrounding community.
It’s good that this bill didn’t go forward, so that the city can develop something better. The stipulations should mandate that CBA agreements specifically require developers to help vulnerable Philadelphians in affected communities attain basic necessities, like food, quality housing, and income, that remain unstable for many.
We must use any and all tools to support investment in neighborhoods that were abandoned during periods of white flight and the War on Drugs. Racism and classism are not just relics like past restrictive covenants and redlining that deliberately segregated the city. We must also combat current predatory lending or reverse redlining — singling out minority homeowners for more expensive and riskier loans — that has stolen black and brown wealth. The City just settled with Wells Fargo last month for $10 million based on such predatory loan practices. This figure is not nearly enough to recoup a family’s heartbreak from losing what they believed was an investment in generational wealth.
Community benefits agreement are about creating conditions for long-term investment, collaboration, and harmony in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. Let’s hope there is more discussion in the next Council session to make them a common and understood practice fully committed to inclusion — especially of people with disabilities, renters, low-income households, people who are unhoused, youth, and single heads of household with children.