H.L. Mencken once said, “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” For our city’s urgent and growing low-income housing crisis, the “affordable” or “inclusionary housing” model put forward by private developers is wrong.
Philadelphia has over 40,000 people who have been wait-listed for public housing and are in desperate need. Adding to the crisis, more than half of renters in Philadelphia are cost-burdened — spending over 30% of their income on housing costs — and in danger of ending up on the streets.
This housing crisis has many causes. But one of the causes is trying to pass itself off as a solution.
In the West Philadelphia neighborhood of Cedar Park, one private developer was recently approved by the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment to build a 76-unit building with 15 units (20%) designated as “affordable” apartments.
Affordable for whom? A recent study of West Philadelphia housing shows that 40% of area renters need rents below $500, and only 35% can afford $750. Yet the 15 “affordable” one- or two-bedroom apartments range from $725 to $870 (650 to 900 square feet) — and the other 61 units, at $1,320 to $2,150, are unaffordable to most West Philadelphians.
“Affordable housing” is a problem masquerading as a solution. As the LA Tenants Union has observed, “affordable housing is a scam” because land and construction costs are simply too high for private developers to profit from building low-income apartments. The agreements are also temporary (10 to 50 years), enabling timed tenant eviction. And they are notoriously difficult to enforce.
Some parts of West Philadelphia, particularly near Penn and Drexel, have seen extensive displacement of Black and low-income residents. Cedar Park, however, has for years fought to stay affordable and diverse. As the housing report shows, they are thus at a high risk of displacement.
Even those neighbors who support the approved complex may simply fear the alternative presented by the developer, in the form of a grim drawing of 14 very ugly duplexes with street-facing garages and nasty curb cuts. But there’s plenty of room for alleyway parking, like other blocks in the area. And that’s not community engagement or planning; that’s more like a threat. The residents of Cedar Park, some 600 strong and primarily renters, refuse to back down and reject the privately negotiated “community agreement” that never consulted the community.
In the face of massive opposition, Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who helped craft this arrangement, felt obliged to withdraw her backing but signaled ambivalence well enough that the developer used it as evidence of support.* She and Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez have introduced a bill that would require 10% to 20% “affordability” in any development with 10 or more units, incentivizing large private luxury-rate developments. Meanwhile, neighbors are filing an appeal.
These neighbors’ demands are reasonable: They want the developer to honor current zoning and build duplexes with alley parking. Since housing prices do not influence rental rates, as found by the West Philadelphia housing report, duplexes are not likely to jeopardize the low rents in this area. In contrast, luxury-rate apartments encourage landlords to hike their rents. And in this neighborhood, it’s renters, not homeowners, who are in danger of displacement. The duplexes won’t be affordable, but then again, neither will the proposed apartments.
Our system is broken. Developers are gobbling up land and property and overwhelming residents and agencies with demands for zoning variances that are divisive and time-consuming for already overworked, vulnerable communities. Mayoral appointees such as the Zoning Board of Adjustments largely rubber-stamp developers’ proposals, and city planning is understaffed. Our city’s political ruling class willfully ignores those with deep roots in this city. Real estate interests have their ear. In the 1960s, they tried to ignore the communities that protested freeway construction. Today, they are ignoring the many communities protesting the damage developers are doing to our neighborhoods, wiping out historic, affordable housing stock; pocking our streets with dangerous construction and pollutants; contributing to parking and traffic congestion; and, most alarming, disrupting and displacing disadvantaged communities.
We must stop incentivizing market-rate residential construction and make it a priority to protect neighborhoods at high risk of displacement. Let’s not expand our public housing waiting list. Let’s not experiment with the lives of vulnerable people. Devote city-owned land and property to truly affordable housing, and provide public subsidies and donations to build what’s needed.
Most of all, let’s plan rather than react. We need citywide goals: multidimensional, evidence-based, and, most important, community-engaged. Our politicians and bureaucrats must learn how to listen to voters rather than act as handmaidens of the powerful real estate industry. We have a much better understanding of how our neighborhoods work. Private developers cannot solve public problems.
Susanna Martin is a member of Protect Squirrel Hill and a 15-year renter who lives near the proposed development. Valerie Ross is a 21-year West Philadelphia homeowner and vice president of West Philadelphians for Progressive Planning and Preservation.
*Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to include more information about the zoning board approval of the Cedar Park project.