It’s been years since Philadelphia was known as the “City of Homes,” a nickname first coined in the late 19th century during a surge of rowhouse construction that changed the face of neighborhoods across town. While many aesthetically minded residents complained at the time about the way that developers had focused on cutting costs instead of on stylish designs, the ubiquity of affordable housing ensured that virtually everyone within the growing city had somewhere to live.
Fast-forward by a century and a quarter or so, and — at a moment when the city is experiencing its most significant growth spurt since 1950 — some of those old tensions about the cadence of construction have resurfaced. In response, City Council is preparing a proposal that would change the structure of the Zoning Board of Adjustment and slow the pace of development.
At issue are the city’s zoning regulations, which determine factors such as how tall a building can stand, how much of a lot it can occupy, and how it can be used. When property owners want to make a change that would violate the current zoning rules in their neighborhood — placing a business on a lot designated only for residential use, for example — they appeal to the zoning board, which decides whether or not to grant an exception, called a variance, based on a number of factors.
Recently, some neighborhood groups — and members of City Council — have charged that the board has become too lax when enforcing zoning rules and is approving too many variances. A group calling itself the Citywide Registered Community Organization Coalition of Philadelphia sent a letter to Council members asking them to find a way to rein in the zoning board, which it claims is giving carte blanche to developers.
“We fear that our politicians and city officials are turning their backs on Philadelphia’s long-time residents, neighborhoods, and community organizations, preferring instead to court wealthy investors and developers,” the letter reads. The letter’s authors have asked Council to replace everyone on the five-member board and create an oversight panel to review its decisions and consider complaints about potential conflicts of interest.
In an apparent response to the letter, Council President Darrell L. Clarke announced plans to overhaul the zoning board, but this approach is short-sighted.
It is certainly easy to see how new construction can frustrate residents. Philadelphia allows contractors to start work as early as 7 a.m., meaning you might wake up to the sound of construction equipment. The city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections, which is tasked with regulating construction, has had persistent trouble filling staff openings to meet the needs of a growing city, meaning unscrupulous contractors aren’t always dealt with in a timely fashion. And, in some cases, shoddy workmanship has had calamitous effects on homes.
These concerns, while valid, need not be addressed by clamping down on new construction, or through a radical rethinking of zoning rules. Our city is now on a trajectory of growth, and while we are still below our mid-20th century peak in terms of pure population numbers, we actually have more households than ever before. That combination of a reduction in household size and population growth is fueling demand for housing — both of the affordable and market-rate variety — throughout the city, and that demand isn’t going away.
It’s also fair to question the criticisms that have been directed at the board — while the rate of housing production in Philadelphia has risen, with 2020 seeing a total of 5,665 units, the percentage of projects requiring zoning variances has actually declined over the last decade, from 22% of projects in 2010 to 12% in 2020.
Still, perceptions are powerful. At a recent City Council meeting, Habitat for Humanity, the charity that has helped house nearly 30 million people worldwide, was scheduled to receive city-owned vacant land in the 1600 block of Page Street in North Philadelphia, when a few neighbors weighed in against the sale.
Some neighbors said they feared that building seven new homes would flood the neighborhood with rats, lead to gentrification, and, most important, strain the availability of on-street parking.
They urged Council to look past Habitat’s ”real flowery mission” of providing affordable homes to families and consider the impact of a construction project on neighborhood residents. The sale was delayed.