IN A WEEK before the primary election that will virtually decide who will be the next mayor of Philadelphia, the current mayor quietly signed an executive order creating a committee to develop zoning legislation that will promote private development of more affordable housing.
Mayor Street's action went virtually unnoticed amid the hullabaloo of last-minute political ads, endorsements, accusations of political wrongdoing, daily shootings and, oh yeah, the federal bust of a bunch of alleged Islamic terrorists plotting to attack Fort Dix.
A plan to create more low-income housing did not register on the radar of news media preoccupied with the sexier topics of who will be the city's next mayor and who are the terrorists living among us.
But Street's action is worthy of note. Housing advocates say the city needs upwards of 60,000 more affordable-housing units to meet the needs of poor families.
The executive order Street signed last Monday creates a working group to review housing programs locally and nationally. The most successful of these programs will then serve as examples for the group as it crafts policy and legislation that provides incentives for private builders to include some percentage of affordable units in their residential developments.
The working group must decide more than just what carrot and/or stick to use as an enticement to developers. It must determine how many or what percentage of housing units will be required from any given project, and whether the housing will be targeted toward the very poor, the working poor or those who earn moderate to middle incomes.
The battle lines are already drawn.
City Councilman Darrell Clarke, who will co-chair the working group with city Secretary of Housing Kevin Hanna, wants incentives aimed at moderate- and middle-income families who don't qualify for existing low-income housing programs. He fears that if workers earning $40,000 to $80,000 are not given more housing options in the city, many will move to the suburbs in search of something more contemporary than their grandmother's rowhouse.
"From my perspective, I would like to focus aggressively on that category," Clarke said. "I want to address that middle ground and create some level of affordability for them."
Clarke points out that a Housing Trust Fund created by the Street administration two years ago is dedicated to low-income housing. On Wednesday, Hanna announced nearly $11.7 million in Housing Trust Fund awards to 21 nonprofit housing projects.
Affordable housing advocates say the Housing Trust Fund is the proverbial drop in the bucket.
"We are happy that they are focusing on the issue of inclusionary housing because we think it is important, but we would just like them to focus more on affordable housing for low-income families," said Jill Feldstein, a coordinator for the Women's Community Revitalization Project. That would be those families of four living on less than $22,000 a year.
The builders say they want a policy that won't dip too deeply into their profits, while short-circuiting the sometimes combative negotiations with community groups that can block zoning and permit approvals for months.
Clarke last fall introduced an inclusionary zoning bill aimed at creating what he calls "workforce housing." That would be a family of four making between $57,700 and $105,000 a year.
Clarke put that bill on hold after a rowdy public hearing last November and promised to create the working group to study the issues in more depth. And so we have the mayor's executive order.
Hanna said the plan is to appoint 10 to 20 or so people to the working group within the next few weeks. The as-yet unnamed members will be culled from among affordable-housing advocates, builders and developers, academics, philanthropic organizations, labor unions and City Council, he said.
The group will work over the summer to pull together information from such cities as Boston, Chicago and New York that are using their zoning laws and building codes to spur private development of affordable housing.
The goal is to deliver recommendations and draft legislation soon after Council returns from summer recess in September, then get it approved and delivered to Street so he can sign it before leaving office in January.
That's a tall order.
Remember the ill-fated tax proposals that came out of the Tax Reform Commission in 2004?
The majority of the recommendations became collateral damage in a war of wills between Street and Council President Anna Verna.
Verna said she is "keeping an open mind and is anticipating the Working Group's recommendations so that Council may review them and, hopefully, act before the end of this term." *