Councilman Kenyatta Johnson is a walking, talking contradiction. He says he wants to protect poor residents in his South Philadelphia district from being displaced by gentrification. Yet, in about two dozen instances he aided developers who purchased city-owned properties to build high-priced housing that the poor can't afford.
Johnson says he didn't give favorable treatment to the developers, but three contributed to his political campaigns and one built his home.
The city's land-purchase policy is to competitively bid properties where there is interest and give discounts to buyers who agree to include affordable housing. So why were properties in the increasingly popular Point Breeze section of Johnson's district sold without bids at under-market prices so the developers can build $400,000 and above homes?
Other developers were interested in the properties. That suggests the city might have done better with competitive bidding. The city should let the market do its job in cases where it can produce a better deal. Instead, Johnson interceded under the dubious cloak of "Council prerogative," a tradition, not a law, giving Council members control over development in their districts.
"It's incredibly frustrating," developer Michael Pollack told staff writer William Bender. "We're trying to play by the rules; then things go a different way." The rules don't matter when Council can override them at will. Council members should have a role in protecting residents from inappropriate development, but by following clear and consistent policy guidelines.
There is nothing wrong with turning derelict properties into luxury housing, but original residents shouldn't be involuntarily displaced. In fact, Council has legislated numerous protections for long-time property owners, including making tax breaks available to anyone who qualifies, instead of handing them out piecemeal based on a Council member's potentially biased recommendation.
Council had a chance to reform "prerogative" when it voted to establish a land bank in 2013, but its members have instead tightened their grip. City-owned land still can't be sold to private, tax-producing entities without the blessing of district Council members.
Given a chance, the land bank will vastly improve the city's tortuous land disposition processes, which allowed various departments to have their own peculiar rules for transferring city land. That often held up sales for years. The land bank will be a one-stop shop, where residents and developers can acquire city properties. But it isn't fully staffed, which means it is barely making a dent in transforming deadbeat properties into new homes, yards, and businesses.
Mayor Kenney says he wants to improve the quality of life in neighborhoods, but that won't happen without more private investment. He should cash in on current momentum by making the land bank's staffing a higher priority.