A younger, more liberal City Council is coming to Philadelphia.
Council members will take their oaths of office Monday at the Met Philadelphia, where Mayor Jim Kenney also will be inaugurated for a second term.
Poverty, gentrification, gun violence, education funding, and cleaning up environmental hazards in city schools are among the issues likely to take center stage in 2020. That’s according to interviews last week with several of the 17 new and returning members. Although Council members did not offer many specifics on bills they plan to introduce, they said there’s new energy and political will to focus on those issues.
“Council seems to be coalescing around those critical needs,” said Councilmember-elect Jamie Gauthier, who upset longtime incumbent Jannie L. Blackwell to represent the Third Council District in West Philadelphia. “And I think that’s because of what we’re hearing from people in neighborhoods and because we’re looking at the hard numbers.”
At the end of the last Council session, lawmakers enacted the first changes to the controversial 10-year tax abatement for new construction in almost two decades. And Council President Darrell L. Clarke has convened a special committee to address poverty, with an ambitious goal of reducing the number of Philadelphians living in poverty by one-quarter, from about 400,000 to 300,000, in the next four years.
The new Council will be younger and more progressive, as four newcomers take office. Councilmember-elect Kendra Brooks of the Working Families Party won an at-large seat long held by Republicans, one of two effectively set aside for candidates outside the Democratic Party. She will be joined by three new Democratic colleagues: Gauthier and at-large members-elect Katherine Gilmore Richardson and Isaiah Thomas.
Larry Ceisler, a public affairs consultant and longtime observer of city politics, said the new political dynamics on Council will be key.
“How far left is Council going to go?” he said. “There’s one thing when there’s campaign rhetoric, and then there’s another story once you’re governing.”
Poverty and affordable housing
Reducing poverty is Clarke’s priority for the year.
“We must drive down the poverty rate in our city, and working together with the administration, the business community, nonprofit leaders, citizens, and City Council, we will do that,” Clarke said Friday.
But how the city can accomplish that goal will remain up for debate.
Brooks’ campaign platform included legislation to institute rent control in Philadelphia. She has a progressive ally in Councilmember Helen Gym, who said the city will need to look carefully at poverty and housing — especially without support in those areas from the state and federal governments. Gym said she will push for the additional tax revenue collected from reducing the 10-year tax abatement to go toward supporting affordable housing.
“It’s going to require a lot of policy work and really bringing people to an understanding of how this housing market is really changing rapidly across the city and impacting people’s ability to keep a roof over their heads,” she said.
Gauthier said she would like to change zoning ordinances to require affordable housing in developments. Currently, developers simply receive zoning bonuses if they include affordable housing or make a payment to the housing trust fund.
“We have to force the issue of affordable housing,” she said. “That’s something I want to push in 2020.”
Councilmember Allan Domb said he plans to reintroduce his bill to offer refunds on the city’s wage tax to low-income workers, which Kenney declined to sign at the end of the year.
“If we’re talking about helping people get out of poverty, here’s the opportunity,” he said.
Cleaning up city schools
Gym said she would like to create a “school modernization fund that can not only make our schools safe and free of lead, mold, and asbestos, but also really just be an anchor in our communities.”
The School District of Philadelphia has had to close six schools and an early childhood education center because of asbestos issues so far this school year.
Other members have also voiced support for ensuring that funding is in place to remove environmental hazards from schools and protect students. Although Council does not control the School District, it does have the power to provide funding as part of its annual budget. That work will begin in March, after Kenney proposes a budget to Council.
But Councilmember Cherelle L. Parker said the city will need help.
“The city cannot and should not be required and-or expected to address this issue alone,” she said. “We cannot tax our way out of it.”
Lawmakers also said reducing gun violence is a priority, after 2019 had the highest total of killings in the city since 2007. But there’s little legislating Council can do on gun control due to state laws that preempt local gun laws.
Parker said Council can act to stem gun violence by addressing poverty and encouraging job growth. “Give folks access to opportunity, and I guarantee you that we will begin to make some strides,” she said.
Clarke said Council looks forward to working with newly appointed Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw.
The new Council session is likely to include legislation on a number of other issues.
Here are a few:
Councilmember Mark Squilla said he hopes to introduce a package of bills to deal with congestion on city streets through measures such as parking restrictions and placards for construction vehicles.
Gym and Brooks have voiced support for a Green New Deal for Philadelphia, or a local version of the plan championed by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.). Gym said she’d like to consider jobs, new development, and sustainability as parts of that plan.
Domb said he wants to look at the city’s tax structure and to improve Philadelphia’s ability to attract new businesses and help existing businesses grow.
Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson said he’s looking into potential legislation to address rising property assessments by capping assessment increases.