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Darrell Clarke’s crusade to keep rents high

Want to improve the life of the average person in Philly? Get rents and housing prices down.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Does City Council President Darrell Clarke cater to the rich because he means to, or is he simply ignorant of basic economics? 

One of the greatest burdens on city residents is the cost of housing. More than anything else the city government could do, getting rents and housing prices down would noticeably improve the life of the average person in Philly. Yet City Council actively works to drive up rents, and the Mayor works to keep the status quo.

In Philadelphia, housing construction is hampered by high costs, driven by the bureaucracy of permits/licenses/approvals and community review by hostile neighbors. Added to that is the councilmanic prerogative that could kill a project, hanging over the heads of developers like a sword of Damocles. 

In spite of how hard it is to get a project through, unlike many other cities, Clarke thinks Philly is too developer-friendly.

To correct that (not-actually-real) favoritism, Clarke wants to overhaul the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment, according to WHYY. Clarke wants a voter referendum that would expand the board from five people to seven, add professional qualifications for the seats, and require mayoral appointees to be approved by the board.

In other words, it’s another power grab by City Council to stifle growth and force developers to grovel before them.

The problem with Philadelphia’s zoning rules is not a laissez-faire approach that lets anything get built. The problem is that city restrictions make it hard to build more housing – whether the project is private or public.

If city officials don’t get serious about making it easier to build much more housing, and make it as easy to build a 10-unit apartment building as it is to build a luxury townhome, then rent prices will push out the poor and middle class. 

Philly won’t be a city of opportunity; it will be another high-cost city in the northeast.

City Hall knows how bad things are; it just pretends everything is fine.

Don’t take my word for it; go read the city’s “Housing for Equity: An Action Plan for Philadelphia,” published in October 2018 by the Department of Planning & Development. In it, the 10-year goal is to create 36,500 new units of housing and preserve another 63,500 units.

A 100,000 housing-unit goal might sound impressive, but the “action plan” also noted that the city had 125,000 severely cost-burdened renters and owners in 2016. Another 43,000 people were on the Housing Authority’s wait list—an underestimate, as the wait list was closed to people who were seeking assistance.

If the city’s housing action plan can only imagine fewer than 40,000 new units of housing get built over a decade, it’s a guarantee that rents will creep up and the poor will be outbid by the middle-class and rich. 

But City Council doesn’t care. Instead, Clarke and others fret over a building being “out of scale with the neighborhood.” They take action to downsize areas to stop – the horror! – a four-story apartment building down the street.

Making it harder to build more housing, as Clarke’s proposal will do, is anti-poor and anti-growth. Do we as a city want lower rents? Do we want more jobs? Do we want to help the people struggling most? Then we need a renaissance of new apartments going up across the city.

Zoning rules need to be loosened. It needs to be much easier to build four-, five-, and six-story apartment buildings in any neighborhood, not just a few areas that lack political power. 

When those projects are stopped by outdated rules or neighbors who fear any change at all, rents go up, and the poor get priced out. The public benefit of more housing and lower rents should not be overruled by complaints about a lack of parking spaces.

The current status quo means that only “luxury housing” gets built because the costs added on by unnecessary regulations and restrictions prevent affordable apartments from going up. Townhomes make it through on land that could’ve been a humble apartment building.

The city has made a policy choice. City Council and the Mayor have decided that Philly should be a place with expensive townhomes and luxury condos instead of apartment buildings within the budget of the average worker. 

Affordability comes from building more housing, not from stopping it. Local officials need to learn this basic economic concept, or else the city will fall into decline.

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  • Anthony Hennen

    Anthony Hennen is executive editor of Philadelphia Weekly. He is managing editor of expatalachians, a journalism project focused on the Appalachian region. Previously, he was managing editor at the James G. Martin Center, a higher ed think tank in Raleigh, North Carolina. Anthony grew up on the Ohio/West Virginia border. @anthonyhennen.

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