Rafael Álvarez Febo.

Philadelphians are experiencing a once-in-a-generation rise in the price of housing, and many are being displaced from their neighborhoods. This isn’t news to anyone who lives paycheck to paycheck; the price of housing has been rising for years, outpacing wages, but in some progressive circles where economic impacts take longer to be felt, they now realize what a Philadelphia built for upper-middle-class and wealthy people would be like (bland, sterile, and bereft of culture). Most current longtime residents would no longer call Philadelphia home, and as usual, Black and Latino communities are dealing with the brunt of the problem.

So, what are our local lawmakers doing to combat the displacement of longtime residents, especially for the Black and Latino people who make up over 60% of the city? Well, they can start by producing low-income housing on a massive scale and pay for it with money from the city’s rainy-day fund. The funds can be turned over to organizations poised to develop homes as soon as possible and on a scale. I can hear the chorus of disagreement now from people who model themselves as fiscal conservatives saying’ “those funds are for emergencies!” “What if a disaster happens and we don’t have ample reserves?” These concerns come from people who don’t see the storm brewing on the horizon of unaffordable real-estate rental and ownership housing stock prices.

If you’ve ever experienced housing instability like I have, you know how disastrous an eviction can be. The human tragedy of working people suffering from homelessness is not a hyperbolic assessment, and Philadelphians can lead in changing this trajectory if we act now. Lawmakers should allocate funds to create units that will accommodate low incomes – not 80% Area Median Incomes (AMI), which equates to salaries far above an average living wage in Philly. Many in the building industry say we have an inventory issue yet are building almost identically unaffordable units. We need houses of all price points, but the lowest should be the city’s priority for production for its current residents.

Also, let’s get away from speaking in slogans and soundbites – rent control sounds sexy until it’s not. Most Philadelphians live in rowhomes, and rowhome communities require an assortment of tools to address the need for rent stabilization that doesn’t vilify small-scale landlords with divisive language and tactics. We should discuss tax exemptions for small landlords, much like the homestead exemption, which would be based on keeping units low-income for 10 years or more. We could charge the Office of Housing and Community Development to certify renters and landlords to ensure abuse of the tax incentive doesn’t occur. We could also increase and broaden shallow rent subsidies to help renters fill the gap that a near-market rate rent would cause – the extra dollars would help working people afford rents where they have otherwise been priced out. These are just a few examples of strategies we should be exploring.

We must also look at auditing the Office of Property Assessment. Since the 2013 reform of how the city values its properties through the Actual Value Initiative, property owners and, by extension, renters have not been able to have predictability for values and thus their tax burden/rent. OPA has consistently valued parts of the city at different times, creating a possible legal conflict with the commonwealth’s uniformity clause on taxation. Some could argue that while tax rates are uniform if valuations are not conducted all at once, people would experience a disparate tax burden. This was compounded when OPA seemingly chose gentrifying areas to conduct valuations after a hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic triggering thousands of appeals. It may be time to reform the 2013 AVI law to create the predictability people with fixed or stagnating incomes need to continue affording their homes.  

In short, we need the people we elected to get serious, drop the slogans, be the adults in the room and make sure we tackle displacement instead of holding signs and bullhorns. They have the power to create the policies necessary to address this violent trend of gentrification, and it doesn’t come from a clever tweet.  


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