A Wednesday night mayoral forum on affordable housing and community development highlighted the candidates’ differing theories about how to support renters, an increasingly vocal constituency in a city that’s long been dominated by homeowners.
Hosted by the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations (PACDC), the forum saw affordable housing issues as a central focus of the event, which came just hours after the /www.inquirer.com/real-estate/housing/university-city-townhomes-affordable-housing-philadelphia-20230419.html">city announced that it had negotiated a settlement with the owner of the University City Townhomes in West Philadelphia.
Protesters from Philadelphia Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) briefly interrupted the proceedings at Broad Street Ministry to demand rent control.
Former Council member Helen Gym did not endorse the comprehensive rent control demanded by DSA, but she said that she was open to discussions about /www.inquirer.com/news/kendra-brooks-rent-control-city-council-20230324.html">more modest forms of rent regulation. (At a /www.inquirer.com/news/philadelphia-real-estate-historic-preservation-infrastructure-20230314.html">previous forum on development and construction, Gym was the only mayoral candidate who refused to denounce rent control, saying the idea “is not a yes-or-no question” for her.)
“I have been one of the few Council members who believes that forms of rent stabilization have to be on the table,” said Gym. “We cannot subsidize our way out of this. … We’re going to have to have a serious conversation about how to keep rent stable and affordable.”
Gym’s position contrasts with that of former city controller Rebecca Rhynhart, who is considered to be /www.inquirer.com/newsletters/philly-mayors-race-final-month-paths-to-victory-rhynhart-gym-domb-brown-parker-20230418.html">competing with Gym for some of the same /www.inquirer.com/politics/election/philadelphia-democratic-primary-2023-voting-groups-polls-20230403.html">voting blocs. Rhynhart said Wednesday that she would expand the city’s /www.inquirer.com/real-estate/housing/rental-assistance-philadelphia-eviction-diversion-back-rent-20230131.html">small voucher program, created to help the poorest Philadelphians pay their rent and target it toward “gentrifying areas” to help lower-income tenants remain in place.
“It’s going to be a very big priority of mine to keep people in the neighborhood where they’re living,” said Rhynhart.
The Philadelphia Land Bank, an obscure municipal bureaucracy, was also a major topic at the forum.
All three of the major candidates in attendance — Gym, Rhynhart, and former Councilmember Allan Domb — promised to make better use of the city’s massive stockpile of vacant land and revise the sluggish agency.
Created by former Council member Maria Quiñones-Sánchez — /www.inquirer.com/politics/election/maria-quinones-sanchez-drops-out-mayors-race-suspend-campaign-20230409.html">until recently a mayoral contender herself — the land bank was meant to simplify the process of selling publicly held vacant land in Philadelphia or giving it to nonprofits or community groups to create public goods such as community gardens or affordable housing.
In practice, however, the land bank’s processes have remained opaque, and there has been continued interference from Council members who have tried to /www.inquirer.com/philly/opinion/20160824_Inquirer_editorial__Bias_shouldn_t_play_a_role_when_the_city_sells_land.html">steer parcels in their districts to favored constituents or block redevelopment proposals that /www.inquirer.com/real-estate/housing/habitat-affordable-housing-north-philadelphia-parking-lot-20220421.html">do not fit their priorities.
“Look, the land bank’s performance has been dismal,” said Domb. “I think last year we sold less than 300 properties, and less than 30 were for [affordable homes rented at] 30% AMI [area median income]. That’s a disgrace.”
Gym said she would improve the agency by making its procedures more transparent and its leadership more accountable to the public.
“Honestly, nobody really knows what’s happening within the land bank,” said Gym. “There is a completely obscure application system. There’s no accountability. Sometimes, when things are hidden away, nobody really changes their behaviors.”
The candidates also touched on plans to boost commercial corridors, with Domb suggesting increased support for small neighborhood business improvement districts. (He emphasized that /www.inquirer.com/business/paul-levy-center-city-district-prema-katari-gupta-downtown-philadelphia-20230209.html">the Center City District and University City District do not need municipal government support.) Gym said she would greatly increase funding for the Commerce Department, specifically to boost its engagement with small businesses in the neighborhoods.
Gym noted West Philadelphia Councilmember Jamie Gauthier’s role in the /www.inquirer.com/news/university-city-townhomes-affordable-housing-penn-drexel-20230320.html">settlement of the University City Townhomes dispute and promised to be more proactive in intervening to stop expiring affordability contracts from ending.
Domb agreed and said the city should be paying landlords to extend their affordability contracts and buying the interest rates down for their loans to make repairs cheaper.
“Who’s responsible for this cost: the landlord or the city of Philadelphia?” asked Domb. “In my opinion, it is the City of Philadelphia, and we should be figuring out with other property owners how we can extend those contracts so they don’t expire.”