By Councilman Kenyatta Johnson
In recent weeks, there have been many questions surrounding my support for Bill 120755, part of the city’s housing initiative to stabilize three neighborhoods, one of which is Point Breeze in South Philadelphia. It is a plan that was created before I took office this year, but one I endorse because it supports housing for everyone and, in so doing, will create strong and viable neighborhoods, which will better serve our city in the future.
Opposition to the bill has been fueled by misinformation disseminated over the internet by a handful of people who believe that all available land in Point Breeze should be sold to the highest bidder and used to build houses that sell for in excess of $250,000. Their rationale is that the lots are eyesores, that they have money to buy them and should be able to do so and build and sell homes as they wish.
As the City Councilman for parts of Center City, South and Southwest Philadelphia and a lifelong resident of Point Breeze, I support and welcome new development, and I look forward to the day when Point Breeze thrives again. However, I also believe that, as the neighborhood changes, the approach to rebuilding it must be a well thought out one that includes those who live in Point Breeze already, those who have moved in recently and those who may want to move here in the future. This is why I support the initiative to create affordable housing in the area.
Here is why I think you should too: First and foremost, by creating neighborhoods that have housing for people of different income levels, we build viable communities with a stronger tax base, allowing us to better support our schools, parks, police, fire and other city needs. In addition, we eliminate situations in which the poorest and most vulnerable citizens are concentrated and isolated in communities and geographical areas that do not thrive and therefore do not help support our tax base to its fullest. Further, no money will be taken away from parks and recreation centers, libraries or teachers as has been suggested by a petition that has been circulated in opposition to the bill, because the funds targeted for the housing initiative are restricted for neighborhood revitalization by law.
Although Point Breeze has garnered most of the attention lately, the plan to build affordable housing in Philadelphia also includes Mantua and Nicetown. All three neighborhoods were chosen when the city applied for federal stimulus funds in 2008 and 2009. One of the criteria set by the federal government for picking neighborhoods was that the areas contain high numbers of vacant, blighted lots and properties in foreclosure.
In Point Breeze, 93 properties were identified for acquisition. It was later determined that 50 of them were likely to be developed through the private sector and they were removed from the list. Last month, my office made efforts to contact owners and developers to ascertain the status of the remaining properties and, where warranted, took steps to have their properties removed from the list. As a result, 13 more properties were removed from the list, leaving 30 – 19 privately-owned and 11 city-owned – for development. We took this unusual step because the goal is not to stop development.
All properties were chosen because they sit next to or near properties that were already owned by the city and their acquisition will give the city the parcels it needs to build on. The properties are being purchased and developed with funds that are restricted for neighborhood revitalization.
Proposals to build the homes will be sought in early 2013. The houses will be similar to the market-rate housing around them that are selling for $250,000 to $300,000. However, the financing for the homes will be such that those who meet income and other guidelines will be able to purchase them at a more affordable price.
The 19 privately-owned properties being sought by the city represent only a fraction of the 1,000 lots owned by private citizens There are $50,764 in back taxes owed on the properties, and they have liens against them totaling $169,460. Further, none of the owners have indicated that they plan to develop the properties in the near future.
I am personally working with the PRA to ensure that City-owned properties that have not been targeted for affordable housing development be sold in a much more timely, efficient and transparent manner.
People have asked why the city can’t develop on the land that it already owns. Most of the 311 city-owned properties lie outside the section of Point Breeze that is appreciating in value so affordability is not an issue.
My support for the affordable Housing Bill is based upon my belief that all people, regardless of income and background, should have access to the Point Breeze Community. As such, my office will continue to work with developers to bring viable projects to the Point Breeze Community, but there must be balance and a level of fairness in the process.