Connecting The Dots: Anti-Density Neighbors & Our Underfunded School System
Registered Community Organizations (RCOs) are the most localized way to engage in one’s community. Part community association, part organizer, believe it or not, your local RCO has power to shape debate on a variety of issues facing your neighborhood. Want a new park or community garden in your neighborhood? Talk to your RCO. How about if you’d like to organize an fundraiser or a social event in your area? Engage with your RCO. What about if a new building is proposed for your area? The community meeting about that building is organized by your RCO.
RCOs can wield an incredible about of power in the development of your neighborhood by either validly representing the voice of the community or claiming to represent the voice of the community. Philadelphia formally enshrined the importance of RCOs when the city introduced and passed the new zoning code the city is slowly remapping over to. The zoning code allows certain projects by right based on the way land is zoned. Until the remapping of districts is complete, much of the zoning of the city represents outdated designations that developers can’t build unless a variance is provided.
Herein lies the golden moment for an RCO to influence the debate in a positive, or negative way. Positive means to shaping debate could look like SOSNA’s involvement with CHOP’s new facility on the Schuylkill. SOSNA worked with other established RCOs like CCRA, to develop a list of requests for CHOP to fulfill that frankly, improved the quality of the project. This included things like providing more space for ground floor retail so that the new CHOP facility was not just a institutional grouping of buildings devoid of life after 5pm. Organizations like SOSNA and CCRA understood the nuances of balancing community needs and those of the developer to strike a balance and get a better project for the community.
Yet for every positive example of how an RCO helped a project, there are more than a few negatives of poorly run RCOs organized by people who claim to represent the will of the community, but really just represent themselves.
Take 2300 South. Currently a rather odd combination of buildings sits on a prime corner lot at 23rd and South waiting to be developed, and not for lack of want. 2300 South is a project that brought anti-density NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) neighbors out of the woodwork on both sides of South Street. It even brought our formal mayoral candidate Terry Gillen out to oppose the project before she later claimed that she didn’t.
So what was the big deal with the project? Was a 15 story tower with a strip joint in the first floor and nightclub in the basement proposed? Hardly. A 4 story building was proposed, slightly higher, but with no more floors than the four story building across the street from it. SOSNA engaged the community on the project and many residents in the area supported the project. The proposal was seen by many as a gateway to the neighborhood and an opportunity to add a denser mix of housing to an area dominated by single-family row homes. If density could be supported anywhere in the neighborhood, what better place than along the main commercial and social arterial of the area, South Street? There was some opposition closer to the project that felt the project was a bit too dense for their liking and so SOSNA wrote a letter of non-opposition (rather than full support or full denial) to the project.
SOSNA isn’t the only RCO operating in the area. South Street West Civic Association (SSWCA, sorry they don't have a website), not to be confused with South Street West Business Association (SSWBA), also claims interest in the area with boundaries overlapping SOSNA’s and CCRA’s. SSWCA was a driving force between 2300 South being scuttled when the developer went to the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) for a variance to build higher than what the current code designation would allow.
Since that hearing process and ZBA decision 2300 South has been sitting empty. Used for storage until a project for the site can be approved, anti-density neighbors concerned more about parking and shadows than the economic viability of the neighborhood would rather see the site sit empty until a project that exactly meets their needs can be built. If this were just about this one project it would be bad enough.
But it’s not just about this one project. It’s about the financial viability of our city and our school system. Philadelphia, like the rest of the US, uses property tax to fund its schools. It's not an ideal system since it creates hyperlocal rich and poor schools, but it’s the one we’ve got.
Actions by anti-density NIMBYs directly harm our schools. Let’s take a 2300 South as an example. The 2015 property tax bill for the site is $8,628.26 based off a property with an assessed land and building value of $643,900. There is no one living at the site so let’s assume the wage taxes paid by folks living on the site are $0.
The original proposal for 2300 South included 23 units of market rate housing. The revised proposal included 19. Of course, neither have been built. However, if they were the existing $643,900 site (including $347,300 assessed for the land and $296,600 for the current building) would mean the $296,600 building would be torn down. If it were rebuilt with 19 units, let’s assume a cost of $150,000 a unit. That would mean an overall assessed building value of $2,850,000. Add the $347,300 in land value and the total improved area would be $3,197,300.
If we assume the current property taxation rate for 2300 South (1.33%), that means the new project would net $42,524 for the city’s general budget and schools. Even if we reduce this to 1% we are still talking $31,973 annually.
This doesn’t include wage tax for 19 residents of the building at a $40,000 per year average of $1600 per resident. That’s a combined total of $30,400 in wage taxes that could be collected in just one building per year assuming a modest wage & one resident per unit. Of course this doesn’t include taxes a business in the first floor would be paying.
If this were just about one RCO’s axe to grind it wouldn’t be so concerning. For this project and many others it’s not. Magnify this math across any part of the city experiencing growth. Even if we look at the original proposal of 23 units, 23 units could net the city $6400 more in wage taxes assuming the averages above. It could also net $7980 more in property tax assuming the cost per unit from above. That’s $14,380 more dollars going into the city and our schools just based on 4 more units.
And yet 2300 South remains unbuilt. It contributes $8,628.26 currently instead of $72,924. We had a mayoral candidate who opposed this project because of concerns of shadowing on her property. Surely we need to get better as a city at recognizing the direct connection between maximizing property value and adequately funding education for all our school children.
So next time an RCO in your neighborhood has a meeting, take the time to attend it. Remind your neighbors that their concerns about parking and shadows are just one small piece in a greater puzzle regarding the financial sustainability of our city. If you don’t like the way your RCO is stymying development in your area, tell them about it. Better yet, join your RCO's board.
You can tell South Street West Civic Association tomorrow in fact. They are having elections:
When: Wednesday, February 18th @ 7pm
Where: Trinity Memorial Church - 22nd and Spruce - French Room
Who: Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or Barb Failer at email@example.com
Full Disclosure: I am on the Executive Board of SOSNA. This article is not an official position statement from SOSNA.