Morning Headlines: Saffron Says Not Enough Affordable Subsidized Housing

In Philadelphia, subsidized housing may not actually benefit those who need it.

Photo credit: 205 Race website.

Photo credit: 205 Race website.

As home values start to pick up and Philadelphia enjoys its first significant growth spurt in a long time, a different story unfolds for those on the lower end of the income spectrum.

In her latest “Changing Skyline” column, critic Inga Saffron writes that while the city’s gentrifying neighborhoods push up prices, inclusionary housing tends to fall by the wayside, even when developers promise to include subsidized units in their buildings.

Inclusionary housing, which is basically an “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours ” deal, involves developers pricing some of their apartments for below-market rates in favor of receiving zoning bonuses. Some do it, most don’t. As Saffron points out, the number of market-rate residences outweighs affordable housing in the area:

You could probably fit every unit of affordable housing being built in Philadelphia today inside one of the fancy glass skyscrapers going up in University City, and still have a couple of floors left over. That’s not because the new towers are so immense, but because the city produces so little subsidized housing for the poor and working class.

Meanwhile, the ones that do opt for the inclusionary housing deal–such as the ones for the ritzy 205 Race and One Water Street projects in Old City–don’t always cater to the most needy. Instead, a separate–but growing, Saffron notes–group is the focus:

But inclusionary housing will never be a replacement for public housing for the very poor. Rather, it targets a different, but growing, demographic: low-wage workers. They’re the people who staff the city’s restaurants, clean its hotels, and (I suspect) blog at Web start-ups, yet have trouble making ends meet. To qualify, a single person would have to earn less than $32,000 a year.

Yet, even that demographic may not necessarily be getting the most bang for their buck…

But the units won’t be a free ride by any means. Even with the subsidy, a one-bedroom unit at PMC Property Group’s One Water Street, next to the Ben Franklin Bridge, is expected to rent for $942, about half what market-rate tenants will pay in the same building. That’s the same as an apartment in a less-expensive neighborhood near Passyunk Avenue or Northern Liberties, so you wonder whom this will help.

…while developers do:

Developers may get the better end of the deal. In exchange for providing 25 reduced-price units, PMC was allowed to increase the height of its building by 48 feet, enough to accommodate 55 additional market-rate apartments. A block west at 205 Race, developer Brown Hill won permission to expand its mixed-use apartment house by 33,000 square feet in exchange for setting aside 15 affordable units.

Although both projects have received their zoning bonuses, the city is still figuring out how the programs will work. The zoning code specifies only that developers have to set aside 10 percent of the units in exchange for the extra height and density.

Emphasis, mine. Why? Because, as Saffron puts it,  “cross your fingers that there is no abuse.” The whole process of “advertising the affordable units, vetting the low-income applicants, and maintaining the waiting list” will fall on the developers as a result of this. Usually, this process is handled by the city government to ensure things are done fairly.

In closing, Saffron provides a counter argument to inclusionary housing by an expert on the matter:

Still, John Kramer, an affordable-housing expert at Penn’s Fels Institute of Government, argues that inclusionary housing is an inefficient way to solve the problem of high housing costs.

He would rather see a more targeted approach in which developers contribute to a fund that would be used to acquire affordable housing in less-expensive neighborhoods, such as Mantua or Point Breeze. That way, the city would get more units for the same money. He’s also a big proponent of “repair grants” to help low-income homeowners make emergency fixes so they can remain in their neighborhoods.

What do you think?

Subsidized housing deal may benefit developers more [Changing Skyline]

In other news…

New Family Court building gets ribbon-cutting [Inquirer]

Neighbors demand consultation in sale of former East Falls psychiatric institute [NewsWorks]

The test of time [Northeast Times]

The City of Philadelphia Wants You to Stop Ignoring Icky Overflowing Sewers [Next City]

TempleTown: Will luxury student housing kill Cecil B. Moore business district? [Daily News]