by Jay A. McCalla
For me, a very long and serious mystery was recently solved in the form of a bill that was introduced at City Council.
In the years leading up to the administration of Mayor John F. Street, the city government spent roughly $30 million annually to demolish blighted or dangerous properties that proliferate in poor or declining neighborhoods. But, that was never enough.
As I recall from my days as deputy managing director overseeing Street’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, there was an almost permanent backlog of roughly 30,000 properties in need of demolition. The $30 million demolition budget allowed the elimination of approximately 10,000 properties annually. But, the number of abandoned houses would increase by approximately 10,000 properties per year. Thus, the great backlog was never, ever addressed.
For a period, Street had an intense, nitty-gritty focus on neighborhoods that began with the unprecedented towing of thousands of abandoned cars and expanded to the demolition of blighted and dangerous properties. He created NTI and borrowed $300 million, almost half of which was committed to large scale demolition in neighborhoods.
Of course, borrowed money has to be repaid. So, Street decided to reprogram the $30 million currently spent on demolition and use it to repay the huge loan. Eliminating the line item for demolition solved the question of how to repay the debt, but created a serious crisis of how to keep the city safe from falling buildings when we’ve deliberately stripped our budget.
This spectacularly shortsighted decision is what created my “long and serious mystery.” How can the fifth largest city in America survive on a token budget for this sort of public safety?
While not every collapse makes the news, you may rest assured virtually every heavy or prolonged rain pushes “imminently dangerous” properties closer to the breaking point and beyond. Snow resting on an insecure roof will eventually provoke a collapse.
Dangerous and abandoned properties also serve to facilitate and conceal criminal activity, further undermining communities. During NTI, we found the demolition of abandoned and dangerous properties, in a concentrated area, reduced the crime rate and calls to the Fire Department by as much as 25 percent.
The answer to how, almost a decade later, the city will fund demolitions came in the form of Bill #170852 — a tax increase.
Mayor Kenney is seeking to increase the Real Estate Transfer Tax to create the Philadelphia County Demolition Fund. Every time a house is bought, sold or merely transferred, the city will take an additional $15.
The very unfortunate thing about this fund is that it won’t at all be used for public safety. Blighted properties will only be demolished if it furthers economic development. In other words, this tax will subsidize developers who want to assemble clear parcels for construction and leave in place the dangerous crime-magnets that make some neighborhoods unlivable.
As neighborhoods become ripe for gentrification — Point Breeze, Powelton, etc. — this tax will be used to lower the construction costs for builders. These same builders already lavishly benefit from the 10-year tax abatement that allows developers to charge a premium for their product.
To me, it’s misguided that we continually create ways and means to help developers expand their profits while ignoring core public safety issues in our most vulnerable neighborhoods. It pushes us further towards the conclusion of LBJ’s Kerner Commission that declared America was becoming two separate nations. We cannot become two separate Philadelphias.
Somehow, our politicians have to be sensitized to the fact that our poor neighbors deserve the same attention — if not more — than those of means. A mayor of a great city such as ours must be more than the captain who only dines with the first-class passengers of his ship. Morally, that mayor must be concerned with those passengers in steerage as well, understanding they too are citizens and entitled to every blessing our society can offer.