Per Jake Blumgart’s article on City Council’s inability to reform the new construction tax abatement program [“Why Philadelphia punted on tax abatement reform …. again,” July 11]: This inability is fundamentally due to council’s “deliberations,” which, as the article points out, are mostly about responding to interested stakeholders rather than defining a public purpose for the program.
As a result, most of the proposals look to re set where the subsidy program is along the usual extortion/bribe continuum – how much subsidy can developers demand and how much will the public offer in order to make some random building happen, rather than considering the more fundamental question of what outcomes are worth subsidizing?
Three outcomes that would make a meaningful difference to Philadelphians and not just a few developers and their clients are:
First, encouraging new development and rehabilitation where it is needed – principally distressed neighborhoods and much talked about “middle-market” neighborhoods, where additional tools to encourage modernization of the housing stock would be useful. Conversely, abatements should not be hyper-encouraging development in markets that work (principally Center City and some adjacent neighborhoods) and residential use of this tool in neighborhoods that are under increasing gentrification pressure might be capped at the Federal Housing Authority or Fannie Mae lending limit, as Councilperson Gym has proposed.
Second, support historic preservation via the rehabilitation of commercial and owner-occupied historic properties in designated neighborhoods. The recent report of the Task Force on Historic Preservation basically wound up recommending new rules for how preservation advocates and developers can fight each other over particular, mostly commercial buildings, but utterly failed to articulate new tools and policies that would help historic neighborhoods like Germantown, where a broader preservation strategy could promote neighborhood revitalization and stabilization.
Finally, promote new residential development designed to attract desired workers into targeted neighborhoods. For example, the city says it wants to attract high tech workers, often young people with lots of student debt who are up for grabs as to where they will ultimately put down roots.
Why not work with high tech and other institutional employers to create new urban villages that would attract these workers? Rather than subsidizing the employer via tax abatement, subsidize the worker by making housing more affordable. Engaged employers can be helpful while saving on wages, benefits, recruitment, retention and other costs while the city would achieve better community benefits.
Unlike the present tax abatement program these approaches would result in revitalized neighborhoods, stem gentrification where it is undesirable, preserve unique and irreplaceable buildings and encourage a new generation to move into neighborhoods that need them and help build a stronger economy for the city.