A bill hailed by some as a bulwark against gentrification and criticized by others as government overreach passed unanimously Thursday in City Council, paving the way for the city to seize 43 properties in the Point Breeze section of South Philadelphia.
“The wants of the developers who do not live in the Point Breeze community, are not invested in the community, have no interest in the working with those already in the community and whose sole purpose is to make money on a community, cannot, should not and will not, while I’m the councilman, trump the needs of those who live in the Point Breeze community,” said the bill’s sponsor, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who thanked his colleagues for their unanimous support.
Most of the properties slated for seizure under eminent domain are in a few blocks near Washington Avenue and, according to the bill, will be reserved for residential re-use as affordable housing, recreational or related uses.
Point Breeze — long a predominantly Black neighborhood — is a rapidly gentrifying area. Real estate values have been rising as Center City pushes south. Long-time residents are concerned about the effects of rising values which will force up property taxes. Johnson’s bill was seen by many residents as way to fight back.
It has caused a citywide furor creating a divide that pits developers against residents and is often also seen in racial terms, pitting white newer residents against Black long-term residents.
One developer, Ori Feibush, who, after a well-publicized battle with the city’s Redevelopment Authority, has become a symbol of the fight, said the bill’s passage was not a surprise but that it would come with unintended consequences.
“What this bill does is take away the opportunity for affordable housing in the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s a list of properties that will absolutely go to stifle private market development in that area. It will actually increase the prices of all the current properties for sale by stifling available supply.”
Johnson sponsored the bill in Council, but in a statement just before the vote pointed out that it was an administration proposal and was part of a larger re-vitalization plan that included redevelopment in Mantua, Nicetown and Point Breeze, which have been designated as blighted areas and are eligible for federal redevelopment funds.
He added that he has worked with developers to scale back the original bill, which called for the seizure of 93 properties — 80 of which were privately owned. There are 311 blighted or abandoned properties in Point Breeze.
In the bill approved Thursday, only 17 privately owned properties were included.
“Most of those 17 are blighted and have liens and are tax delinquent in excess of $165,000,” Johnson said.
He told council that his office had reached out to all of those property owners while tailoring the bill and “no one responded.”
According to Johnson, his opponents have mischaracterized the bill and that opposition comes from many areas of the city - but very little from the affected neighborhood.
“People are being told that properties that are being actively developed are being snatched by the city which is a lie - one that I suspect has brought many people out here in opposition of the bill today,” he said. “Although I won’t get involved in the petty politics and motivations behind the opposition to this bill, I do support quality development in the Point Breeze Community, in which I reside.”
Twelve people spoke before council voted on the measure, four in opposition. In an interesting detail, Johnson’s former opponent for his city council seat, realtor Barbara Capozzi sat in the audience with opponents of the bill.
The bad blood between the two groups was evident in council chambers with Council President Darrell Clarke occasionally having to shush the audience.
One long-time resident summed up her support simply.
“Developers are only here for the money,” said Patricia Wyait, a Point Breeze resident. “We live here. So, I personally am for the bill because it helps those of us who cannot afford the developers.”
Another man, a resident of West Philadelphia, opposed the move based on his experiences in his own neighborhood.
“They came in 16 years ago and they tore down these properties and they really didn’t fix no properties in our neighborhood,” said Marvin Robinson. “I’m sure it’s not going to be different in any other neighborhood.”