NIMBYism vs. Affordable Housing

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The NIMBYs on the Old City Civic Association want the Philly ZBA to turn down a 128-apartment building at 205 Race St. because it doesn’t fit the “character” of the neighborhood.

But as GroJLart points out there does not appear to be any discernable character to the neighborhood:

A supermarket-sized retail space? 122 housing units in a dreary part of Old City? Views of the Ben Franklin Bridge and Center City skyline? What could go wrong?!?!?! NIMBYs, that’s what. When this version of the plan was first proposed, people at the meeting started complaining about the design’s height, proximity to the bridge, and called it “not compatible with the historic district.”

Wait a minute… not compatible with the historic district? So the surface parking lot across the street is? Or maybe they were talking about the mid-20th Century single-story retail boxes one block to the south? What is there to be compatible with at this location? Mr. Bar Stool? The shitload of highway and train causeways one block to the east? How about the gigantic tri-corner billboard tower right next to the fucking thing? What the hell do they want? A fake-looking recreation of 19th Century commercial buildings? Corny

Nonetheless, the developer appears to be undeterred and this thing isn’t dead yet. Another presentation of this project is set for today, August 28th, at the Old City Civic Association. They’re looking to get zoning variances. The new design is 18 feet taller than the proposal from October. Good luck, Brown-Hill, Good luck.

Here’s why I think these kinds of land use issues are important to the progressive agenda. Every good liberal knows the factoid about decades of declining wages, but a lot of the dialogue tends to focus on *nominal* wages – the number on your paycheck. The other side of your real wage is how far your money goes. If your paychecks increase, but your housing and transportation costs increase even more, your real wage goes down.

So a progressive agenda can’t just be about making paychecks bigger – it also has to be about lowering the prices of people’s basic needs – especially housing and transportation. I think the affordable housing agenda we see from a lot of groups is really much too narrow. It can’t just be about carving out some sub-market rate units in market-rate buildings. The goal should be nothing less than cheap and plentiful housing for all housing consumers. At the same time as we’re pushing for more sub-market rate units, we need to be pushing for more total housing construction, including market-rate housing. The goal has to be to push down what that market rate is in the first place.

People complain about gentrification, but too often ignore the fact that housing shortages in the most high-demand areas is what pushes middle class folks to seek out cheap housing in low income neighborhoods in the first place. If developers can’t build market-rate housing in places like Old City, that’s just going to put more gentrification pressure on poorer neighborhoods. It’s like when you squeeze one part of a balloon, and the air just puffs up another part.

Every time some NIMBY group persuades city zoners to shoot down some new housing units, that should set off a red flag that your housing costs are going up. Every time new office units get rejected, it should set off a red flag that businesses’ overhead is going up.

Read Eric Mondgock for a more polite take on the 205 Race St.

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