After the controversy sparking proposal for a North Central Neighborhood Improvement District came to a halt last summer, issues surrounding property continue to brew tensions in North Central Philadelphia among longtime residents, private developers and Philadelphia’s City Council in North Central Philadelphia.
One piece of the growing problem is the amount of available land and abandoned properties that are being purchased by developers on a daily basis, infringing on the sense of community felt by many longtime residents.
According to the federal American Community Survey data from 2007 to 2011, there are approximately 91,547 vacant housing units throughout Philadelphia, with 4,710 of those units located within the North Central region.
With 5.1 percent of properties abandoned, some in North Central contend that contractors are taking full advantage of low prices, minimal tax rates and loopholes to owning such units before the area skyrockets in market value. Residents have voiced concerns that after Temple University completes Visualize Temple, a renovation plan that will rack in new businesses, students and campus upgrades, economic and real estate development around the university’s boundaries will increase, encroaching further on longtime residents.
Henry Nicholas, President of District 1199C of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees has seen private development take place first hand since moving in 1980 to North Central, now better known as Templetown.
“Most of the construction in North Central Philadelphia is not carried out by Temple; west of Broad Street is all private investors wearing the Temple hat to get some cover but they’re ripping off the neighbors. We testified [at City Council hearings] that Temple has not properly defended itself in all of the debates at City Council. They didn’t say, ‘Oh the people who are developing over there, that’s not us.’ But if you look, they got a Temple hat on in every location,” Nicholas said.
The lines between whether private developers or Temple University are responsible for escalating rental housing expansions seen as taking over the North Central community is becoming more blurred. As the university grows and housing infrastructure expand every year to accommodate students frustrations among residents rise due to the increasing costs of living and property takeovers. This expansion, converting existing rentals coupled with high property taxes is driving some longtime residents from their homes.
Nicholas went on to say, “It’s 100 percent a cash-cow. For one, they [private developers] get a ten-year tax abatement. They pay no kind of city tax. Most of them build without proper permits and it’s clear to me that they paid off all of the housing inspectors because they permit some of the people to build across the sidewalk.”
In the Construction Activity Review released last October by Philadelphia’s City Controller’s Office, the report found that there were multiple violations committed by private developers in North Central including construction sites missing required posted permits, stairs intruding onto the sidewalk farther than city code allowed and street lane closures without proper permits.
Addressing allegations of developers paying construction workers daily under-the-table, Nick Pizzola, vice president of the Temple Area Property Association, clarified that banks regulate most developers and that documentation is necessary for deductions in tax returns, a vital part of the development business that covers operational costs.
“This is one of the accusations which I think are not really well founded but they’re made. Sure, small jobs, if it’s a $500 job and somebody pays $500 cash to a subcontractor and it never is recorded, does that go on? Yeah. That not only goes on down [in North Central], that goes on all around the city,” Pizzola said.
Eminent domain, which is a legal way for the government to seize property, continues to occur in North Central, continuing a long-term sore point for longtime residents.
Kirk Crawford, a business owner in the North Central community, has been running a lucrative barber shop for over 30 years until the city’s Redevelopment Authority knocked on his door last month. Now, eminent domain is threatening his family owned and operated business, possibly closing forcing its closure by the end of June.
Crawford explained, “You [government] ask me to pay taxes on bricks and buildings. You’re asking me to, that if someone falls on the sidewalk, I have to cover them with my insurance or be sued by them… So for you just to say, ‘Get out, we’re taking your property. Here’s a couple little dollars, take it or leave it’, well that’s not feasible at all.”
Crawford’s dismay with the local government and private developers is a shared sentiment among many longtime residents who said they feel alienated and reluctant to support any neighborhood improvement initiatives offered in the near future.
This was evident last year, when the North Central Neighborhood Improvement District (NCNID) was proposed by City Council in a professed effort to clean-up area streets, educate landlords on responsibilities and provide security to monitor student behavior, a major resident complaint of the area.
Kenneth Scott, President of Beech companies, a local non-profit organization engaged in the area’s economic development and revitalization, explained that on the surface the NCNID plan seemed great but diving deeper into the proposal revealed that “the devil is in the details.” Those ‘details’ perceived to favor large landlords contributed to the proposal loosing the support of Beech and many residents.
“The details of it were the local community wasn’t going to have any direct control of the organization. It was going to be an organization kind of run by landlords and people who don’t live or vote in the community,” Scott said.
However, Pizzola believes that because of the negative history residents have shared with landlords throughout the past 20 years, their initial approach to proposing the NCNID was taken out of context by those community members who attended the city council meetings.
“There has been a lot of misinformation as to how the NCNID came about. Activists in the community felt that they should have been involved from the very beginning. That wasn’t really practical because when we first discussed the formation of the district, we really had no idea what was involved. As a member of TAPA, we hired a consultant and after we had the program in place, we presented it to the community,” Pizzola said.
As for the future of the NCNID and the overall community, resident Henry Nicholas foresees more residents vacating houses because of soaring property taxes, continued lack of employment opportunities and upper scale development related to Temple University.
“It [NCNID] is still a big deal. They’re still replacing the residents from North Central Philadelphia and the builders are still building,” Nicholas said.
“When I drove by this morning, there were no kids from YouthBuild, no women, no black men working on none of these projects,” Nicholas said. “All of their employees are from outside of Philadelphia, so there is no tax benefit going to the city as a result of these new actions.”