A Brief Aside: the Kenyatta Johnson Land Grab Bill

I live at approximately Ground Zero of one of the most vitriolic debates over urban gentrification in America: Point Breeze, Philadelphia.  I hope to not write very much about it here, because I want this to be a blog primarily focussed on transportation.  But of course, transportation and land use are two sides of the same coin; how our society and economy arrange themselves in the physical world.  So I can’t ignore what’s going on outside my own door completely without being guilty of cowardice.  Speaking of cowardice, allow me to introduce you to my District Councillor, Kenyatta Johnson, and his Land Grab Bill that passed the City Council yesterday on a vote of 14-0.

You see, Councillor Johnson sees the rapid influx of middle-class professionals to Point Breeze as a political threat, as they are not likely to respect the rules of the Philadelphia political establishment that he has known all his life.  He’s in his freshman term, winning his primary to succeed longtime Council fixture Anna Verna by 68 votes.  (In the City of Philadelphia, which is >80% Democratic, the primary is more important in local elections than the General Election.)  So, in addition to getting his District immediately regerrymandered in his favor, he has decided to attack the political problem of gentrification at the source: blight preservation.

More background: Philadelphia is a huge city, and quite a lot of business comes before Council.  One mechanism its leaders have evolved to handle this is Councilmanic Privilege.  In general, any bill that affects only one district that has the support of its Councillor will be passed without opposition, on the assumption that the District Councillor is most familiar with the area and knows what’s best for it.  The result of this practice is that each of the ten District Councillors wields vast power, like a mini-mayor, or more accurately, a liege-lord over a fiefdom.  Much of the petty corruption that surrounds the City Council involves  Councilmanic Privilege being invoked for a political quid pro quo

So Councilman Johnson has passed his bill issued his decree, which deals with the rising home values of Point Breeze by seizing privately-owned vacant lots by eminent domain.  In practice, these will join the 311 lots the City already owns in the neighborhood, and will remain empty while continuing to be a blighting, degrading influence, while at the same time restricting private development.  Of course, housing prices are going up precisely because the housing supply is so restricted, by zoning laws that restrict density and practices that create endless legal challenges and delays.  Those restrictions are citywide, and mean that, for instance, the middle class can no longer find developable land in Graduate Hospital, the previously-blighted-now-gentrified neighborhood to our north, because there is no more room to build on.  So people priced out of Graduate Hospital are now looking to Point Breeze north of Wharton Street, where Councilman Johnson is now trying to keep them out (and butter up his most radical constituents, who would prefer the neighborhood remain poor, blighted and violent) by taking land off the market.

At least, the scope of this bill has been greatly reduced, in part because some landowners scrambled to break ground (to irrefutably prove their intention to build), instead of waiting for the spring construction season.  Those property owners are now out increased costs, a tax imposed by the government through extortion, not law.  But that leaves the 17 remaining parcel owners to fight it out with the City and the PRA over what price they will be forced to sell for, and the rest of us to watch our rents rise.

For a more comprehensive look at the Kenyatta Johnson Land Grab Bill of 2012, I suggest perusing the archives over at our friend Philadelinquency.

To bring this back around to transportation, I mentioned that one factor driving the influx of newcomers and rise in property values is the shortage of housing available in other neighborhoods in Greater Center City and South Philadelphia.  The imbalance between where the housing demand is (unevenly distributed, mostly based on commutes to Center City or University City) and where the supply is (outside of Center City, mostly evenly distributed across endless expanses of 2-story and 3-story rowhouse neighborhoods) causes a lot of economic imbalance, social injustice, and deadweight loss.   So, I propose the following change:

  • The zoning code should be amended to remove all restrictions on building height on blocks that lie in whole or in part within 750 feet of a Broad Street Line or Market Frankford Line entrance.

A radical change, but it would allow the majority of most neighborhoods to retain their single-family lowrise form, while focusing development where the existing infrastructure can best support it, and letting the market set the pace of redevelopment.  And obviously the precise distance in feet is subject to debate, but I tried to size it just longer than one average block.

There are subjects where I’m a conservative, like individual property rights, and subjects where I’m a radical, like zoning.  Today’s post is a good mix of both.

One last thing: not everything that happened at yesterday’s Council meeting was terrible.  Councillor Mark Squilla‘s Complete Streets legislation, which is shaping up to be some of the best of its kind in the nation, passed a procedural vote and is likely to sail through next month.

Join the Conversation


  1. There’s something deeply, beautifully, aggravatingly tragic about the fact that the people who care so much about keeping housing affordable (and constituents happy/docile) that they will resort to “blight preservation” are ultimately sabotaging themselves by reducing the supply of the housing they want to keep affordable. Which makes property values go up, of course — you just get overvalued, blighted housing, which ought to make nobody happy.

    They’re also doomed because you just can’t freeze a population in place. If property values go up in Point Breeze, you’ll presumably end up with more rentals and fewer resident-owned places, and people realize they can do better (and pay their property taxes? assuming the city decides it wants to collect those) if they rent their place out. Which brings more students and non-native Philadelphians to the area, too, I would assume. (Does that logic make sense?) You can presumably freeze the builders out by buying all the land, but you can’t stop rental demographics from slowly changing.

    1. Point Breeze is, compared to other Center City-adjacent neighborhoods, already something of a time warp: Go to this report, and scroll to page 12 to see the mix of homeowners from old-timers to newcomers in every neighborhood from Tasker to Girard. In any sane reckoning, that’s an indication of stagnation and decay from being too frozen.

      There’s too much emphasis placed on stasis in this city, presumably in reaction to the late 20th Century, when the only direction of change was down.

  2. What does it mean to gerrymander a district in someone’s favor? The whole city is Democratic anyway — so is this rearranging district boundaries along demographic (translation: racial?) lines?

    1. Yup, it’s race and class. Encompass more of the poorer neighborhoods in Southwest Philadelphia, grab the PHA houses in Hawthorne, and slice off as much of the well to do (and white) parts of Rittenhouse Square as can be safely done. Favor lifers over newcomers. Etc.

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