Statement from Councilmember Gauthier on Zoning Variance Request at 48th and Chester

The volume of calls and letters that my office has fielded regarding the zoning variance request at the corner of 48th Street and Chester Avenue dwarfs all other zoning-related matters we’ve encountered since entering office last year. The vast majority of this feedback is against the project. After much consideration, my office has decided to oppose this variance at the Zoning Board hearing next month.

I did not arrive at this decision lightly. The developer for this project is willing to provide a level of affordability that we have never seen in the new construction private market: one-fifth of their units would be fixed at rents affordable for individuals earning around $27,000 per year, or two-person households earning around $31,000 per year. The latest proposal is much improved when compared to the one first presented about six months ago, and I want to thank everyone who worked to make that possible.

I understand and philosophically agree with the push for 100% affordability that many of those opposing this project have repeatedly made, but we also must consider the alternatives: building nothing at all, or building only what the zoning code will allow, which in this case is 28 duplexes with no affordability restrictions on them. To me, these do not feel like viable solutions to the challenges our district faces regarding housing affordability.

It is true that the proposed rents for this project’s market rate units are higher than most rents currently available on the immediate surrounding blocks. But the reality is that this section of our district is already experiencing intense housing demand, so it’s likely that rents will continue to rise even if nothing gets built on this site. Furthermore, this section of the district has almost no government-controlled vacant land. Private parties control the development of privately owned land — and with a housing market like this one, they’re going to build.

In light of these circumstances, we need to be doing whatever we can to shape private development in our district, and to both demand and secure affordability when opportunities arise. When it comes to housing, my primary goal is to enhance equity and to create opportunities for people who can’t otherwise compete on the private market. Securing long-term, deeply affordable units in new construction is one meaningful way to make that happen.

Influencing the private development that happens in our district means working within the system that currently exists, while also pushing for change. Our reality is a system with local, state and federal policy rooted in racism. I ran for office to push up against that history and those forces, and to do the best I can to make our communities equitable.

I also want to make clear how troubled I am by the tone and tenor of this conversation. I understand the urgent need to achieve housing justice, and the passion that people feel for these issues. But the vitriol I witnessed in these conversations sets a troubling precedent for all of us, especially as neighbors are pit against their fellow neighbors, which will only make it harder to have open dialogue about development issues moving forward.

After our conversations with community about this project, I am confident that many of us have similar goals: at the end of the day, we all want safe and affordable housing for all of our neighbors. I will continue to strive for equity in the system that exists, and also to push for a radically different system. I look forward to working through these issues as a community during the months and years to come.

Fighting for equitable communities in Philadelphia’s 3rd District.