Council Advances Reforms on Sales of Vacant City-Owned Land
After years of complaints about the cumbersome and opaque process of acquiring public lands for redevelopment, Philadelphia City Council is moving forward with legislation that includes significant reforms to streamline the process, get blighted properties into buyers’ hands more quickly for redevelopment, and ensure transparency so that every transaction is viewable online for public scrutiny.
Bill 190606 was reported favorably out of Council’s Public Property and Public Works Committee this week, and received first reading in Council on Thursday. (Read the bill amendments.) Among the most significant reforms:
- The bill eliminates discretion from the public land disposition process, and codifies the process for disposing of public land.
- It removes the Vacant Property Review Committee from the process, replacing it with the Philadelphia Land Bank.
- It includes objective scoring criteria, including 30 percent for economic opportunity and inclusion, 20 percent for financial feasibility, 20 percent for development team experience, 15 percent for public purpose – social impact, and several other criteria as well. These reforms are intended to further minority inclusion and participation in the redevelopment of vacant lands.
- The city’s Department of Planning and Development must publish on its city website annually a list of every property disposed of, the price, any discount and why, and who the buyer is.
Councilmember María Quiñones Sánchez (7th District), long a champion of more inclusion in the city’s process of redeveloping blighted properties, heralded the changes.
“Our hope is that the criteria around selection provides a little more balance around neighborhood needs and amenities, versus just flipping high value,” Quiñones Sánchez told WHYY.
The bill has the support of Council President Darrell L. Clarke (5th District), another longtime advocate for more minority participation in development.
Councilmember Gym’s Bills Expanding Rights for Trans and Nonbinary Philadelphians Approved by Council
Council approved a package of bills introduced by Councilmember Helen Gym (At Large), to promote safety, dignity, and inclusion for trans and nonbinary Philadelphians.
“City Council just took a big step towards making this city safe and affirming for all people,” Councilmember Gym said. “For far too long, trans and nonbinary people have lived with the uncertainty that their jobs and their lives are not protected. Every Philadelphian deserves the right to live their life with dignity. Today, we move closer to that goal.”
Trans, nonbinary, and gender expansive people experience significantly increased rates of depression, suicide, and victimization compared to their cisgender peers.
Bill 190558 requires youth-serving organizations to implement policy that meets or exceeds the School District’s policy to protect trans and nonbinary young people from discrimination, and goes further by requiring regular training for staff who work with young people. The bill was co-sponsored by Councilmembers William Greenlee (At Large), Mark Squilla (1st District), and Derek Green (At Large).
Bill 190559 requires one gender-neutral bathroom on each floor of City Hall, and ensures we are fulfilling our obligation to add gender-neutral bathrooms in every new and renovated City-owned building. Greenlee and Squilla co-sponsored.
Bill 190651 amends the city’s anti-discrimination law to expand the definitions of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to be more inclusive, ensuring the law clearly protects everyone from discrimination. The law already prohibits discrimination based on gender identity, an important protection not available on the state or federal levels. Councilmembers Green, Greenlee, Bobby Henon (6th District) and Blondell Reynolds Brown (At Large) co-sponsored.
As Councilmember Gym said on Twitter after her bills passed Council: “For our city to truly serve as a sanctuary it takes all of our work, and our commitment to live our values every day.”
For our city to truly serve as a sanctuary it takes all of our work, and our commitment to live our values every day.
— Helen Gym (@HelenGymAtLarge) October 3, 2019
Amid Asbestos Concerns, Two City High Schools Remain Closed
After asbestos was discovered in a basement boiler room and an upstairs common area at two city high schools in one building, Ben Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy were closed by the School District for four days this week.
School District Superintendent Dr. William Hite said testing was ongoing and remediation occurring to ensure the schools were completely safe before students and teachers would be permitted to return. Officials with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers continued to express concerns over the safety of this school building in North Philadelphia, and other, older school buildings as well.
Council President Clarke, whose district includes the two schools, issued a statement, noting:
“The issues at Ben Franklin and SLA raise a broader concern – the health and welfare of every student, teacher and employees in all of our school buildings. In light of ongoing concerns about hazardous materials in our older school buildings, we need a longer-term, transparent strategy in place for addressing these health questions. I have expressed that concern to Dr. Hite, and Council looks forward to reviewing that strategy.”
Federal Judge Rules Safe Injection Site Does Not Violate Federal Drug Law
In an unexpected decision, a U.S. District Court judge on Wednesday ruled the proposed safe injection facility planned for the city’s Kensington section, the epicenter of an opioids epidemic killing more than 1,000 people annually, does not violate a federal criminal law designed to crack down on drug distribution houses.
Federal District Judge Gerald McHugh ruled that “no credible argument can be made that facilities such as safe injection sites were within the contemplation of Congress” when lawmakers adopted the initial drug law in 1986 or when they amended it in 2003.
The ruling was a legal victory for Safehouse, the non-profit entity set up to create and operate a safe-injection site in Kensington, and a defeat for U.S. Attorney William McSwain, who had initiated the legal action that led to the ruling, seeking to have the proposed use declared illegal. The U.S. Justice Department in Washington swiftly issued a warning to other sites around the country considering similar public health sites, saying the Department considered them unlawful. Justice officials vowed an appeal to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.
Councilmember Quinones Sanchez, whose district includes most of Kensington, issued a thoughtful statement following the ruling, outlining her views on safe injection sites, before concluding: “We are not there yet.”
“My experience fighting to reform our system has confirmed that we cannot consider an injection site in Kensington until we rebuild community trust by providing safety, stability, and restorative investment,” Quinones Sanchez said.
Rescind Fines for Overdue Library Books, Urges Councilmember Parker
Councilmember Cherelle L. Parker (9th District), citing a growing trend in urban areas across the country, introduced a resolution to hold hearings on the issue of overdue fines for library books unreturned, and whether the practice is a hindrance that overly impacts lower-income neighborhoods and customers and deters them from visiting libraries.
Parker cited a recent action by Chicago’s new Mayor, Lori Lightfoot, to have the Windy City’s libraries stop fining people for overdue books and wipe away outstanding debt, a move to urge low-income families to regain access to a library system that blocked them from borrowing once they accumulated $10 in fines.
In Philadelphia, the Free Library collects only about $400,000 annually from fines, down from about $700,000 several years ago, Parker noted.
Spread Apart Medical Marijuana Sites, Councilmember Squilla Says
With medical marijuana dispensaries spreading rapidly across Pennsylvania, including in Philadelphia, Councilmember Mark Squilla (1st District) wants the dispensaries less densely compacted in any one area.
Squilla has introduced legislation to prohibit marijuana dispensaries in Philadelphia from opening in too-close proximity to each other.
“A lot of the dispensaries are operating real close to each other, so we figured if we put them more than 500 feet from an existing dispensary we could spread them throughout the city and not just have them in one location,” said Squilla, who supports medical marijuana.
Council Recognizes Domestic Violence Awareness Month
All of Council co-sponsored a resolution recognizing October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Introduced by Councilmembers Greenlee, Reynolds Brown, Green, Jones and Johnson, the resolution was co-sponsored by every member of City Council, which took turns reading a portion of the document aloud. Some sobering facts from the resolution and presentation:
- Domestic violence is a national issue – every minute, 24 people are victims of physical violence, rape or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States — more than 12 million people over the course of a year.
- Locally, Philadelphia Police respond annually to over 100,000 domestic-related calls.
- Three people lose their lives to domestic violence every day in the U.S. In August 2018, City Council human resources director Linda Rios was murdered in an act of domestic violence by her estranged husband. She was one of 27 people killed at the hands of an abuser in Philadelphia in 2018.
The Council resolution honored Women Against Abuse, which works in partnership with other organizations, including Congresso de Latinos Unidos, Lutheran Settlement House’s Bilingual Domestic Violence Program and Women In Transition, to form the Philadelphia Domestic Violence Collaborative to provide comprehensive services to survivors of domestic violence and their families in Philadelphia, which includes safe housing, legal aid, counseling, medical advocacy and behavioral health services.
In fiscal 2019, the Collaborative fielded more than 13,000 calls to a Domestic Violence hotline.
… Inside the Rail
Also: Council’s Special Committee on Poverty, co-chaired by Councilmembers Quinones Sanchez and Allan Domb and several other key stakeholders, holds its first public hearing next Thurs., Oct. 10th, at 3 pm in Council chambers. The Committee has a stated goal of reducing poverty by 100,000 people by 2024. Currently, an estimated 377,000 Philadelphians live in poverty – the highest rate of poverty of any major American city.
The next Stated Meeting of City Council is scheduled for next Thursday, October 10, at 10 a.m. in Council Chambers on the 4th floor at City Hall.
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