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Did Voters Make Neighborhood Development Better?

The ballot measure Philadelphians passed last month could be the start of needed reforms to the role community groups play in creating more housing for more people

Did Voters Make Neighborhood Development Better?

The ballot measure Philadelphians passed last month could be the start of needed reforms to the role community groups play in creating more housing for more people

In October 2023, following the Philadelphia City Council’s passage of a bill authorizing a 2024 ballot measure to provide legal protections for the city’s registered community organizations (RCOs) — citizen-led groups the City recognizes and tasks with weighing in on development decisions in their neighborhoods — there was immediate blowback from the development community, who feared it would stifle the construction of new housing.

“This bill gives RCOs a blank check to fight developers,” Mo Rushdy, a managing partner of the development firm the Riverwards Group and the current head of the Building Industry Association (BIA), told the The Inquirer. “Every single project will be appealed indefinitely, which increases development costs and the chances that nothing will get built.”

By the time two-thirds of city voters who cast a ballot in the primary election passed the measure, the bill had morphed to limit its scope. Prior to his retirement, outgoing Council President Darrell Clarke amended the original language of the RCO measure, so it only applied to very specific types of lawsuits and not to broadly offer legal defense for neighborhood groups, as some feared would be the result. The BIA endorsed the new measure, as did leaders at RCOs, both viewing it to be a positive, if minor, change.

The lessened anxiety over the measure, according to Rushdy, was a result of changes to ensure the law only covers “SLAPP lawsuits” — strategic lawsuits against public participation — he said, adding, “the effect of the measure will be minimal.”

Rushdy looks out over a lot he plans to develop. Photo by Sabina Louise Pierce.

“I don’t see a major impact,” says Eugene Desyatnik, president of the Bella Vista Neighborhood Association (BVNA). “The most impact will be on the margins — for a couple of RCOs, every five years, when a suit gets filed against them.”

But if the fight over the ballot question ultimately turned out to be a tepid one, the measure also shifted the spotlight to substantive questions that have been brewing for years about the inconsistent, often haphazard role that RCOs play throughout the city. Barely a decade after the creation of the RCO system, few people are particularly happy about how they function in the development process.

“I think this ballot measure can be a catalyst for positive change,” says Desyatnik. “There’s definitely room for improvement.”

A brief history of RCOs in Philly

The official role of RCOs was established in 2012, when the City completed its first major overhaul of the zoning code in 50 years. Previous zoning codes did not specify expectations for how community groups could offer input on land use decisions. The creation of RCOs enshrined public participation within the development process, albeit not in great detail.

Before 2012, there was no requirement for developers to hold conversations with the communities they sought to build in. Residents and civic associations who opposed a project had two main instruments of resistance: They could give testimony to the Zoning Board of Adjustments, which reviews major development projects in the city, or they could lobby their district councilmember to veto or influence the project using their councilmanic prerogative.

Once the reforms took effect, however, developers were required to notify RCOs of their plans for large projects along with any that required a zoning variance — say, constructing an apartment complex in a single-family area — and to hold a public meeting with them about their intentions, all within a reasonable timeframe. From there, the Zoning Board of Adjustments (ZBA), whose members are appointed by the mayor, receive feedback from the RCO — or, if there are multiple in the vicinity of a project, plural RCOs — and then decide whether or not to grant the permits for that development to proceed.

There was optimism in some corners of the city that the nascent RCO system could even be a precursor to removing one of the most controversial elements of the city’s development process, as Hidden City wrote at the time: “There is even some hope that the last remaining rationale for councilmanic prerogative — that the district councilperson must act as the final arbiter of the public interest in order to protect communities — will fade away.”

Not only is councilmanic prerogative alive and well today, but a process that was designed to elevate citizen voices — especially Philadelphians impacted by top-down development strategies — has, over time, found itself in the crosshairs of critics.

The zoning code enacted in 2012 left a lot of leeway on how RCOs could operate while still being recognized by the City. Fights immediately ensued over which civic organizations should be allowed to qualify, resulting in no less than four bills being passed by City Council in the first half-decade of the zoning code, revising many of the requirements. Eventually, they enacted rules requiring RCOs to elect their leadership and to provide advanced public notice of their meetings, but those stipulations and others remain vaguely-worded. Some RCOs operate a lot like private membership organizations, with dues and without a lot of transparency about their meetings and elections, except they’ve been granted the powers of hosting quasi-governmental meetings and play an influential role with the ZBA.

Despite City Council’s efforts, myriad problems remain with the RCO system. Project to project, RCOs have been accused — whether approving or obstructing a development — of being out of step with their neighbors’ views, despite speaking for them in front of developers and the ZBA. Some RCOs have been accused of being exclusionary gatekeepers, favoring the voices of well-resourced citizens rather than being a truly democratic voice. Another problem is the sheer amount of them. Some neighborhoods have upwards of a half dozen RCOs, which creates confusion when they don’t agree and then offer conflicting feedback for developers and the ZBA to sort through.

These debates over the appropriate role of RCOs and how the City recognizes them has only been amplified in recent years by the boom in construction. “There is a real need for RCO reform to standardize the engagement process for projects,” says Rushdy, who cited a wish list of citywide standards for RCOs, including detailed requirements for how they host public meetings, what they ask developers to present to them, and proof of residency for members — “to ensure transparency” and to “have a clearly defined, predictable process,” he adds.

“We need to take the path of least resistance for 100 percent affordable homes,” says Rushdy of the Los Angeles strategy. “Whatever that path is.”

Developers and YIMBY voices have often painted RCOs as an obstacle in the pursuit of affordable housing across the city, giving them a bad name in some circles. But they have also leveraged their power to fight for those goals in some neighborhoods. For years, the South of South Neighborhood Association (SOSNA) fought with developer Ori Feibush after trying to broker a community benefits agreement with Feibush’s OCF Realty which would have increased the amount of affordable units in his plans (and also required minority contractors be hired in the construction). In the intervening years, Feibush reportedly threatened to sue the neighborhood group.

While RCOs can play an obstructionist role, pausing development until it better meets a community’s needs, they don’t share an agenda throughout the city. In this sense, they play a role in preserving Philadelphia as a “city of neighborhoods,” according to their defenders.

“Protecting RCOs can affect affordable housing and also whether housing remains affordable,” says Desyatnik, the president of BVNA and also the head of the Philadelphia Crosstown Coalition, the city’s first membership organization for RCOs. “But if you’re threatened with a lawsuit for trying to enter into a community benefits agreement, or have lawyers threatening reciprocal action, people will be afraid to engage in the process.”

The future of RCOs

Even defenders of RCOs acknowledge that the current system is far from ideal. “I don’t think that anybody thinks this is a perfect process,” says Desyatnik.

In her first months in office, Mayor Cherelle Parker has reiterated a campaign promise to bring 30,000 new homes online during her tenure. While a specific plan to achieve that goal remains in the works, the mayor has cited the need to eliminate “unnecessary regulations” in order to spur private development.

If RCO reform ends up factoring into those plans, Parker will be following in line with governments around the country. Amid a nationwide push to create more affordable housing and replenish our aging public infrastructure, elected officials have become frustrated with the way many current zoning laws are applied.

The state legislatures of Maine, Connecticut, and Oregon have each passed anti-NIMBY laws in the past 18 months which are designed to circumvent the requirements for community feedback and public approval. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu appointed a steering committee last year to spearhead recommendations on how to reform that city’s development review process.

And then there’s the grandest experiment of them all: In Los Angeles, Mayor Karen Bass signed an executive order to fast-track any project that includes “100 percent affordable” units, exempting those developments from neighborhood outreach meetings and environmental impact studies. In less than a year and a half, more than 16,000 affordable units have come online, which is the same amount as what was approved in the three prior years combined.

“We need to take the path of least resistance for 100 percent affordable homes,” says Rushdy of the Los Angeles strategy. “Whatever that path is.”

There are small signs of reform within the RCO structure. In February, Councilperson Cindy Bass introduced legislation that would require the officers of RCOs within her district to live in the areas they represent. While that seems like a no-brainer, it’s just one of many long overdue, common sense RCO reforms, such as strengthening how those organizations elect their officers, how they hold public meetings, and how often they’re required to renew their registration.

Setting higher standards for the democratic structures within RCOs will only lift up the ones who are protecting neighborhood interests, and weeding out those that aren’t. “I think this ballot measure can be a catalyst for positive change,” says Desyatnik. “There’s definitely room for improvement.”


Photo by Theo Wyss-Flamm.

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