City expands program to protect longtime homeowners in gentrifying communities

The Longtime Owner Occupants Program will freeze the property value for some longtime residents.

North Philadelphia community members, upset with what they view as the city’s prioritization of large-scale developers, met with government leaders last week.

City Council President Darrell Clarke, who represents the city’s 5th District that includes Temple University’s Main Campus, discussed changes to the Longtime Owner Occupants Program. The program freezes property assessment values if they increased by 50 percent or more from the previous year, and the resident lived in their home for 10 years or more. 

During the meeting on Wednesday at the Philadelphia Military Academy at Elverson, one community member compared the city’s efforts to attract development while residents lack affordable housing to “taking a glass of unspoiled milk and dumping it into spoiled milk.”

City Council established LOOP in 2014 as a hedge against rising property values in gentrified areas of the city, like near Main Campus. Updated guidelines for the program, which were rolled out on Friday, expand the program’s criteria to homeowners whose assessments increased by 50 percent or more, instead of tripling, as previously required.

LOOP locks in that assessment for as long as the value of the home remains below $180,000, which is a $100,000 increase from the program’s previous requirement. This will increase the number of residents covered by the program. It enrolled 15,981 homeowners as of Feb. 12, wrote Vicki Riley, a public relations officer for the city, in an email to The Temple News.

Despite the program’s expansion, the number of eligible homeowners LOOP helps will remain small, said Rod Johnson, a public policy professor.

“Fifty percent is a pretty big increase but it’s a tight distinction,” Johnson said. “It seems a little more flexibility there is something the public might want.”

More than 35 percent of all properties are overassessed, the Inquirer reported in January. The median value of owner-occupied, single-family homes in Philadelphia surged in 2019 assessments, with an increase of more than 10 percent. 

“Why did [my property taxes] go up so high? Over $1,000 in one year,” said James Barnette, a 64-year-old retiree who lives on Bouvier Street near Rockland. 

Clarke spoke alongside state Sen. Sharif Street, whose district also includes Main Campus, and other elected officials on Wednesday. Clarke stressed that he is addressing these problems by amending the LOOP. 

“If your property taxes went high sky because somebody built luxury housing, if your taxes go up 100 percent, 150 percent, that’s a problem,” Clarke said during the meeting. “We brought that level down much lower.”

As a result of changes, some residents will see their property taxes go down in 2019, Clarke added.

Even before the flawed property assessments, development increased home values, causing issues in the city’s 5th District. Residents at the meeting faulted Philadelphia’s 10-year property tax abatement and Temple’s presence for gentrification.

“The tax abatement was a good thing, but they’re destroying it, because [my taxes] went up by $1,000 just like that,” Barnette said.

“In regards to Temple buying everything, they’re pushing everyone out,” he added. “It was alright for a while, now it’s just these politicians with Temple, they do what they want to do.”

Sandra Arrington, a 64-year-old retiree who lives on 12th Street near Diamond, said the tax abatement encourages developers to buy up cheap property.

“How come homeowners who have been here for years can’t get a break if you’re giving newcomers a break?” Arrington said.  

“I understand [developers] trying to sell their properties, but we never got a break,” she added.

Street suggested rent controls as a potential solution. Currently, Pennsylvania law doesn’t have them.

“We do have to look at escalating rates,” Street said on Wednesday. “We have made investment in affordable housing, but that has not provided people in existing housing from seeing this.”

Don Williams, a retired senior citizen, was unconvinced by the solutions Street and Clarke offered. The program stalls property taxes, and in turn, fails to collect revenue needed to pay for city programs, he said.

“I don’t see how [LOOP] is going to help the problem if they don’t have any more income,” said Williams, who lives on 15th Street near Susquehanna Avenue. “It’s the same story of greed, just the same roles, with different people.”

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