Does a Neighborhood Improvement Tax Make Sense for an Area That Can't Afford It?

By Matthew Petrillo
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 16 | Posted Feb. 22, 2012

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Secret garden: Vivian Vanstory sits in a lot near 15th and West Thompson streets that she and her nonprofit spruced up—without city funds.

Clasping a large ring of keys in one hand, 61-year-old Vivian VanStory darts across the corner of 15th and West Thompson streets—in the area just west of Temple—where she’s lived for the last three decades.

Talking quickly during a tour around her neighborhood, she points to what looks like a vacant lot on the corner of the block. From the outside, the fenced-in land where three row homes once stood appears like any other of the city’s 40,000 vacant properties: hopelessly abandoned, lacking any sense of history or future purpose. The fence is mostly covered with leaves and moss, so it’s difficult to tell what’s inside.

“The city has neglected this land for decades,” VanStory says, fumbling with her keys until finding one in particular. Unraveling a metal chain lock that’s wrapped around the fence and its gate, VanStory says she’s proud of the gems in her 5th District neighborhood, despite the blight that surrounds it. Crumbling sidewalks and debris left over from torn-down houses are visible in every direction.

But tucked in the corner of the block, a well-groomed yard that rolls up to the fence’s boundaries makes itself known. Chunks of marble taken from old houses have been repurposed into benches, which are clustered around a dirt path that curves near the yard’s edges and passes a tulip garden. “This one won first prize for best children’s garden back in 1993,” says VanStory, pointing to the yard.

VanStory, the president of the Community Land Trust Corporation, along with a handful of volunteers, created the nonprofit 30 years ago in order to legally maintain the land (they currently manage about 75,000 square feet). The CLTC is funded almost entirely by private donations, generating about $3,000 a year to improve the North Central neighborhood. “We do this all ourselves … with no help from the city, with barely any funding,” VanStory says.

Which is why she’s wary of Council President Darrell Clarke’s plan to bring a Neighborhood Improvement District (NID)—a nonprofit established by City Council in which a tax is used to improve the district—into the community. Unlike VanStory’s neighborhood improvement efforts, which don’t cost residents a dime, Clarke’s NID would charge property owners, like VanStory, a fee on top of their real-estate tax. While she admits that parts of the neighborhood could use significant improvements, it’s the process of creating the NID that, VanStory says, intentionally neglects any due process.

Clarke’s plan, called the North Central Neighborhood Improvement District (NCNID), would affect the areas between Broad and 19th streets and York Street to Girard Avenue, along with five smaller pockets of houses and apartments, where many Temple students reside in off-campus housing. According to the bill, which was quickly proposed during Council’s first legislative session on Jan. 26, the fee in question—a roughly seven percent increase on real-estate taxes (on top of the 3.9 percent increase that was implemented last year to fund the city’s schools, as well as a 9.9 percent increase in 2010)—would generate nearly a half-million dollars for improving the neighborhood. The bulk of the money, about $275,000, would fund cleaning sidewalks and vacant lots; about $75,000 would go toward public safety.

But in an area in which 42 percent of property owners owe hundreds of thousands of dollars of property taxes, some see Clarke’s proposal as a burden to the already struggling neighborhood.

Clarke’s NCNID has been in the works for a while. Two years ago, before he called for any public input or even introduced his plan to Council, he authorized a nine-person steering committee to oversee the NCNID’s creation. He also created a nonprofit, the North Central Management Corporation, which would manage the proposed NCNID.

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Comments 1 - 16 of 16
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1. Former Philly Resident said... on Feb 22, 2012 at 09:46AM

“Good old incompetent corrupt Philly government. It's one reason I left.

Here you've got a city with some of the highest taxes in America... an eye-popping income tax, a sky-high city sales tax, and property taxes on top of that, to pay for one of the most generously-paid bureaucracies and city government employment bases in America.

And yet, that's not enough cash to provide basic services like trash removal to urban neighborhoods a couple of stops up the BSL from Center City?

No wonder everyone has left and stayed gone.

In a real city with competent administration, a "housing boom in the area" would translate into more sales tax and income tax being paid by the new residents, which would then help pay for the needed services. But, of course, this is Philadelphia, where such sensible outcomes aren't possible. Instead, they're going to kill off this latest spark of life in a long-dead hood, just like they've killed off so many other emerging bright spots. Sad.”

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2. Joe said... on Feb 22, 2012 at 03:38PM

“So they secretly make a NID and put developers on the steering committee of it... How many of those people donated to Clarke, I wonder. They probably read about more kids going to Temple and see dollar signs. Bah. If they were really sincere about raising money to benefit the city, they'd actually collect those taxes that 42% of the people in the area owe, and not make everyone pay a new tax instead.”

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3. glenn said... on Feb 22, 2012 at 04:25PM

“"VanStory credits the bill for excluding single-family owned and occupied houses"

Please tell Ms. VanStory that this is simply the divide and conquer strategy! The corporate drones behind these districts are going to extend this to the homeowners too within a few years. They are trying to have the homeowners support this effort against renters, but once established, it will be extended to all. Establish and quietly extend is a a common strategy to divide and conquer in the new plutocracy.

Tell Ms. VanStory that their are many people in this city who know what these special service districts are doing. I'm in West Philly and Penn Real Estate is behind these districts. Our thoughts and prayers are with your neighborhood.

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4. Anonymous said... on Feb 22, 2012 at 06:56PM

“"But in an area in which 42 percent of property owners owe hundreds of thousands of dollars of property taxes, some see Clarke’s proposal as a burden to the already struggling neighborhood."

The reason Mr. Nutter has raised my taxes three years in a row... I am the sucker that will pay up.”

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5. barbara said... on Feb 23, 2012 at 08:35AM

“as a former acdc board member i remember when the tax credits were
given to big developers and the non profit orgs.monies dried up. clark
and others were behind this turn of events. i will be at the meeting on
3/6/12 and i hope others come out and question what it means for those
of us, who lost our voices, for now what is left of the concept of community.

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6. harrison said... on Feb 24, 2012 at 01:01PM

“This is ridiculous. The only people that are going to be paying more are the landlords. People that live there will not pay an extra cent and will benefit from the extra cleaning and security for free. Whatever reason that woman has to object to the NID is probably not rational.

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7. Steve said... on Feb 24, 2012 at 02:41PM

“Harrison you must be on the steering committee because you missed the point of the article. The NID shuts out the community. It's not transparent. It's shady and doesn't represent the people who live there, I doubt the other nids in the city do too”

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8. harrison said... on Feb 25, 2012 at 01:15PM

“I think I do understand the point of the article. It is titled 'Does a Neighborhood Improvement Tax Make Sense for an Area That Can't Afford It?'

Well people that live there won't be paying for it so it doesn't matter if they can afford it or not. The article says that Vanstory will be charged an extra tax, if she is not a landlord then that is blatantly untrue. I suggest the journalist and Ms. Vanstory both read the bill before trashing it on the cover of a widely read publication. She complains about the city ignoring problems in the neighborhood yet she is against the bill that would fix those problems? What exactly does she want?

The board will be made up of local landlords and community leaders, all of whom want what is best for the area (clean streets, commercial development and safety).”

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9. mike from Francisville said... on Feb 25, 2012 at 01:43PM

“out of seven comments that I have read, only Harrison seems to be in favor of the NID, and I don't know in which world she or he lives in, or if in fact is a member of the committee, but let me tell you that during the 18 years that we have lived in the Francisville section of the city("ART MUSEUM " for hungry realtors/investors and new comers because is fancier and easier "to sell") we have seen a huge change that has come with a big price for the community when many people had to leave because they could not keep up with such change, all of them low income and in many cases elderly, which is really hearth breaking! and the "Francisville developent co." hasn't done anything about it, instead they have centered their efforts to "give away the community" to hungry developers who could care the less about us. That is why Mr. Pizzola, from the article, sees things from "the other side" because by becoming a committee member, he is eager to join that "select club" of money lovers.”

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10. Good riddance said... on Feb 25, 2012 at 10:08PM

“Former Philly Resident - You left Philly b/c you detest it yet surf the internet and land on the PW site. Admit it, you miss the city?”

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11. NCNID Steering Committee said... on Feb 27, 2012 at 11:17AM

“Dear Philadelphia Weekly,

Your recent cover story on the proposed North Central Neighborhood Improvement District is inaccurate and misleading. Contrary to the slant of your article and your inflammatory cover, the new entity will be anything but a burden on the long-time residents of North Central Philadelphia. The proposed legislation is clear – only commercial or rental property owners will be assessed. Owner-occupants will not. To suggest that this new initiative will be a “burden to the already struggling neighborhood” may be a way to get attention and circulate more papers, but it is patently untrue. The intent of the new entity is to create a mechanism where those who have been investing in properties in the neighborhood will be required to also invest in neighborhood quality of life measures. The NID will be very tightly focused on neighborhood cleanliness and security. The “struggling neighborhood” will stand to benefit significantly. This is significantly different f”

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12. NCNID Steering Committee said... on Feb 27, 2012 at 11:18AM

“This is significantly different from the Callowhill initiative, which was based on assessing all property owners, including owner-occupants.

We’d like to point out some inaccuracies in your report. First of all, this plan is not purely “Clarke’s” plan and it was not hatched in secret. It came out of a series of conversations between the Councilman, community residents, and area landlords. TAPA, the Temple Area Property Association, which represents a large majority of landlords in the area, deliberated on the matter and it’s members then agreed that they would be willing to voluntarily tax themselves and support something like a NID. This opened the door for an entirely new source of funds which will improve the neighborhood. A number of the landlords, along with representatives from the City and Temple, have been volunteering time and money to get the initiative off the ground. This “steering committee” is not some nefarious secret group, as your article suggests, but simp”

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13. NCNID Steering Committee said... on Feb 27, 2012 at 11:19AM

“This “steering committee” is not some nefarious secret group, as your article suggests, but simply interested parties who have been willing to volunteer time and money to get the initiative off the ground.

Your article further quotes Mrs. VanStory that the NID creation process “intentionally neglects any due process”. Again untrue – the legally mandated process recently began with a public mailing. This is being followed with a series of public meetings and then at least two hearings in City Council. Finally, there will be a referendum where assessed property owners can vote it down, if a majority are opposed. This is hardly neglect of due process.

Finally, Ms. VanStory’s assertion that “the board members can determine their own salaries without oversight” is again misleading. The board will be purely a volunteer body – there will be no salaries paid to any board members. The board will be composed of property owners and area stakeholders and community members who are willing to volunteer their time to help improve the area.

To initiate your coverage of this positive new initiative by highlighting the perspective of one of its few opponents seems inflammatory and irresponsible. Please consider running a new article which does proper research and checks facts. Looked at more objectively, it is clear that assessing real estate investors to improve the quality of life of North Central Philadelphia is a positive for everyone.

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14. Vianne said... on Feb 27, 2012 at 06:08PM

“It's laughable that these jackass main line landlords comin up here and just controllin our neighborhoods. They dont live anywhere close to here!!! THEYRE causin the gentrification”

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15. Pablo O'Higgins said... on Feb 28, 2012 at 09:58AM

“The steering committe is a self appointed group of real estate developers seeking power from the city to tax and to place liens on property owneer who fail to pay the tax to them. This is not a voluntary association; it is empowered by the city to collect taxes on every property owner as defined by the steering committee whether they agree or not with the NID The Philadelphia CCD began in the samer manner and now is a taxing monster that targets residential owners of property. When the Temple NID is up for renewal it can do the same. The goal of these developers is to obtain state and federal subsidies for their investments under the disguise of a non profit NID.”

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16. Clayphilly said... on Apr 28, 2012 at 05:02PM

“NIDs can work, but currently aren't designed to help the entire community--instead focusing on improving markets.

City council’s motives for creating NIDs are based on the potential development in the district that can increases taxes generated for the city. Unfortunately, the NID model and it’s “double taxation” has several clear problems intrinsic to its design. The voting for a NID is limited to property owners, not residents. NID are usually directed by property owners. Property owners can pass the increased tax down to their tenants in higher rents, while using NID funds to increase the value of the surrounding NID, allowing another increase in rents as market values increase. This is a cycle of gentrification, pricing out residents, changing the fabric of the community, and is not a public good.”


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The steering committee is a self appointed group of developers seeking power from the city to tax and to place liens on property owners who fail to pay the tax to them. This is not a voluntary association; it is empowered by the city to collect taxes on every property owner as defined by the steering committee whether they agree or not with the NID.

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