When is discrimination, well, not? According to local lawyer Chris Stouffer, when it’s OK’d by the city. Since 2008, Stouffer’s been fighting a city law he says does just that.
The law in question is the 2004 “Yorktown Special District Controls” ordinance, written specifically for the North Central section of the city—Cecil B. Moore to the north, Oxford to the south, 11th to the east and 13th to the west. The law holds, after years of tensions between students and neighbors, that Temple kids simply aren’t allowed to live in certain areas of North Central (see PDF below for specific areas). Stouffer, 63, says that’s unconstitutional, discriminatory and invalid. And he’s thought so since a group of landlords who own properties in the area hired him to fight their case. When they ran out of money to pay him, he continued fighting on his own. In late December, Common Pleas Judge Idee C. Fox ruled the ordinance constitutional, saying, “It is clearly intended to protect the vitality and viability of the Yorktown neighborhood as a unique inner-city haven for single families from the harms of unsupervised students living with absentee landlords.” Stouffer insists that despite the ruling, the fight’s not over.
“[The city] butchered the law,” he says. “Most lawyers wouldn’t say that, but I’m at a point in my career where I don’t care anymore.” The upheld law, he says, is a dangerous violation of Section 1, Article 14 of the U.S. Constitution, which bars the deprivation of “any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” And assuming he’s right, all branches of city government have legalized class discrimination under our noses.
And that’s fucked up.
“I didn’t get my day in court ... [I] just want a judge to apply the law,” Stouffer says.
The ordinance in question was written in 2004 by then-Councilman Darrell Clarke and signed by then-Mayor John Street. It claims student housing is slowly turning North Central into a characterless cluster of cars and boardinghouses with concrete front lawns. It specifically forbids “apartment houses,” “tenement houses,” “multiple-family dwellings,” “student housing not owner-occupied” and “fraternity/sorority houses” from certain spots within the area. In other words: No students allowed.
Clarke’s ordinance has a long history of mostly unreported controversy, beginning when it was first up for debate. On Dec. 6, 2004, the City Council Rules Committee heard complaints regarding the potential law and the plan to ban specific types of living arrangements from the area. At this same hearing, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission indicated it had not previously been aware of Clark’s proposal.
Eight days later, the Planning Commission held a public meeting on the plan, and voted against recommendation. However, “City Council is under no obligation to follow our rule on any bill,” says Bill Kramer, division director for the Philadelphia Planning Commission.
Two days after the Commission recommended against the bill, on Dec. 16, Council voted in favor of it. It was believed that the two days did not give City Council enough time to read or consider the recommendation. Then Mayor John Street, who PW has confirmed lives in the neighborhood, signed it into law.
Vivian VanStory is 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.