That’s now the number for Philadelphia City Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez and her representation of District 7, which is Fairhill and the ever-changing region of Kensington, thanks to a continuing housing boom that has brought in arguably the most economically diverse collective of residents in the city.
In the aftermath of her defeat of Rep. Angel Cruz by a tight margin and facing no Republican challenger in the Nov. 5 election, Quinones-Sanchez sat down with Philadelphia Weekly. The conversation covered everything from the opioid crisis to broken property tax assessments to whether she sleeps much considering she reps one of the most challenging districts in the city.
How are you feeling post-election?
Besides relieved? Actually, very happy with the amount of support that we got through this campaign, the opportunity to tell our story about the work that we’ve accomplished together, and at the same time listen to what people continue to be worried about and really trying to figure out how I prioritize some of those very legitimate issues in the work ahead.
What should residents of your district expect going forward?
First of all, I will always come to work. I think you have to be present. What I think I heard the most is that going back to some of the basics around quality of life is huge, particularly for residents of Kensington: public safety, some of the trash concerns, some of the pothole concerns. So I really feel like this was a ‘let’s go back to basics [and] make sure departments are really being proactive in improving blight and some of the day-to-day issues people confront.’
So how will you do that, for instance, with the environmental waste? Are there going to be more street sweepers? What’s the plan?
We’ve been over the last couple of months in particular but definitely moving forward using my chairmanship as chair of appropriations to really ask the question department by department, ‘What’s you’re anti-poverty strategy, and how are you improving the quality of life for residents in the city?’ We really have to revisit bulk trash. I’m happy that we’re doing this pilot street cleaning project, but we really need to figure out a plan over the next three years how we really expand that. For me, in this budget in particular, we really want to make sure that every single commercial corridor gets some investment and that it’s not based on our CDBG* funding but really us funding some base-level stuff to improve the quality of those corridors that for many people is their lifeline. It’s where they do everything. So I think there’s a lot of room for improvement. This budget for the mayor was a safe budget. We need to make it one that is not about equality but about equity.
Let’s talk a little bit about the opioid crisis because in your district, that’s a huge issue. What do you think should happen going forward?
We’ve talked about a pathway to housing. The models that we have are very expensive. Doing a full housing and wrap-around services is like $28,000 per person. That’s not a sustainable model, so we really do have…to look at how we support our legitimate rooming housing and recovery houses. We have 1,000 recovery houses in the city… How do we provide capital support to some of those houses so they can create beds in that structure and providing a grant to some of those recovery houses, whether they’re funded by the city or not?
And then the big piece of it that’s always been missing in this conversation: What are we doing to help families be able to take their loved ones back in a sustainable model? And I say this as someone who has an uncle in recovery… My aunt who is the primary caretaker, he lives with her. We literally had to make capital improvements to the house to accommodate him, make sure that we had a medical plan for him. He did not get into any of the treatment services he wanted, actually went cold turkey. We spent a year to get him to be stabilized. And we need a plan for that. We need to… really [talk] to the families about the types of support they need as they work through [with] that person in addiction, since we understand people go in and out until they make a decision to really stabilize. We don’t have that. We don’t have a model for that kind of family reunification for what is a lifetime of recovery for that person.
So it’s not just addressing the individual but the entire family structure/support network around that person?
The person is never going to be successful at recovery if they’re not loved and supported, and bureaucracy and government can’t give them that.
What do you want to say about supervised injection facilities?
…I never say that I would not consider anything. I think the problem in Kensington in particular is that we broke it. We asked the community to support the respite centers. We promised them that we were going to keep them safe, and we failed at that. We lost their vote of confidence in our ability to protect them and their children. So we have to go back and do restorative investments in that area.
And then the city, and the mayor in particular, his position is that he wants to support [supervised injection facilities]. If this is going to be a medical intervention, then…we have to take a leadership role in it. The reason the needle exchange program was effective is because the government led it, managed it, funded it. And I just don’t think we can get in another field of doing stuff and say we’re going to do it at arm's length. I think that’s irresponsible, because ultimately, the government is the one that protects people…
There’s no one in Kensington who doesn’t have a family member who’s in some sort of addiction, or have been and conquered an addiction, or have lost someone. So it’s not like people are not empathetic. But the government has to show them a pathway where we can do this to save lives without jeopardizing theirs.
And the guns and the level of open-air drug dealing… our unwillingness…to reclaim those open-air drug markets is part of our challenge and that requires a serious investment. We know who sells drugs. We know freebie mornings. We have to break that down. And putting a police vehicle somewhere but not asking them to disrupt the behavior doesn’t make people feel like that’s a plan. So I’m going to continue to push that and create the political space by which this mayor understands that open-air markets in Kensington cannot happen. Because right now, we’ve lost the ability to even have a conversation with the community. They do not trust us.
You are opposed to opening a supervised injection facility in Kensington as a first location?
Absolutely. I cannot have Kensington bear the brunt of everything we’re trying to do. If this is a citywide problem, if it’s a medical intervention…you need multiple sites. I’m not going to let them pilot something in Kensington that they’re not willing to put anywhere in the city.
In terms of the mayor, you’re saying turning it over to a nonprofit. You need more government oversight and leadership for that?
Yes. I think that letting Safehouse** litigate this through the U.S. Attorney’s Office without the government saying this is an important medical intervention almost sets them up to fail, and all they’re trying to do is save lives. I appreciate Ronda [Goldfein] and the work that the AIDS Law Project [of Pennsylvania] has done. Everything I’ve learned around harm reduction, before it became a popular term, I learned from Jose Benitez [director of Prevention Point Philadelphia]. I do not for one minute doubt their commitment, their compassion. You can’t give them the burden of the legal challenges through this, and that’s why this is something that cannot work without the political will. The mayor can’t say, ‘I’m for it,’ and not be for it. ‘For it’ means we’re going to fund this, we’re going to be part of the legal lawsuit to define what this is in an allowable space. Anything less than that is irresponsible.
What about long-term residents of your district who are starting to be priced out of their homes? How do you help them? What’s the plan?
So one of the things that in council we are continuing to be frustrated about and in this budget really going to have to make a decision around is this OPA (Office of Property Assessment) stuff. We found through the OPA audit that…the OPA assessments are wrong… What we haven’t addressed is the methodology for assessment that is fair… We passed a bill requiring the City of Philadelphia to articulate their formula and also articulate how they protect long-term residents from the modeling that they’re doing.
So because their assessments were so off, they used a model called “trending”… What trending does is it allows them to capture the value of a tax-abated property. So you have a block. Three new houses get built. They sell at $500,000. They’re only paying $1,000 in rent for the land piece. [Trending] allows them to factor that $500,000 unrealized value and then spread it out to all the long-term residents. So all of a sudden, a block where houses are really worth $130,000 because they all need $100,000 in upgrades, gets assessed at $250,000. That is government-done. And we need to fix it. And the city can’t continue to project its budget projections based on increases and OPA assessments using this model of trending because they’re not real. It is unfair for that person who has a house worth $130,000 because they have one bathroom for the four-story house with three-and-a-half bathrooms to impact them. And so the formula has to demonstrate how we back out that unrealized value for that long-term resident.
What if a 30-year-resident, a homeowner, walked up to you and said, ‘I’m being priced out of my home!’ What would you say to them, in layman's terms?
One of the things is the OPA process is broken… Council has to hold the mayor down as much as possible. The discussion in this budget is do we go back to 2016 values? Do we stop allowing any increases until we fix this? Right now, with the current assessments that they gave us, the administration came back and essentially said to us Point Breeze and Rittenhouse have lowered their value over the last year. How do I explain that in North Philadelphia? I can’t. There’s no explanation. It is a broken system. And [it] has allowed the mayor to create a five-year plan based on growing increases moving forward. Essentially, we are condoning a broken process and then allowing him to budget out on that basis of continual increases. That’s a problem.
You have the weight of this district, which is one of the most challenging districts of any city council member, on your shoulders. How does that feel day-to-day?
I take this job very, very seriously… I grew up in Huntingdon Park, a high homeownership rate neighborhood, where our parents bought our first house at $12,000 because my mother finally got a union job as a garment worker. So to me, I look at our government’s role as how do we facilitate hardworking people, protect the values which Philadelphia was founded on, which are homeownership, the American Dream?... Mixed-income housing is hugely important because city policy — along with the private sector, banks, red-lining — has created concentrated poverty in the city of Philadelphia in a place where we are already a city of neighborhoods, and then we deepen that segregation with poverty by saying we’re only building affordable housing here… We have to be intentional in saying high-priced housing is where we create affordability, so we can have a mixed-income, diverse city. Government can do that.
So I wake up every day with this sense of urgency about how do I become more effective and more efficient, and how do we operationalize some of this vision? That’s why when I legislate, I’m very proscriptive. People say, ‘Why are you so proscriptive?’ And I say, ‘If you’re not intentional about it, everything gets lost in translation.’ So the press conference about the successful legislation is nothing if you don’t operationalize it in the department and ensure that your goals are being met. The Land Bank*** legislation required an annual strategic plan. It requires every council person to articulate goals. That’s as transparent as we can be. That doesn’t mean I have to sell everything to the highest bidder. I can directly sell to everybody I want because I’ve articulated goals that represent the interests of my district and the city because, again, it cannot be the only place where poverty is concentrated. That’s not good for the city.
Do you sleep at night?
Barely. I go away, and I sleep. So no. I wake up at all hours. I’m known to do my best work at 4 o’clock in the morning. I do my best reading when I’m on vacation, on a beach, reading annual reports and data sets and all of those things because it’s kind of relaxed. You can open up your mind. And it helps that you have the good scenery. But no. I take this really seriously. When people look at my district, they look at the statistics, and I’m a data person. I look at my litter index. I look at my poverty and my compliance rate. But I know the faces and the people behind those numbers, and I take that really seriously.
Anything you want the residents of your district to know that we haven’t talked about?
I want them to know that I appreciate their confidence in me. I appreciate being re-elected. And I promise to work really hard for them over the next four years to do the best I can to improve their quality of life.
* The Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), one of the longest-running programs of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, funds local community development activities with the stated goal of providing affordable housing, anti-poverty programs and infrastructure development.
**“Safehouse is a privately funded Pennsylvania nonprofit corporation whose mission is to save lives by providing a range of overdose prevention services. The leaders and organizers of Safehouse are motivated by the Judeo-Christian beliefs ingrained in us from our religious schooling, our devout families and our practices of worship. At the core of our faith is the principle that preservation of human life overrides any other considerations. Safehouse is working with community partners to find a suitable location(s) to deliver those services.”
***Philadelphia Land Bank is an agency that sells city-owned land.