2023 Issues: Two Million Philadelphians!

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been reporting on some of the horse-race news about Philadelphia’s 2023 elections, like who’s running for At-Large and District primaries, how much money everybody’s been raising, and what could happen in the general election. 

In the coming weeks, we’re going to spend some more time talking about the important policy stakes of the 2023 elections through the lens of our 2023 candidate questionnaire. 

Philadelphia 3.0 will once again be vetting and endorsing City Council candidates this cycle, and last week we received back completed questionnaires from quite a few candidates in the race. We’ll post those publicly on our website within the next few weeks for voters to review. Before then, during the petition period, it’s a good time to set the table by laying out why we asked some of the questions we did, and why we think these issues matter for the next City Council class. 

To start with one of the more fun topics, we asked the candidates about their views on whether elected officials should set an explicit population growth goal of 2 million Philadelphians by 2040:

“Should local leaders set a goal for Philadelphia to reach a population of 2,000,000 people by 2040? If yes, what steps will you take as a member of City Council to help increase the city’s population? If not, what is the optimal population for Philadelphia and why?”

What’s the context?

A few months ago, inspired by some chatter on Twitter, we wrote a little manifesto for the 2 Million Philadelphians cause, and were pleasantly surprised at how much it caught on with some candidates and advocates from various corners. Anecdotally, a few different Mayoral candidates have referenced the idea at forums now, and we're excited to see how that develops.

To people of our general political persuasion, regaining Philadelphia’s missing half-million people is axiomatically good, but it is often an unstated assumption behind a lot of other issue positions. For the already-indoctrinated, it’s obvious that decades of population decline have had severe negative effects on the city’s budget, our built environment, and our political culture. For that reason, we’ve been unapologetic cheerleaders of the more recent run-up in population growth that’s transpired since the mid-2000’s. A city with half a million more people is a city with more jobs, more housing, more small business opportunities, and more tax revenue to pay for everyone’s ambitious spending priorities. 

Not everybody feels this way though, and the elected officials who have seemed most hostile to the various changes stemming from renewed population growth have also tended to be the same elected officials we’ve had the most occasion to disagree with on policy issues over the years. 

Philadelphia's recent run of population growth, while impressive compared to our own recent past, isn't that impressive compared to what's been happening in some actually fast-growing places, and the political conversation about his issue here needs a big reset with this context. Philadelphia reaching 2 million residents would simply put us back where we were in the 1960s, which is a baseline far exceeded by places like New York City (up 13% since 1960), San Francisco (up 18%), and Austin (up 416%) in that same timeframe.

Why does this matter?

Candidates’ gut-level reaction to the growth question often seems predictive of where they are likely to stand on a whole range of other important issues, so on one level, the 2 Million Philadelphians question is an interesting political Rorschach test. Can the candidates envision a world where positive-sum economic growth is achievable, or do they mainly dwell on the downsides and risks of having more people in the city?

In more concrete terms, it matters for the planning and budgeting decisions the city will make about the future, and it specifically matters for the next Comprehensive Plan update.  

It sounds very dry, but the city’s Comprehensive Plan should be thought of as the biggest opportunity that the Mayor has to put their administration’s stamp on city housing and built-environment policy. It’s also the main chance that residents have to weigh in on housing and land use policy issues outside of the usual variance proposals for individual buildings or City Council legislation. And it involves the most robust and proactive public outreach on these topics that the city ever does for any planning initiative. 

The next Mayor will also hopefully preside over many federally-funded infrastructure projects for transit and active transportation under the IIJA infrastructure law. A large fraction of this funding is accessible only through competitive grants, requiring local applications to USDOT, and local matching funds. Which projects will the city apply for, and what is needed? These are questions that can be answered in the Comprehensive Plan update, and this is another important area where the next Mayor, Councilmembers, and organized residents can put their stamp on how to stack the various priorities for federal funding.

With a Pennsylvania state-level requirement that counties update their Comprehensive Plans once a decade, this ambitious citywide planning initiative will fall to the next Mayor to carry out. It’s extremely important for the 2023 candidates to recognize this opportunity for what it is, and try to bake some of their policy priorities into the DNA of the Comp Plan process before it gets started in earnest. To overgeneralize a little, the Street and Nutter administrations presiding over the last Comp Plan—Philadelphia 2035—both prioritized a vision of green growth, which still makes a lot of sense as a theme from the standpoint of today.

What is the outcome we want?

One theory for why this idea has gained a little political traction is that there are a lot of different ways for candidates across the political spectrum to approach the “how” question, and emphasize different ideas that appeal to them that could contribute to the goal. 

But one feature any workable plan must have is some type of citywide housing target to accompany the 2 million-person population target. 

The additional 400,000 people are going to need someplace to live, and if new housing isn’t built, by definition some people are going to be displaced. Minimizing involuntary displacement must go hand-in-hand with an agenda for building new housing if the goal is net new population growth in the city.

What's more, the trend of shrinking household sizes compared to several decades ago means that more new housing is needed just to keep our population the same. Even though Philadelphia once housed over 2 million people, the existing housing stock can't accommodate the living standards or expectations of today's residents.

The good news is that Philadelphia isn’t out of room for new housing by any stretch, even in more central neighborhoods, and every neighborhood can do its part to meet the goal. 

Over the last few years, a dead-end conception of fairness on the issue of new housing has crept into City Council and neighborhood politics, which basically says that if one neighborhood is allowed to opt-out of new housing, then any neighborhood should be allowed to opt-out. The alternative moral logic that should replace the dead-end status quo holds that fairness means every neighborhood must support their fair share of housing, and no one should be allowed to evade their responsibility. 

While this sounds a little wonky, it’s actually something candidates and elected officials have started campaigning on publicly in some of our peer cities and states. 

In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams set a goal of reaching 500,000 new housing units within the next decade, and the New York City Council has similarly proposed housing construction targets for every neighborhood.

In Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser adopted a population target of 725,000 residents—55,000 more people than the city is estimated to have—while doubling the downtown population. She’s also proposing a goal of doubling Black residents’ incomes by $25,000.

In Boston, Mayor Michelle Wu recently set a population target for 800,000 Bostonians with a corresponding proposal to overhaul the city’s housing planning and zoning process. 

In Chicago, Mayoral candidate Kam Buckner has been messaging a 3 Million Chicagoans agenda as part of his campaign, as a way to grow jobs and keep taxes affordable. 

In Toronto, Mayor John Tory committed to achieving or exceeding a target of 285,000 new homes over the next en years. 

These are all politicians with very different styles and bases of support, but all of them are out there announcing population targets with a lot of fanfare, which suggests they must all see this as good politics. 

States have been getting in on the action too, with New York and Massachusetts lawmakers recently proposing regional housing growth targets based on California’s housing element process. Pennsylvania case law features several decisions that suggest state-issued housing targets for counties could be a very effective strategy for holding municipal government accountable for abundant and affordable housing outcomes

There are clearly a lot of important details to get right in the implementation of all of the above, which the Philadelphia City Planning Commission is well equipped to handle thoughtfully in the next Comprehensive Plan. But the Mayor needs to have a point of view, too, and not lose sight of this opportunity to assert their priorities over the built environment, which has become increasingly the domain of City Council alone.

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  • Jon Geeting
    published this page in Blog 2023-02-21 15:39:29 -0500