Philadelphia set a new housing construction record in 2019, according to newly-released Building Permits Survey data from the Census. Due to a late surge in December, the city reported a 2019 total of 4,566 housing units for the year, breaking the previous post-Recession record of 3,973 in 2014.
It's the first time in the modern era that the number of homes built topped 4,000 in a single year, at least as far back as 1990, according to the Lindy Institute.
Also notable is that the late surge in housing came from 1,012 homes in 5+ unit buildings, which made up 87% of the December numbers. The last monthly record for housing created in 5+ unit buildings was back in 2004, with 857 homes.
Multi-family structures were responsible for 80% of all housing constructed in 2019, and 5+ unit buildings made up about 61% of the total. Homes in 5+ unit structures also made up 76% of all multi-family housing, compared to 8% in 2-unit structures and 15% in 3-4-unit structures.
Despite the appearance of a lot of rowhouse and townhouse construction in greater Center City, South Philly, and the Riverwards neighborhoods, only around 894 single-family structures were constructed in 2019—about 20% of the total.
It's an important reminder that while single-family housing enjoys a privileged status in local politics, to the point of obsession with some City Council members, medium-to-large multi-family buildings have been the real workhorses of the post-recession housing market, and especially just over the last few years.
Without larger multi-family buildings carrying almost all of the weight in fulfilling the demand for housing here, our production numbers would be much more anemic. Despite the record year, Philadelphia still has some of the lowest per-capita apartment construction rates in the nation. So while we set a nice record in 2019 compared to our own past performance, we're still at the end of the pack compared to some other big cities like Seattle.
This matters because while some city officials are fond of saying that single-family zoning isn't Philadelphia's biggest affordability challenge the way it is in some other high-cost metros, which is true, but also misleading. Very low incomes, deferred maintenance, and disinvestment are still the biggest housing problems most residents are facing.
But it is also still the case that City Council has failed to budget enough land in high-opportunity neighborhoods for the 5+ unit building types that have been supplying almost all the new housing in recent years, and the specific affordability issues we're seeing in the more central gentrifying neighborhoods are a downstream effect of this failure.
Large apartment buildings are getting built in places like South Kensington and Brewerytown where neighborhood groups are politically weaker and less equipped to resist dense housing construction. But the answer isn't to give everybody more tools to oppose housing; it's to make it easier to build more 5+ unit buildings right in the high-opportunity fully-gentrified places where people most want to live, rather than push everything to the next neighborhood over, contributing to unnecessary displacement and dislocation.
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