Renters now make up about 48% of Philadelphia households, according to a new study from Zillow—a break from the city's traditionally higher-than-average homeownership rate that brings us closer in line with other big cities.
As of 2000, about 59% of dwellings were owner-occupied, but that fell to around 52% in 2012. The new Zillow study says the homeowner share was still at 52% as of 2016, suggesting the renter share has stabilized since 2012.
The culture around homeownership and renting has been changing as young adults are increasingly saddled with too much student loan debt to afford a downpayment on a home. But the response from local government has adjusted essentially not at all.
Other than a modest increase in funding for public defense in civil cases to help slow evictions, City elected officials have done virtually nothing to make life easier for people who rent housing.
By contrast, when the Nutter administration rolled out the Actual Value Initiative for property assessments, which led to large increases in assessments in gentrifying neighborhoods, City Council threw everything at the wall to help homeowners and basically succeeded in staving off property tax-based displacement. That same flurry of legislation contained nothing to help renters, even though they were nearly half the city's population by that point as well.
Even when Council does do things to help renters, it's oriented around helping them become homeowners—as opposed to simply helping long-term renters pay the bills on an ongoing basis. And in many instances, Councilmembers have been actively making things worse. In spite of the growing renter population, the share of land in Philadelphia zoned for multifamily housing is still stuck at around just 15% of the city, and District Council members have been trying to shrink that even further by erasing big swathes apartment zoning from growing neighborhoods.
Part of the problem stems from an asymmetry of political power between renters and homeowners, as the latter have the natural advantage of deeper local social networks that come with longer tenancy in a place. And Philadelphia also has a land use politics, enabled by the unwritten Councilmanic Prerogative tradition, that essentially extends homeowners' individual property rights over the whole neighborhood's land use laws.
One reason this political dynamic is so durable is that homeowners register and turn out to vote at higher rates than renters. Renters tend to move around more than homeowners, so even if people do re-register at a new rental address, they may soon move again and neglect to update their voter information.
The two-year-old Pennsylvania online voter registration website has made it significantly easier for people to update their registration info hassle-free, though some people are always going to need more reminders.
That's what makes this new policy in St. Paul, Minnesota so interesting. Going forward, St. Paul landlords will be required to present tenants with voter registration forms at the time of lease signing or occupancy.
By a vote of 5-1, the St. Paul City Council on Wednesday approved a new ordinance requiring landlords to supply voter registration information to new tenants at the time of lease signing or occupancy. Failure to do so is considered a petty misdemeanor.
“This is something that is a relatively modest request,” said St. Paul City Council President Amy Brendmoen, who said she sponsored the ordinance in light of the growing number of renters across the city. About 27 percent of the city’s voting-age population participated in the mayoral election last November, and that was considered surprisingly high turnout for St. Paul.
Now, as any field organizer will tell you, voter registration forms that are left with voters are always at a high risk of getting marooned on someone's kitchen table. But it still seems pretty likely that a reminder at the time of lease signing would result in more people successfully re-registering at their new addresses, and potentially a higher turnout rate among renters. The minimal burden of supplying a voter registration form (available at any post office) along with the other leasing paperwork makes it worth trying, at least.
For landlords who wanted to go the extra mile to get their tenants oriented to the local civic landscape—especially landlords in larger buildings, who might be distributing a welcome packet regardless—they could also include a one-page summary with a link to the online voter registration website, the polling place location for voters in the building, the names and contact information for state and local elected officials, the local civic association, and any other relevant resources.
This strategy of incorporating voter registration into points of contact with different activities and services could also be replicated in other areas of life, and most effectively by City government. A prompt to register to vote, or update your voting information, is already baked into the experience of renewing a driver's license at PennDOT Driver's License Centers, and a similar voter registration prompt could be incorporated into the customer experience at other points of contact with local government as well.
Whenever anyone goes to pay a bill, submit a permit application, or apply for any kind of City service, they should be presented with an opportunity to update their voter registration, or at the very least, be given a voter registration form. This is less precisely targeted to renters than the policy in St. Paul, but it couldn't hurt either way.
Some may object to this policy on the grounds that this isn't the primary job of the various parts of the bureaucracy that would be charged with carrying it out. But there are indirect benefits for everyone when Philly grows its voter rolls and voter participation. Social service agencies that receive state and federal funding, in particular, have an interest in more Philadelphians participating in state and federal elections, as more voting power for the city could translate into more resources for those service providers down the road.
The bottom line is that Philadelphia needs more voting power to get its business done in Harrisburg and Washington, and the City should be taking active steps to incorporate a voter registration ask into all kinds of common exchanges and points of service. They have the most control over the processes that the City directly administers, but the horizons for this needn't be limited to public agencies. They can and should extend into lots of private transactions as well, and lease signings are an excellent place to start.
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