Why is Density a Four Letter Word?

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If you’re going to own a car in the city, go all out.

“Density.” Anyone who has ever attended a zoning community meeting or hearing before the Zoning Board of Adjustment has heard this word. The project is “too dense” or it’s “an over-utilization of the property.”

In English, this means someone feels a developer is trying to put too many units into too small a space. Typically, neighbors tend to disfavor residential multi-units because more residents means less parking. Many residents also assume that families want to live in traditional style row homes, while only college kids, renters, and “Section 8” want to live in smaller units. Frankly, I’ve seen a lot of stereotyping and prejudices expressed at zoning meetings, and often unfairly.

Economically, townhomes are more expensive to build, more expensive to sell, and generate less of a return for the developer. An average rowhome in Fishtown could sell for about $350k – $500k. That price is beyond the means of many people.

In contrast, residential-multi-units produce more of a return for the developer, and the individual units can be sold at a much lower cost than an entire townhome. A first time homebuyer can purchase a small unit for around $190k, or rent it for under $1000 a month. This is much more within the grasp of Philadelphians, whose average household income is between $37,192 and $52,548 a year.

Nevertheless, we’ve continued to push townhomes on developers and disfavored multi-units. While it might arguably mitigate parking woes, disfavoring multi-units also drives up the cost of living for renters and first time homebuyers.

Is that a good thing?

In reality, Philadelphia is far from a dense city. According to PhillyMag, “it would take another 3,269 years for the whole of Philadelphia to achieve Manhattan-scale density. Right now, Philly’s density stands at just over 11,000 people per square mile. To reach 70,000, the population would have to grow six-fold, up to 9.4 million people.” Philadelphia is also home to more than 40,000 abandoned properties.

Maybe instead of strictly regulating developers through the Zoning Code into building single family units, what we should be doing is focusing on improving public transportation so that Philadelphians don’t need cars. We should also be focusing on improving our bike lanes, so that riding a bike everywhere can be a safe, and viable form of alternative transportation.

We do have an affordable housing problem in Philadelphia. We do have a public transportation problem in Philadelphia.

But we don’t have a density problem.

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