Nat Lownes

Hidden City Philadelphia Interview about Abatements Twitter Bot, Unedited

This is the unedited version of my interview with Hidden City Philadelphia about the @phl_abatements bot. Aside from some links and a few necessary edits it differs very little from the version that ran.

What do you do for a living and in your pastime?

I work as a software engineer. I’ve worked in construction, I have an interest in housing policy and architecture, and a love of row houses. All that contributed to my interest in answering questions like “‘sup with all these garage fronted rowhouses? ‘sup with all this particle board?“. And I was a candidate for Democratic State Committee back in May.

How did you come up with the idea to create the bot, and when was it “born”?

The bot is a byproduct of independent research I’ve been doing on the new construction tax abatement. As part of that research I wanted to visually spot check my work, so I grabbed Google Street View images for all the properties I thought were tax abated. With those pieces it was quick to put together something like an @everylotphilly for the tax abatement. It started tweeting this past weekend and it will distribute tweets evenly right up to when the polls close at 8pm on Election Day, November 5th 2019. Ideally by then we’ll have elected a mayor and a city council willing to end the tax abatement.

Can you share any of the logistics of how it is calculating these numbers? Also, how did you figure out how to do it?

Absolutely. As you know, the new construction tax abatement exempts the assessment of the improved portion of the property. Querying the OPA data for properties that match these parameters seems to yield new construction tax abated properties. The “lost” amount is the improvement assessment of these properties at the current property tax rate of 1.4%. It’s a simplistic calculation, but I feel it accurately reflects the real amount that would’ve been collected.

It should be said that civic tech and research projects like this are made easier because of the Nutter administration’s early commitment to “open data”, the work that Tim Wisniewski and his crew did to make it happen, and Open Data Philly hosting it.

Is the abatement something you’ve taken issue with for a while? Why?

Yes. I’ve always assumed that it was benefiting mostly well off homeowners in a few neighborhoods, but only after Mayor Kenney’s budget address in March of 2018 did I get more serious about researching those assumptions. I heard he was going to propose raising the property tax rate and I was sure if he was doing that, he’d mention reforming the abatement at the very least. I was excited – I tuned into City Council Live at work and I don’t think he said the word “abatement” once. I couldn’t believe it.

My main issues with the abatement are the uncertainty about its effects, the clustering and type of development, and that the city and school district isn’t as well funded as they should be because of it.

Supporters of the abatement may point to a developed lot, claiming that a developed, tax producing parcel might not exist if not for the abatement. This uncertainty is my problem with the abatement and similar programs. When policymakers implement “stimulus” programs, they rarely explain or legislate in specific terms how and when the results of these policies will benefit all of us. It’s usually in abstract terms of “growth” (how?) or “jobs” (for who?), over some undetermined amount of time, with these same abstract benefits threatened when citizens begin to question the effectiveness or true beneficiaries of the policy. Then when we do try to quantify the effects, the reports cited are compiled by building industry associations or commercial real estate investment firms, which should be evaluated carefully within that context, not blindly quoted as truth. The City Controller’s office released what I thought was a very cautious, impartial assessment of hypothetical changes to the abatement earlier this year.

From the City Controller's office report, the top 20 neighborhoods for tax
abatements

Tax abated properties are clustered in Graduate Hospital, Rittenhouse Square, Northern Liberties, Point Breeze, and Fishtown. Are these areas that need incentives for development? Why are garage fronted rowhouses littering Point Breeze three blocks from a subway stop? Why is the median cost of new construction tax abated properties $400k?

"I've got a thing for garages!":  Tax abated houses with garage parking.  In
the background is Walter Smith Elementary, closed in 2013 and sold for
redevelopment.

The city and the school district need funds and the abatement forfeits money for both. School funding shouldn’t be tied to property values, but that’s what we’re working with right now. The school district is in need of funding in a way that is nothing short of shameful.

I suspect that many people who bought new construction didn’t know about the abatement and it didn’t influence their decision to buy in Philadelphia, which would invalidate the argument for the abatement as a necessary stimulus. They probably chose to live here for the same reason I do: it’s a great city. They didn’t expect an incentive simply for living here and I want to believe the dickhead in Fishtown who does is the outlier.

What impact are you hoping the bot will have?

I hope it will drive people to take action. Or at least to clown on political candidates on twitter through the 2019 election.

It’s powerful to see the numbers associated with properties in this format. It’s also pretty amazing to see how many properties are benefiting from the abatement in one way or another–even fairly nondescript ones. I’m used to associating the big, new luxury towers with it, but the policy impacts so many more properties! Do you have an end goal in mind that you’re gunning for? Modification to the abatement or would you like to see it gone all together?

No doubt the luxury towers are the biggest most offensive beneficiaries, but in the aggregate it adds up. And so much parking, so close to center city and public transit. And it’s wild to see all the new rowhouse architecture. And a few outliers will show up.

I want the abatement ended. If the mayor and city council believe incentives like the tax abatement legitimately work for the public good, they should end all four abatements and come up with an informed plan with clear expectations in its place. Most importantly, they should explain how and when it will benefit all of us.

One last thing: how long have you been in Philly?

I’ve been in Philly over a decade but have lived my entire life within earshot of Vernon Odom.