Philly Council President Darrell Clarke doubles down on pledge to cut city poverty rate within 4 years

Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke is expected to lead the council again in 2020 (Photo via The Philadelphia Tribune).

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — As a new City Council prepares to take the oath of office next month, the legislature’s top leader has doubled down on his pledge to slash Philadelphia’s sky-high poverty rate.

Council President Darrell Clarke, a Democrat expected to continue to lead council, recently reiterated his commitment to cut the city’s 24.5 percent poverty rate to 20 percent over the next four years.

Asked whether that ambitious target, which would pull nearly 70,000 residents out of poverty, was achievable, Clarke said: “Watch us.”

A swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 6 will kick off the 17th session of the City Council since the adoption of the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter in 1951.

Democrats will maintain power in the 17-member body after safeguarding their 15-member majority in November’s election.

The new council will have four freshman members, including Working Families Party member Kendra Brooks, the first third-party member elected during the city’s modern legislative structure.

Numerous legislators have already pledged their support for Clarke as the next council president, a post he’s held since 2012.

The council president has immense power over determining what legislation moves or stalls. In the top leadership position, Clarke would appoint all special committees and chairpersons of the council’s 25 standing committees, and determine when — and if — a committee takes up legislation (the first step to becoming a law).

New report, new policies

The incoming City Council will issue a report in the coming weeks detailing new anti-poverty recommendations.

Legislators will seek to add onto the legislative gains aimed at reducing poverty that passed this year, Clarke said.

“A broader, more aggressive program will be announced when we roll out this report,” he said.

The 5th District councilman remained mum about the details of the report and specific policy proposals that he hoped would knock Philadelphia from its perch as the nation’s largest big city with the highest poverty rate.

But Clarke hinted council members would seek to enroll more low-income Philadelphians in existing assistance programs. Low-income residents lose out on more than $400 million annually because they fail to apply for a host of programs, he said.

The anticipated report will be similar to the report City Council released in March detailing anti-poverty programs already in place in cities across the country that could be applied in Philadelphia, and include findings from the council’s Special Committee on Poverty Reduction and Prevention.

Other potential anti-poverty legislative proposals City Council might introduce include those left unmoved this past year:

Mandating that developers who purchase city-owned land set aside a portion for affordable housing units, known as inclusionary zoning.

Offering tax credits for landlords who rent to low-income tenants.

Prohibiting landlords from inquiring about the criminal history of rental housing applicants in most cases, known as “fair chance housing.”

The city council president said the city’s “tale of two cities” moniker was real.

While many Philadelphians have benefited from a growing economy and booming real estate market, many languish in poverty and the city’s middle class continues to erode.

“Everybody wants to solve this problem,” Clarke said. “The stars are aligned where everybody is engaged and I think we should jump on this opportunity to get people moving on actionable recommendations by this special committee.”

Philadelphia has struggled with a high poverty rate for decades.

The city’s poverty rate had hovered around 26 percent for years, but it has ticked down to 24.5 percent, according to the latest estimates from the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey for 2018.

African Americans saw a noticeable drop in their poverty rate, going from 30.8 percent in 2016 to 29.4 percent in 2018, according to the most accurate census estimates.

Blacks had the third highest poverty rate in the city in 2018, behind Hispanics/Latinos at 37.8 percent and those labeled as “Some other race alone” at 42.4 percent, according to census estimates.

Asked whether African Americans were better off than four years ago when the outgoing council members were sworn in, Clarke said City Council had increased program funding available for low-income residents, but noted government officials cannot carve out mandates for certain racial groups.

“I don’t approach it from a racial perspective,” he said. “But you have to be creative in funding programs that establish opportunities for people who are in the lower end of the income range.”

Legislative victories

The Democrat-controlled City Council passed a raft of legislation targeting low- and moderate-income residents during the past four years.

This outgoing council adopted the first substantial reforms to the 10-year tax abatement program on new construction in nearly two decades. In December, the legislature approved Clarke’s bill to reduce the tax break for new residential construction developments, effectively cutting the subsidy in half.

Among this council’s other high-profile votes was the adoption of Mayor Jim Kenney’s 1.5-cent-per-ounce sweetened beverage tax in 2016, which provides revenue for pre-kindergarten, Community Schools, and a program to rehabilitate recreation centers, libraries and parks.

Other notable legislation adopted by this council included:

  • Effectively banning the sale of electronic cigarettes in most city businesses.

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for The Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.