We interrupt Permit Philly’s zoning guide for an important message.
In this blog we’ve been slowly progressing through the Philadelphia Zoning Code’s classification of properties (if you’d like to see the series, click here). But today we’re not going to do that: today, we’re going to talk about rezoning property in Philadelphia. Specifically, we’re going to answer the question seemingly everyone has about multifamily buildings in Philadelphia:
Can I re-zone my single-family building as a multi-family building?
Nope! Next question.
Okay; it’s a little more complicated than that. Let’s take this step by step:
Rezoning Property in Philadelphia: A Job for City Council.
First, keep in mind that no group except City Council can rezone property in Philadelphia. You, the property owner, can’t just walk up to the Municipal Services Building and say, “I know you all zoned my property as a single-family home, but I’d like to use it as a skyscraper; so, pretty please, can it be CMX-5?”
Only a Council member can ask that; and even then, it’s a headache and can be frowned upon: the process of picking out one parcel to zone differently than the surrounding parcels is called “spot zoning.” If you are not a member of City Council representing a specific district (no at-large Council members here), then you can’t move to spot zone a property. Even if you were a Council member, you’d still need your proposed law to pass. And even then, you couldn’t spot zone your own house to make it more valuable, because that would be some aggressive, billboard-sign corruption.
Okay; forget rezoning property in Philadelphia: Can I build a condo on my house?
All right: We now know that you, personally, can’t rezone anything. But that’s not what people really want to know. What people really want to know, terminology aside, is:
Can I put some condos in my RSA building?
And that depends on the Zoning Board of Adjustment. The ZBA, and the ZBA alone, decides whether or not you can put some condos on a single-family parcel.
The Zoning Board of Adjustment Enters Stage Left
There is no application for rezoning property in Philadelphia. You the property owner can only ask to use the parcel differently; even then, there’s no direct application for that.
So how do you request a change in the use of a property?
First, you file a use application (it’s the same application form you use to apply for a zoning permit – if you’re not sure of the difference, check out our explainer right here). Because you are asking to use your property in a way that is illegal, the City will reject this application. But you already know that, because you are sharp and savvy and ahead of the damn game of kinda-but-technically-not rezoning property in Philadelphia! You are waiting for the City’s rejection so that you can file an appeal. And after you file the appeal, you will meet with (1) the neighborhood group assigned to your area, and (2) the Zoning Board itself.
(If you’d like to see more about the entire variance process, we’ve put together a handy explainer right here.)
Are the neighbors cool?
Rezoning property in Philadelphia – sorry; changing the use of property in Philadelphia – is not super popular with most neighborhood groups. Most Philly neighborhood groups don’t mind if you want to open a restaurant on a corner lot zoned for single-family buildings, or start a tattoo shop where there used to be a takeout joint.
But most community organizations tend to think that by changing the use of the property to allow for more housing units on a lot, you are opening the Hellmouth so that demons may take you all to the dark netherworld.
I’m (sort of) kidding. But the communities do tend to think that these kinds of projects are making the neighborhood too crowded; which in the view of community organizations is basically the same as rooting for the Cowboys. If you try to build condos or rental units on a single-family property, be prepared to get some serious heat: people will think you are destroying the neighborhood, and it’s your job to make a compelling case to the neighbors why you are not ruining everything they hold dear. (Helpful hint: have a good plan to account for street parking and trash pickup; also, if someone yells at you do not yell back – neighbors get heated because you’re talking about their home; it’s not personal.)
Whether or not you get the support of your neighborhood group, though, it’s time to move on to the Zoning Board itself.
Is the Zoning Board of Adjustment down with rezoning property in Philly?
The ZBA grants most of the appeals before it; however, they can be real sticklers about changes from single-family use to multifamily use. This is for two reasons:
(1) neighborhood groups usually hate it (see previous), and
(2) the ZBA members personally do not like it.
Oh, they don’t think you are calling on dark magic to annihilate the quaint character of the neighborhood. But they do think it makes their neighborhoods more crowded, and that it’s harder to park when there’s multifamily construction around. (I just truly can’t stress how important parking is at ZBA.)
So here’s what you do: don’t try to create multi-family units on single-family lots anywhere near where the ZBA members actually live.
That’s it. If you try this stuff near Center City (including Francisville); in most of South Philly; anywhere near Temple; or in already-crowded, first-wave gentrification centers like Northern Liberties or Fishtown; then the ZBA will probably kill your project. Not in their backyard!
If, however, your neighbors really like you and you’re building in North Philly, you have a good chance at a use variance. Even if the neighbors hate you, if you’re building in an area that is wildly underdeveloped and surrounded by empty lots – like, not naming names, but rhymes with “brewery down” – you have a pretty good shot at a ZBA approval.
Be careful when you buy a single-family lot if you really want a multi-family lot
When people casually talk about rezoning property in Philadelphia, they’re talking about changing the use of a property. And changing the use of a property to add more units is difficult, even though most zoning appeals pass the ZBA. So do your homework before you buy a property or talk about “rezoning” it: If you want an absolute guarantee that you’ll be able to build condos, buy a lot zoned for multifamily use. If you want a very good chance at changing the use to allow condos, buy in sparsely-populated areas of the city – and maybe don’t buy RSA: look at CMX-2 and 2.5 properties; or, if you can get some cash together, ICMX properties.
And if you’re still not sure, just get in touch with Permit Philly.