Blight: Can be a general term to describe abandoned houses, vacant lots, litter, and other things that detract from the beauty and quality of life of a given area. At the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, blight is a technical term that is only given to an area if certain criteria are met. This process is called “blight certification.” An area that is blight certified is eligible for redevelopment, and a redevelopment plan is created.
Block Captain: An individual elected by their block to help keep their block clean by organizing clean-ups during citywide clean-up events, organizing block for monthly Saturday clean-ups, and conducting other activities on their block. To find out if your block has a block captain, call the Streets Department’s Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee (PMBC): 215-685-3981.
Block Captains receive the following support from the PMBC and their Clean Block Officer: info on sanitation rules and regulations; clean-up materials such as trash bags, street brooms, etc.; organizational assistance; presentations at block meetings to discuss community or block projects; the Saturday Cleanup Schedule, including special trash collection by the Streets Department; and Clean Block Awards and prize information. More info here.
Civic Association: An organization whose official goal is to improve a neighborhood through volunteer work by its members.
Clean Block Officer: Philadelphia Police Department officer who help Block Captains get clean-up supplies and answer questions about clean-ups. More info and list of Clean Block Officers for each Police District here.
Community Benefits Agreement (CBA): Community development activities improve neighborhoods by identifying and addressing local needs. Such activities may support infrastructure, job and business creation, greenspace, community centers, housing repair or development, first-time homeownership, services and more.
Community Development Corporation (CDC): A non-profit organization serving a specific neighborhood or neighborhoods. CDCs support improvements that benefit neighborhood residents, often focusing on serving lower-income areas. CDC can be involved in many areas including job and business creation, education, affordable housing development, neighborhood planning projects, providing services directly to residents, and more. Many CDCs have Boards of Directors comprised partly or completely of local residents. There is currently no legal requirements for an organization to be a Community Development Corporation.
Comprehensive Plan: A plan developed by a city that provides recommendations to help manage future development and change, while preserving existing character and assets. A comprehensive plan does not call for any specific action or laws. Instead, it assesses the current conditions and provides a vision that can help dictate public policy in terms of transportation, utilities and services, land use, parks and open space, historic preservation, job and business growth, and housing. Philadelphia2035 (Phila2035) is Philadelphia’s comprehensive plan, also known as a “citywide vision.”
Councilperson (or Councilman or Councilwoman): A member of City Council, the elected body in Philadelphia that has the power to make laws. There are ten members elected by geographic district and seven at-large members elected by the entire City. Find your district councilperson here.
Design Guidelines: Suggestions for how to design facades, buildings, public space, etc. to meet certain standards. These standards could be having visual consistency with the surrounding area, preserving certain qualities, using certain materials, keeping to a certain size, or other standards. They can be developed by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, CDCs, RCO/civic association, or other orgnaizations. Design guidelines are purely suggestions that present a vision for a given street or neighborhood, and are not binding in any way.
Developer: A person or organization makes improvements to a parcel of land. An improvement could mean a new building or changes to an existing structure, or landscape improvements. A developer could be a homeowner, a nonprofit organization or a private development company.
Development: The process of constructing of a new building, rehabilitating of an existing building, or improving land, to be sold, rented, or occupied by the developer.
Economic Development: Programs and policies that attempt to improve the economic well-being and quality of life for a community by creating jobs, increasing the number of businesses, and growing residents’ incomes.
Floodplain: An area of low-lying land next to a body of water (river, creek, etc.) that is prone to flooding. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) creates maps showing which areas of land are considered to be in a floodplain. More info here.
Human Services: Meeting human needs through sharing information, focusing on prevention as well as remediation of problems, and maintaining a commitment to improving the overall quality of life of a given population.
Land Use: How a parcel of land is used. Different kinds of land use include: residential, commercial, industrial, transportation, recreational, parks, and schools. Zoning is what determines which land uses are permitted on each parcel in the city.
Lien: A property lien is a legal claim on a property that grants the issuer of the lien a specified amount of money when the owner sells the property, for debts owed by the property owner. Liens can be placed on properties for unpaid property taxes, unpaid federal income taxes, unpaid child support, unpaid contractors who did work on the property, or unpaid fines from Licenses & Inspection. Such liens ensure the payment of a debt, with the property acting as collateral against the amount owed. More info here.
Master Plan: Some cities use “master plan” and “comprehensive plan” interchangeably. In Philadelphia, they mean different things. A Master Plan is a long-range plan for a specific area, facility, institution or amenity, such as the Philadelphia Trail Master Plan, which coordinates the construction of future bike and pedestrian trails across the entire city, or the Drexel University Campus Master Plan, which envisions and guides the growth of Drexel’s campus as well as transformations to their existing facilities.
Mission Statement: A written declaration of an organization’s core purpose and focus that normally remains unchanged over time. Properly crafted mission statements (1) serve as filters to separate what is important from what is not, (2) clearly state which markets (for for-profit entitites) or who/what (for non-profit entities) will be served and how, and (3) communicate a sense of intended direction to the entire organization. A mission is different from a vision. A vision is the result of an executed mission; it is the desired end result. Both for-profit and non-profit organizations have mission statements.
Neighborhood Advisory Committee (NAC): An organization that has a contract with the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Housing and Community Development to improve employment opportunities, educational opportunities, safety, youth opportunities, do outreach for the City’s Foreclosure Prevention program; and generally share resources (especially those related to housing and utilities) with residents within an assigned geographic area. Organization’s with a NAC contract are also required to have a volunteer advisory committee elected by and comprised of local residents. The committee is typically known at the Neighborhood Advisory Subcommittee (NAS).
Neighborhood Plan: A plan for improving and preserving a specific neighborhood. Neighborhood plans are developed through the participation of residents, civic organizations, community development corporations, andbusiness and property owners—usually with the help of planning professionals.
A neighborhood plan can help communities address issues such as housing types and density, allowed zoning uses, design and development standards and transportation needs like better sidewalks and bike lanes. Planning can also help communities address social issues such as crime and safety. Once the plan is complete, carrying out the suggestions in the plan is the next step.
Non-Profit: An organization that does not function primarily to generate a profit, and rather uses its revenue to further achieve its purpose or mission. An organization does not have to be tax-exempt, aka a 501(c)(3), to be a non-profit. “Non-profit” is a type of corporation, while 501(c)(3) is a tax-exempt status that non-profits that do qualifying work can apply for.
Registered Community Organization (RCO): Organizations or civic associations that host public meetings regarding local properties requesting zoning variances, so neighbors can provide input and vote in favor or against the request variance. A representative for the property owner presents their proposed development prior to the community input and vote. The RCO then relays the community’s comments and voting results to the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA). RCOs much register with the Philadelphia City Planning Commission (PCPC) and follow certain requirements. When a variance is requested for a property, PCPC notifies all RCOs for whom the property falls in their boundaries. More info here.
State Representative (State Rep): An elected official who serves a specific geographic area and represents that area in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, one of the bodies that has the power to make laws in Pennsylvania. Find your state representative here.
Tangled Title: When the person who owns a property does not have their name on the deed. Some of the ways this can happen are: when a home is inherited from a relative but that relative passes away without changing the deed, when an owner is in a rent-to-own agreement and has paid all or some of the purchase price for the house but their name is not on the deed, or when an owner bought a property directly from the former owner using cash and the deed was never changed.
Tangled titles are a concern because another person can try to claim to own the property. Property owners who don’t have their name on the title will most likely be unable to do the following: take out mortgages or loans for the property, negotiate with utility companies about overdue bills, gett City grants to repair their homes, obtain homeowners insurance for the property, sell their home, give their property to a family member or friend. More info here.
Town Watch: A group of volunteer neighborhood residents who are trained to recognize crime or potential crime and alert police. Some Town Watches actively patrol the neighborhood, while others just have members report incidents or potential incidents as they encounter them. More info here.
Urban Renewal: Urban renewal was a component of the 1949 U.S. Housing Act. Its main focus was to encourage private investment in city centers in two unfortunate and ultimately ineffective ways: by clearing away neighboring “slums” and by building highways through cities.
The Housing Act provided funding to cties to use eminent domain to purchase and assemble large tracts of land and sell them to developers at very low prices. The federal government also funded highways built directly through cities. Between 1956 and 1972, urban renewal and urban highway construction across the United States displaced an estimated 3.8 million people from their homes. The urban renewal approach to urban redevelopment faded in popularity by the mid-1960s.
Variance (Zoning Variance): Permission to build something with dimensions or a use that do not conform to the existing zoning requirements for that parcel. The property owner must meet with the local Registered Community Organization(s) (RCOs) and attend a public hearing with the Zoning Board of Adjustment. A variance may be granted when the specific condition on the parcel of land would cause the property owner difficulty and “hardship” to follow the existing zoning. A variance may be granted, for example, to reduce yard size or setback (from the street), increase height, or have a commercial use in a parcel that is zoned residential.
Zoning: A set of laws that restrict and define the type of land uses (e.g. commercial, residential, industrial, etc.) and development that can occur on each parcel of land in Philadelphia. Zoning also determines the height and bulk of buildings, population density, parking requirements, the placement of signs, character of development, and what properties can be used for.
Zoning typically divides an area into districts that group compatible uses together and exclude incompatible uses, for example, separating industrial areas and residential areas. These districts are known as the “base zoning” or “base district” for each parcel and area.
Zoning Code: The document that defines the different zoning designations for parcels in Philadelphia, contains all regulations for each designation, and describes procedures for compliance.
Zoning Committee: A committee within an RCO’s board that facilitates neighborhood zoning meetings and coordinates between the developer and the membership of the RCO. Typically, if an RCO has a zoning committee, that committee will write the RCO’s letters to the Zoning Board of Adjustment reporting on the RCO’s vote and feedback on a development seeking a variance.