Philly’s ZBA chairman is denying variances for multi-family housing because of trash

Litter is really bad in North Philly. Is zoning the problem?

A North Philly street, full of trash

A North Philly street, full of trash

Paige Gross / Billy Penn

“Filthadelphia” has been a well-publicized problem for years, but in some areas it’s worse than others. In neighborhoods like Sharswood, Brewerytown and North Central, garbage seems to pile up outside rowhomes and in vacant lots well before trash day. Many North Philly blocks notch a 2.5 out of 4 on the city’s Litter Index, not a great score.

What makes the difference in how dirty some Philly streets get versus others? Per Zoning Board Chairman Frank DiCicco, prime among a plethora of factors is irresponsible zoning.

DiCicco, a former city councilperson, believes the rapid proliferation of multi-family homes is one of the primary reasons litter has gotten so bad in some parts of the city. As ZBA chairman, he’s acting on that belief — using it as a guiding principal when deciding whether to approve or deny variances for certain development projects.

“We have a dirty city,” DiCicco told Billy Penn in an interview, “and one of the reasons is there’s no place to put trash.”

Zoning comes into play when developers try to flip single-family homes into multi-family dwellings, which can be more profitable. Oftentimes, before that can happen, a variance is required to change how the land is zoned. But good luck snagging one of those multi-family zoning variances in the near future.

“I tend to want to deny those conversions unless they can prove there’s ample place for trash to be stored,” DiCicco said.

Trash piling up in the Sharswood neighborhood of North Philly

Trash piling up in the Sharswood neighborhood of North Philly

Paige Gross / Billy Penn

DiCicco explains his position thusly: Multi-family rowhomes often house up to 20 people, but have limited trash storage options. So during the week, as garbage piles up in advance of pickup day, they’re forced to either:

  • Utilize a small box under their front stoop, which could work for one family but won’t have enough room for trash from dozens of residents
  • Keep the garbage in their homes, which DiCicco said could become a “health issue”
  • Throw the trash outside early

That last is probably the most common option, which can result in copy-cat litter and trash pile-up throughout the neighborhood. Therein lies the problem, DiCicco said.

“It becomes a public nuisance,” he said. “It’s a quality-of-life issue.”

DiCicco believes the multi-family housing problem has gotten particularly bad in a couple different areas of the city: North Central Philly surrounding Temple, and around Seventh and Snyder in South Philly.

There’s no all-out ban on multi-family variances, DiCicco insists, maintaining that he’s not against development. But he wants to impress upon developers seeking these variances that they need to have a plan for trash disposal. Ideally, he said, the property should have an accessible backyard where trash could be placed throughout the week.

“The individuals who play with the real estate market, I don’t fault them for trying to maximize their revenue,” he said. “But there’s a burden then on the community. The residents there have to put up with all this nonsense.”

“There’s a need for housing in Philly,” DiCicco added. “But it has to be done, in my opinion, in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the neighborhood.”


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