Zoning Laws are municipal laws that dictate how properties can and cannot be used. Parks, businesses, and homes are all restricted under zoning laws. The majority of the properties in our neighborhood are zoned for single family residential use. There are also properties that are zoned for multi family residential use, mixed use (commercial and residential), and commercial use. Few, if any, are zoned for legal use as a boarding house or rooming house.
Zoning has a direct impact on our population density and, by extension, pressures on parking, our parks, traffic, and public safety. Changes in zoning that allow for more residents increase the number of cars on our streets, there are more people using our parks which leads to more necessary maintenance, increases in the number of people driving on our roads, and negative impacts on public safety.
Style of Building and Zoning
Duplexes and triplexes are designed for multi family use. However, it’s important to note that style does not dictate zoning. A duplex home may have two kitchens and two separate entrances, but it may be zoned for single family use. This can be the case because the home was illegally converted or because a variance has lapsed.
Variances are needed to change the zoning of a property from one use to another. For example, to change a single family home to a multi family home. In order to obtain this usage variance, the owner would apply for the variance at the Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA). The Zoning Board of Adjustment makes the decision on whether or not to grant the variance. Prior to hearing a case, the Zoning Board of Adjustment requires the applicant to seek community support by meeting with the Registered Community Organization (RCO).
WICA’s Role in Zoning
The Zoning Board of Adjustment requires that applicants for zoning variances get support from the Registered Community Organization (RCO) for the neighborhood before granting a variance. WICA’s role is to hear the details of the zoning application within our civic association boundaries and to vote on our position. The vote would typically be for support of the variance, opposition to the variance, or to take no position on the variance. After the vote is counted, WICA will send a letter to the Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment stating our position.
WICA does not make final decisions on applications and WICA cannot change zoning.
Common Zoning Issues
Single Family Home to Multi Family Home
A common request in our neighborhood is for a variance to change a home zoned for single family use into a multi family home. This change would allow the owner to rent to twice as many tenants. Many investors seek this so they can increase their profits. They can simply make more money with 6-9 tenants than they can with 3. The increase has a cost, and that cost is first noticed in the parking on our streets. Assuming that nearly every occupant has a car, supporting this variance change will lead to losing 6 parking spaces. This is why the ZBA requires community input.
Rooming houses are defined by zoning laws as having one kitchen and allowing occupancy by more than 3 unrelated adults. In our neighborhood, we see many homes that are operated as rooming houses even though they are zoned for single family use. Even a home with 3 people on the lease is considered a rooming house if a guest spends more than 30 nights per year at the house.