Residency Requirement Lifted, But Philadelphia Police Officers Stay Put

They predicted a stampede. So far, it’s been more like tiptoeing.

For decades, Philadelphia police officers begged to live anywhere but in the city they protect. They finally won the right to become suburbanites, but so far seem to be staying put. This year, of 6,500 officers, only 36 registered new addresses in places like Warminster, Huntingdon Valley, East Norriton, Ambler, Hatboro, and Havertown.

John McNesby had his staff at the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) run the numbers twice after I asked, he was that perplexed.

“I’m as surprised as you,” the FOP chief said. “All the work we put in, I would have thought there would be at least a couple hundred.”

Cops nagged and complained about feeling captive in an urban jungle. But since they have yet to abandon familiar zip codes, McNesby wonders if his members realized the grass is green enough where they already mow it.

“Maybe,” he said, “things aren’t as bad [in Philadelphia] as people make them out to be.”

Don’t even think about leaving

Requiring city employees to sleep where they work has been debated since it was mandated in the 1950s. Then, and now, Philadelphia suffered from rules aimed at keeping the middle class from bolting for the burbs — because surely everyone would if they could, right?

All 25,000 municipal employees must live in the city. Ditto for roughly 2,000 firefighters.

Residency represents 17 percent of the complaints received at the Office of Inspector General. Since 2008, 39 of the 103 city workers the IG investigated lost their jobs for fibbing about where they lived.

Philadelphia teachers won the right to move anywhere they desire — Greetings from Delaware! — in a 2001 state law signed by Gov. Tom Ridge. In 2004, the School Reform Commission granted the same privilege to 6,000 custodians, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers.

Today, two-thirds of the 15,000-member Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (and the same percentage of PFT retirees) still live in the city. More than half the district’s educators have less than five years on the job, union spokeswoman Barbara Goodman explained, and they seem to be in no rush to escape.

“I live in the suburbs,” Goodman confided, “and I hate it.”

Politicians feared a mass exodus of men and women if they were allowed to reside anywhere in the commonwealth. City Controller Alan Butkovitz predicted “an immediate downward effect” on real estate prices. Then-City Councilman Frank Rizzo theorized that upwardly mobile officers who previously had migrated from Germantown and to Somerton would “skip that move and go to the suburbs.”

So about that non-tragedy…

In July 2010, 2,000 retirement-eligible veteran officers could have fled. According to the FOP data, only 164 did. Combined with the 36 recent departures — mostly younger officers, whom I’d love to talk to about where they moved and why — the 200 expats represent just 3 percent of the entire police force.

Garden State or bust

The FOP itself will soon relocate, from space at Broad and Spring Garden Streets to new headquarters in the Northeast, where nearly 70 percent of its members live.

If anyone would know whether cops were selling, Chris Artur would. The second-generation Realtor in Mayfair said he’s seen no sign of any rise in inventory anywhere in the Northeast, even with interest rates at a record low 3.5 percent. Mortgages remain tough to come by, and sellers must factor in higher home prices, longer commutes, and the need for a second car.

Fleeing Philly “may have sounded great when they couldn’t do it,” Artur said. “But now that they can, it doesn’t make sense.”

Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said he does not have a read on whether officers will skip town en masse over the summer, a traditional time for families with school-age children to move.

“The cost of living in Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia,” he reminded, “is for the most part higher than inside the city.”

McNesby remains content in town but must heed his members’ wishes. Residency won’t be fully resolved until police officers get to live as I do, enduring late-night jokes and paying some of the nation’s highest property taxes.

As McNesby declared: “We’re going for Jersey next.”

From The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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