Who Runs Philly? Part 1

Meet the real estate developers spending big to protect their profits

Who Runs Philly? is an ongoing project from Philly Power Research focused on highlighting the powerful people, organizations, businesses, and interest groups that shape Philadelphia. In the lead-up to the May 2019 primary, we’ll be paying special attention to who’s spending big in local races. This post focuses on the real estate industry. To explore campaign finance data on your own, check out our tool: The Philadelphia Campaign Finance Data Explorer.

Earlier this week, the Alliance for a Just Philadelphia released their People’s Platform of Philadelphia, a wide-ranging vision for a city that is rooted in justice and works for everyone.

Several parts of the People’s Platform are sure to face opposition from the city’s powerful real estate industry, particularly real estate developers and big landlords. They’ve reaped huge profits from displacement, soaring rents, and a land use policy that values high-rise condos over community-controlled spaces. By contrast, the People’s Platform calls for rent control legislation, ending the 10-year tax abatement to ensure developers pay their fair share to public schools and the Affordable Housing Trust fund, and more vacant land for gardens, greenspace, and low-income housing.

Last year, the real estate industry donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates for City Council. In the coming months, we’ll see if elected officials choose to take the side of housing justice or their real estate donors. At least one candidate, Erika Almirón, has already pledged not to take money from real estate developers. Erika is one of thousands of candidates around the country refusing corporate money and drawing attention to the way powerful interests use campaign donations to advance their agendas.

Incumbent Councilors 2014-2018 by Sector Final small.png

Overall, large donations dominate campaign contributions in Philadelphia. We found that, from 2014-2018, donations of more than $250 made up 90% of political contributions to current city councilors.[1]

We found that three sectors--real estate, labor unions, and law firms--dominate campaign contributions. From 2014-2018, over 27% of all contributions to current councilors came from the real estate industry, 24% came from unions, and 10% came from law firms. Big corporations including Comcast, Independence Blue Cross, and PNC also gave significant amounts.[2]

In this first post, we’ll focus on the real estate and building industry.[3]

In 2018, 19% of all contributions to current city councilors and city council candidates[4] came from the real estate industry. In other words, about 1 out of every 5 dollars donated came from individuals, corporations, and PACs with significant ties to the real estate industry. The real estate industry contributed at least $588,000 total to city councilors and city council candidates last year.

That high amount is similar to past years, as can be seen in the chart for 2014-2018. Real estate gave the most (33%) in 2015, the previous election year, which suggests that there may again be a boom in contributions from this sector in the year ahead.

Why does the real estate industry--and real estate developers in particular--give so much money to city council? Because of a practice called councilmanic prerogative, district council members have decision making power over what does and does not get built in their district. Real estate developers use campaign contributions to build relationships with elected officials so their projects will be prioritized.

Last year, about 1 out of 5 donor dollars came from the real estate industry.

Top real estate donors tend to give to many candidates to build relationships across political factions. For example, Joseph Zuritsky of the Parkway Corporation and his family members have contributed to every single current city councilor over the past 5 years.

If you add in contributions from building trades unions and other entities connected with this industry[5] to the real estate total, these groups combined make up nearly half (47.4%) of all contributions to incumbent city councilors from 2014-2018. While the interests of building trades unions sometimes conflict with those of developers, this shows how much the real estate and building industries influence local politics.

Among incumbents running for city council, Allan Domb, Kenyatta Johnson, and Jannie Blackwell were the top recipients of real estate cash as a percentage of all the money they raised last year.

Allan Domb, who is a real estate developer as well as being on city council, got the highest share of contributions from the real estate industry.  In 2018, 43% of Domb’s campaign contributions over $50 came from the real estate industry. 36% of Blackwell’s cash came from the real estate industry. And 33% of Kenyatta Johnson’s campaign cash came from the real estate industry.

Kenyatta Johnson, who represents a rapidly gentrifying district in South Philadelphia, received the highest number of real estate dollars. Last year, he received at least $105,000 from the real estate industry. Allan Domb ($82,000) and Mark Squilla ($71,000) followed Johnson.

Of all current city councilors running for re-election, Helen Gym got the least money from the real estate industry last year--only $4,300, or 3% of her total money raised.


* Mayor (rest of names listed are City Councilors)

* Mayor (rest of names listed are City Councilors)


* Mayoral candidate (rest of names listed are City Councilor candidates)

* Mayoral candidate (rest of names listed are City Councilor candidates)

In 2018, the real estate industry invested in city council challengers Matt Wolfe, Justin DiBerardinis, Eryn Santamoor, and Isaiah Thomas.

Among city council challengers, Democrat Justin DiBerardinis has raised the most money from the real estate industry at $22,250, while Republican Matt Wolfe received the largest share of his contributions from this industry (39%). Real estate contributions were 18% of DiBerardinis’ total funds raised in 2018 and included $3,000 from the Zuritskys and $2,000 from Building Industry Association Vice President Leo Addimando and his related entities.

9% of contributions to both Eryn Santamoor and Isaiah Thomas came from the real estate industry.

Big spenders last year included Parkway Corporation, The Building Industry Association, and University City Housing Company.

In 2018, the top real estate donors to current city councilors and city council candidates were: Joseph Zuritsky, Chairman of Parkway Corporation; The Building Industry Association; and Michael Karp, head of University City Housing Company and the Belmont Charter Network.

Meet the Donors: Joseph Zuritsky, the real estate developer betting on North Broad.  

Joseph Zuritsky, with his son Robert, is perhaps the single most prolific donor to city council. Last year alone, he contributed $29,250 to current city councilors and city council candidates (Robert contributed an additional $13,000), and the two combined have contributed over $157,000 to current city councilors since 2014.

Zuritsky is the founder and Chairman of Parkway Corporation. Parkway started out primarily operating parking lots, but has become a major player in commercial and residential real estate development. Parkway buys surface parking lots, holds onto them, and then--when they see the opportunity for profit--turns the parking lots into mega developments with luxury apartments,office space, and retail space. They have been particularly active in the North Broad area, developing mixed-use projects at Broad and Callowhill and Broad and Spring Garden.

Zuritsky is also the founder of Philadelphia 3.0, one of the city’s biggest “dark money” groups. He is also on the board of the Middle East Forum, a conservative think tank founded by Daniel Pipes and designated as part of the U.S. Islamophobia network by the Center for American Progress.

The graphic below shows the city councilors and city council candidates who Joseph and Robert Zuritsky contributed to last year.

Zuritsksy - 2018 Council - Party Color small.png

Meet the Donors: The Building Industry Association, one of Philly’s most influential real estate lobbies and outspoken opponent of ending the 10-year tax abatement.

The Building Industry Association (BIA) of Philadelphia is one of the city’s most powerful real estate interest groups. The BIA represent residential real estate developers, as well as the residential construction industry. Their sponsors include Wells Fargo, Alterra Property Group, and Toll Brothers. Their board is a who’s-who of Philadelphia residential real estate power brokers, including Leo Addimando, Ori Feibush, and Carl Dranoff.

Most recently, the BIA has been leading the opposition to ending the 10 year-tax abatement to fund Philly’s public schools. They were one of three organizations that lobbied against ending the 10-year tax abatement last year.

The graphic below shows the city councilors and city council candidates who the Building Industry Association contributed to last year.

When one considers contributions from the Building Industry Association’s PAC and its board members, the numbers climb even higher, to $62,800 total in 2018 alone.

BIA Only - 2018 Council - Party Color small.png

Meet the Donors: Michael Karp, West Philly landlord and charter school Chair.

Michael Karp runs University City Housing Company. He is a real estate developer and one of West Philadelphia’s biggest landlords. He is also the founder and Chair of Belmont Charter network. He is a former member of the Philadelphia Board of Education. He is currently the Secretary/Treasurer of the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, which oversees Philadelphia’s finances.

Karp was recently in the news because Jannie Blackwell delayed a major city land deal at his behest. Despite being a big landlord, Karp is apparently only a part-time Philly resident. In 2015, he bought a $32 million Manhattan townhouse.

The graphic below shows the city council members and candidates Michael Karp’s University City Housing Company contributed to last year.

University City Housing - 2018 Council - Party Color small.png

Keep your eyes open for our next Who Runs Philly? post, detailing the key opponents to ending the 10-year tax abatement and the politicians they’re investing the most money in.

For a full list of links used in our blogs, please go to our sources page.


  1. This does not include contributions under $50. Candidates do not have to provide itemized lists of donations under $50. For additional details on donations to Philadelphia City Council by amount, see Ryan Briggs’ article “Developers, unions fill City Council war chests ahead of 2019 elections.” Note that the trends we identify in this post are generally in line with Briggs’ findings, but we included individual donors instead of just PACs, which accounts for the differences in sector breakdown, etc.

  2. All statistics in this post come from Philly Power Research’s original analysis, using our tool, the Philadelphia Campaign Finance Data Explorer.

  3. The “real estate and building industry” sector category in our dataset includes any entities affiliated with these industries, including real estate developers, property managers, realtors, real estate brokers, building industry contractors, architects, interior designers, etc.

  4. This figure is for all city councilors and city council candidates in our dataset--our current dataset covers all contributions (including in-kind donations) over $50 to every 2019 candidate for Mayor, City Council, City Commissioner, Sheriff, and Register of Wills who has submitted at least one campaign finance report as of the end of 2018 (as well as contributions to the two incumbent councilors who are stepping down). Not all declared candidates have filed at least one campaign finance report as of the end of 2018.

  5. For example, law firms that have major practice areas in real estate and other entities who we coded as some other “primary” sector but who have real estate connections or interests

For a full list of links used in our blogs, please go to our sources page.