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As a lifelong Philadelphian, I’ve watched with a mix of hope and apprehension as some of our city’s most blighted neighborhoods have transformed, because while development has moved in well-heeled residents, it has also displaced the impoverished.
In a city whose 26 percent poverty rate disproportionately affects people of color, that phenomenon has racial implications, because the longtime residents who are most often displaced are minorities. In gentrifying neighborhoods such as Northern Liberties, Brewerytown, and Francisville, for example, the white population has increased by 10 percent or more since 1990, while the black population has decreased by similar amounts, according to a Pew study on city migration patterns.
Now, Philadelphia City Council, through the office of Council President Darrel Clarke, has weighed in with a study that seeks to address the displacement caused by gentrification. The study, dubbed Building an Affordable Future, says Philadelphia is uniquely positioned to create affordable housing in both blighted and gentrifying communities. That’s because more than a quarter of the city’s 40,000 vacant parcels are owned by four public or quasi-public agencies.
The proposal suggests using a portion of that publicly owned property to create 1,000 rental units and 500 ownership units for moderate-income households. Under the plan, the city would float $100 million in bonds to leverage an additional $200 million in investments from the state and federal government.
The study says the initiative will bring the city a one-time construction-related economic impact of $681.8 million, supporting 4,248 jobs generating an aggregate of $416.8 million, and adding $518.1 million to Philadelphia’s GDP.
Perhaps most importantly, the initiative would seek to foster diversity in neighborhoods where gentrification is taking place. In Francisville, Point Breeze, and Mantua, for example, there are 1,127 publicly owned parcels with the potential to become affordable housing under this initiative.
“Building affordable rental units in gentrifying neighborhoods guarantees some level of economic and social diversity,” the study says, adding that creating economic diversity is one of the initiative’s key goals.
I believe creating economic and social diversity is a goal that’s worth pursuing because, as the study states, there is a social cost to gentrification.
It’s the cost of the de facto segregation that occurs in neighborhoods where economics change not only the appearance of the houses, but also the appearance of the people. It’s the emotional cost that is paid by poor residents who are forced to move their children even as schools improve. It’s the cost that’s paid by seniors whose increasing property taxes price them out of their homes. It’s the cost that’s paid by renters who are forced to move to less desirable communities.
The social cost, quite simply, is the reinforcement of the economic inequality that we all say we’d like to address, but never do.
The plan is not perfect. Not by a long shot. In citing the benefits of creating construction jobs, the plan ignores the fact that those jobs rarely go to poor and minority neighborhood residents due to union and contractor discrimination. The plan also acknowledges that the cost of developing affordable housing is often prohibitive, because there is “a significant price gap between subsidized affordable housing offered in homeownership programs and market rate housing in neighborhoods that are seeing rapid increase in values.”
Perhaps, if the initiative is adopted, the City can address the hiring issue by finally flexing its muscle on minority participation numbers on publicly funded projects, but I don’t have great hopes in that regard. I’m more optimistic about the initiative’s plans for decreasing the cost of development by using public property.
Under that aspect of the plan, the City would sell publicly owned land in gentrifying neighborhoods to developers on the condition that they build housing with mortgages of up to $200,000. That is considered affordable for households falling between 80 percent and 120 percent of Area Median Income. There is a flaw there, too, however. If the buyer sells the house after 10 years, they can do so at market rate, which essentially means the housing stays affordable for only a decade.
I reached out to Council President Clarke’s office to get comment on those particular aspects of the plan, but did not receive a call back by press time.
Still, whatever the plan’s flaws, it starts a long overdue conversation. The City must have a role in not only taking care of the vacant land it has amassed over five decades of depopulation. The City must also decide how best to dispense of that land now that the population is growing again.
Yes, it’s important for city agencies like the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority to continue focusing on getting vacant land into the hands of Philadelphians. It’s important for the Land Bank, when its permanent board is put in place, to focus on equitable development, and for Community Development Corporations like the Women’s Community Revitalization Project to press the Land Bank on the issue.
But at the end of the day, the City must take the lead in creating an environment in which affordable housing is as important as housing for the well to do. If we are all going to live here together, we all need to feel a sense of ownership in our neighborhoods. Creating equal housing opportunity is a start.