Strict Standards: Declaration of C_DataMapper_Driver_Base::define() should be compatible with C_Component::define($context = false) in /nas/content/live/axisphilly/wp-content/plugins/nextgen-gallery/products/photocrati_nextgen/modules/datamapper/class.datamapper_driver_base.php on line 609
Strict Standards: Declaration of C_DataMapper_Driver_Base::initialize() should be compatible with C_Component::initialize() in /nas/content/live/axisphilly/wp-content/plugins/nextgen-gallery/products/photocrati_nextgen/modules/datamapper/class.datamapper_driver_base.php on line 609
Strict Standards: Declaration of C_Displayed_Gallery_Mapper::define() should be compatible with C_CustomPost_DataMapper_Driver::define($object_name, $context = false) in /nas/content/live/axisphilly/wp-content/plugins/nextgen-gallery/products/photocrati_nextgen/modules/nextgen_gallery_display/class.displayed_gallery_mapper.php on line 4
Strict Standards: Declaration of C_Displayed_Gallery_Mapper::initialize() should be compatible with C_CustomPost_DataMapper_Driver::initialize($object_name) in /nas/content/live/axisphilly/wp-content/plugins/nextgen-gallery/products/photocrati_nextgen/modules/nextgen_gallery_display/class.displayed_gallery_mapper.php on line 4
Philadelphia, with a 26 percent poverty rate, is among the nation’s poorest large cities, and with 40,000 vacant parcels, it is also home to an alarming level of blight. In our most distressed communities, those two factors weave tightly through a complex tapestry of crime, unemployment and lack of educational attainment, to form neighborhoods where hopelessness reigns.
But look beneath the toxic mix of social ills, and Philadelphia’s most troubled communities are like blank canvases. They are places where depopulation and available land have drawn public and private revitalization dollars. The results, on the surface, have been impressive, transforming neighborhoods like Northern Liberties, Fishtown and Francisville into hot real-estate enclaves. And there are plans to do even more.
Philadelphia will soon implement a Land Bank system to sell vacant land in largely poor communities, and the Philadelphia Housing Authority has also secured millions in government tax credits and grants to redevelop devastated communities like North Philadelphia’s Sharswood. To be sure, the increased funding has the potential to transform the city. But I’m concerned that it could also accelerate the pattern of displacing the poor in favor of the rich, a process known as gentrification.
The ugly economic and racial history of gentrification in Philadelphia is hard to ignore. Not only because it helped to maintain segregation in the city, but also because it was often driven by investment from government and other large institutions. Urban Renewal pushed blacks out of Society Hill with the help of the Redevelopment Authority. The creation of University City, with assistance from the University of Pennsylvania, led to the displacement of an entire community called the Black Bottom. Homes were bulldozed. The poor were ushered out. And if the emotional tone of the man who told me of his grandmother’s forced exodus to make way for the now-defunct University City High School is any indication, the community has not forgotten.
That’s what’s so troubling about the current revitalization being implemented in poor communities in North and West Philadelphia. It reminds me of the days of urban renewal, because it’s driven not just by private developers, but also by large institutions and government entities.
Over the past decade, the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and Temple University have built up the neighborhoods that surround them, according to Allan Domb, President of the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors. Such development is part of a forward-thinking strategy on the part of the universities; one that improves the lifestyle of the surrounding neighborhoods and is key to the universities’ thriving, prospering and increasing their enrollment, he said.
All those things are true. But if the end result is rising rents that push out the current residents, whose lifestyle is really improved?
The public investments carry the same risks. For example, the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s tax credit award will allow the agency to raise $12.6 million through private investment and will cover more than 60 percent of the estimated $20.5 million in total construction cost of the first phase of redevelopment at the Blumberg Towers and the surrounding community. The City of Philadelphia has also committed $1.5 million to the effort through its Office of Housing and Community Development, and PHA has committed to securing a loan of $6.3 million.
The project sounds like a long overdue investment in a community that is desperately in need of revitalization. But imploding the Blumberg Towers, moving richer residents into the surrounding community, and moving the impoverished residents to other environments may not be a cure-all, according to a recent study.
“Integration and Exclusion: Urban Poverty, Public Housing Reform, and the Dynamics of Neighborhood Restructuring,” was published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science in May 2013, by Robert Chaskin. The study looked at Chicago’s Plan for Transformation, an ambitious effort to demolish approximately 22,000 public housing units and replace a portion with new construction in more than a dozen mixed-income developments that would include market rate and rental properties.
The study found that the mixed-income development component of the plan generated remarkable change in neighborhoods that had been dominated by large concentrations of public housing. The high-rise developments were replaced by cleaner, safer environments. “Relocated public housing residents moving to these contexts thus benefit from their return in some important ways, enjoying better housing in attractive neighborhoods; reduced stress in light of the increased safety and security of their new surroundings,” the study said.
But those who moved into other communities faced social barriers, the study said. “Within the context of the new communities to which they have returned, many relocated public housing residents experience increased scrutiny and intrusion that generates new kinds of stigma, exclusion, and isolation.”
In other words, imploding the old environment and moving the impoverished to other communities neither changed their poverty nor the discrimination faced by the poor. Relocation simply moved their underlying problems to a different place.
Still, there are solutions to the twin ills of poverty and gentrification, and they most often lie in the hands of communities themselves. Take Philadelphia’s Chinatown, for instance.
John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, told me that he’s seen a huge change in Chinatown, a sprawling community located in the shadow of the Pennsylvania Convention Center in downtown Philadelphia.
“If you look at the trends, the data, the real estate values and the rental trends, it’s much more expensive to live in Chinatown than it used to be,” Chin said. “What that means for people who have lived here a long time [and want to stay] is paying increased rental payments or finding someplace in Chinatown that’s less expensive to live. And sometimes the place that’s less expensive is a place that’s substandard.”
Chin, who says Chinatown always boasted a socio-economic mix prior to the onset of gentrification, said activists should lobby the federal government to put money back into affordable housing so the city and other entities can build more. But Chin also said his organization isn’t waiting for the government to come to the rescue.
The Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation is planning the Eastern Tower project on .45 acres. The project will include 143 housing units, 31 of which will be affordable housing.
“We are actually financing that ourselves,” Chin said. “We’re not asking for any government help. We’re going to show that developers can incorporate market rate and affordable units together.”
I told him that there were those in the development community who said it was next to impossible to incorporate market rate and affordable units together without government assistance.
“It’s not whether we can or cannot do it,” Chin said. “I think it’s whether we choose to do it. We have so many choices, and if we choose to provide housing for every single person, economically speaking that would help the poor. Once you have a family under a single roof, that family can focus on their other needs, like employment, and education and creating a stable family.”