An Inside Look at Gentrification in Philadelphia

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities (PCAC) has been on the ground for 15 years trying to combat the decades-long trends of gentrification in cities across the United States. Since the 1980s, cities and metropolitan regions have been grappling with effects stemming from gentrification. As affluent residents in the suburbs move back into cities, they often displace lower-income households as property values rise. Philadelphia has seen especially high levels of displacement due to gentrification; since 2000, about 22% of African-American households have been forced to leave the city due to skyrocketing property costs. Much of this is due to the fact that median incomes citywide have dropped by 13% since 2000, while median rent has increased by 15%.

As a result of this displacement, many anti-gentrification groups have sprung up in cities like Philadelphia to push back against the kind of displacement gentrification causes. In Philadelphia, one such group is the Women’s Community Revitalization Project. Its executive director, Nora Lichtash, has been working for 38 years on creating affordable housing and fighting against gentrification in Philadelphia. The group, founded in 1986, initially had one mission: to build affordable rental housing for people who have experienced gentrification in the city.

But after 15 years of working to develop these buildings, Lichtash and her organization ran into a litany of red tape. “We realized that it would be better to get out in front of these barriers [because] many of them were policy or resource barriers,” she said. And as a result of these barriers, the organization developed a second part of its mission: to influence policymaking at the city-wide level.

As groups across Philadelphia recognized the need to work at the policy level, they formed the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities (PCAC). For around 15 years, PCAC has been on has been on the ground working with community members throughout the city and the city council to develop proposals for what they call “development without displacement”: renovating impoverished neighborhoods while limiting the displacement of low-income individuals and households.

Initially, PCAC fought for the implementation of a housing trust fund for the city, and succeeded in creating one over ten years ago. The Philadelphia Housing Trust Fund uses tax revenue from a real-estate sale fee to develop new affordable housing, repair existing housing, and subsidize low-income households to prevent foreclosure.

Lichtash hailed the fund as a success, and saw only one critique of it. “We need more money,” she said. The $10 million the fund was receiving per year was great, but in her view, was not enough. As a result,  PCAC has been working with grassroots organizations in the city to develop plans to raise more revenue for the fund.

The primary recipients of the Housing Trust Fund’s dollars are distressed neighborhoods located in North Philadelphia. But the region wasn’t always a troubled area.

“When I first started working [in North Philadelphia, there were a lot of factories, a lot of jobs, but those factories have moved down south or overseas…there was a huge amount of disinvestment in our neighborhoods,” Lichtash said.

According to a 1981 New York Times article, manufacturing jobs in Philadelphia fell from 26% of total jobs in the city in 1970 to 17% in 1980. Additionally, Pew Research Center found that Philadelphia saw a 25% total loss of jobs from 1970 to 2011, while Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C. all saw job gains. As the American economy has shifted from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, the result has been the impoverishment of many communities in Philadelphia, especially those made up of traditionally marginalized communities like African-Americans and Latinos.

In the last decade, North Philadelphia has started to attract developers. “It’s become a hotbed of development; prices of real estate have gone up 200% since 2000,” Lichtash said. However, with this development, many families in the area have been pushed out. “22% of the African American households have left our neighborhood,” she said.

As a result, PCAC has been fighting for more funding for the Housing Trust Fund.

However, some economists, including Swarthmore Economics Professor John Caskey, have pushed back against the Housing Trust Fund. Caskey doesn’t see funds like these as useful or productive ways to address the affordable housing problem. “In terms of affordable housing for the poor, [gentrification] is a tiny issue,” he said. Caskey pointed out that the housing subsidy vouchers for homes in the city currently have a five-year waiting list, and that building new housing is just too expensive to help the poor in a meaningful way. “There’s basically a difficult choice you face: do you give a little bit of assistance to a lot of people, meaning basically not so generous vouchers to a lot of people, or very generous benefits to a very small number of lucky people,” he said.

Caskey paints gentrification as a much more nuanced, complex issue. While many people want to find and target developers as the “pioneers” of gentrification, the ones who start the process, Caskey says that’s misplaced.

“[Artists] move in first. They go into an area where the housing is really cheap…then the coffee shops come in because the artists are hanging out at the coffee shops. Now it’s a bunch of low-income people and some artists. But they’re hipsters and they drink coffee, and now the next kind-of income level moves in. So it’s young people, artists, people without kids who say yeah, this area is a little sketchy but rents sure are cheap and it’s got good access to downtown and it’s kinda hip. And from there on it goes,” he said.

As to the question of blame, Caskey saw it as a question with no answer. “You could say let’s blame it on these poor artists, they’re the ones who started it. You rarely see a big scale shopping center or a big condo be the pioneer. They don’t move in to really poor areas and start it off. They generally are coming in only after the area is pretty well gentrified,” he said.

While PCAC focuses solely on Philadelphia, similar trends of development have been occurring in the last few decades in cities across the country. Lichtash sees this development as a desire for cities to expand their tax base. “Many locales across the country are trying to attract a tax base so they can afford to pay for the schools, the police departments, the museums, etc.,” she said. According to Lichtash, this desire has led cities like Philadelphia to make it easier for wealthy developers to build in the city.

Lichtash points to another factor driving this kind of development: young college graduates. She points to the increasing number of young people who are moving into cities as driving demand for high-end development. “All over the country, more and more young people are moving back into the city,” she said. The reason for this? In her view, there’s a cultural and economic shift drawing people back to city life from the suburbs.

An analysis by the Washington Post finds this trend to be more nuanced. The number of people living in urban metros declined by 5% in the last 15 years, but the amount of wealth in these metros increased by 6%. The Post mentions that there have been exceptions to this trend, but Philadelphia is not one of them. In general, the Post found that young, educated people haven’t been moving en masse to the cities; many college graduates today have a hard time finding the jobs needed to afford rent in cities. But there have been some college graduates who have been moving back into cities in search of work.

In any case, Lichtash sees college graduates who drive development as a mixed bag. “It just depends on how thoughtful they are…I meet a lot of people who feel like they are the problem…I meet a lot of them who don’t feel like they’re a problem,” she said.

While Lichtash sees those who are more knowledgeable and well-read on the issue as more sympathetic to her organization’s cause, she was very clear that she did not see a role for her organization to educate these people about their part in gentrification. “Our job is to organize…our job isn’t to educate you…my job is not to carry students on my back,” she said. This response underlines the tensions between college students/graduates and the low-income households that are displaced by them.

To continue their work with the Housing Trust Fund, PCAC plans to implement an official “Development without Displacement” plan. The centerpiece of this plan is a “housing impact fee”. Under this system, developers pay a per-foot fee of $2-4 dollars for housing developments they create, and this revenue would go to the Housing Trust Fund. Lichtash believes that such a tax would require developers to  “pay their fair share.”

Caskey, however, sees such a tax as ineffective due to the limited ability for redistribution in cities. “You can’t do much [redistribution] at the local level because it’s very easy for people to avoid it by just moving,” he said. In fact, he sees the problem as too much housing for the poor in cities and not enough outside the city.

“Why are poor people living in Philadelphia and not in Swarthmore? It’s not because they love Philadelphia and hate Swarthmore; it’s because there’s no affordable housing in Swarthmore. Is your goal then to provide more affordable housing in Philadelphia? No, you’d say that goal is to get affordable housing out in the surrounding communities,” he said.

Caskey noted two very important ways affordable housing could be provided to the poor at the state level: transfers and zoning reform. As Lichtash mentioned earlier, many cities in the US are trying to broaden their tax base to fund public schools. Caskey sees this as precisely where states can get involved. “If the state took on more of the burden for public schools and equalized funding across districts, that would do a lot to reduce the pressure on communities that are desperate to raise their tax base,” he said.

States can also get involved by reforming zoning regulations. Many suburbs in metropolitan areas have adopted zoning regulations that prevent low-income housing from even being built. “What’s shaping our cities [is] this local land use control. In a lot of suburban communities, it’s illegal to build low-income housing,” Caskey said. He noted that while many suburbanites are happy to give money to the poor, they don’t want low-income people in their neighborhoods.

“You can go out to Radner or Swarthmore or whatever and you can say, I’m raising money to help the poor in Philadelphia, everyone will donate. But you say, I’m working to bring poor people to live in your community, then see what reaction you get. They’ll say no,” he said, noting the legal fights over zoning reform in New Jersey.

By changing zoning regulations to allow low-income people to live outside of cities, cities would be relieved of some of their tax burden, and would allow low-income families to find affordable housing more easily.

Perhaps the most contentious part of gentrification is its potential role in reducing crime. While there certainly are no proponents of gentrification (no one wants to kick poor people out of their homes), some have argued that the gentrification of low-income neighborhoods leads to decreased crime rates.

Washington, D.C. is a prime example of gentrification reducing crime rates. The city was known as the “murder capital” of the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s due to its very high murder rate — 482 per year at its peak in 1991. But after citywide efforts for economic development by the mid-2000s, violent crime had dropped to a 20-year low, and many parts of the city became safer.

In fact, Philadelphia not long ago was a much more dangerous city than it is today; as recently as 2006, there were over 400 homicides per year. However, based on data for crime rates in Philadelphia, for the past decade, the violent crime rate has been dropping.

Having said this, it still remains unclear how much of the drop in crime rates is actually caused by gentrification. Some studies say that while gentrification leads to an eventual decline in personal crime rates, there is no relationship between gentrification and property crime. Others point to social disorganization theory, and find that gentrification in the short term leads to increased crime.

When asked about this, Lichtash seemed to push back. “Everyone always believes that where there’s rich white people, it’s safer,” she said. Lichtash, of course, views decreased crime as desirable, but she views gentrification as an undesirable method for achieving it. “I don’t think the solution is to throw out poor people,” she said. She pointed to her organization’s efforts to develop community policing as more effective in reducing crime. At the same time, her organization’s primary focus isn’t crime. “I’m not an expert on crime,” she said.

While the issue of gentrification and affordable housing is a controversial one with no easy solutions, all sides of the debate agree that an increased accessibility to education and job training can prevent poor and working class people from being foreclosed upon. Often, the low-skilled workers in urban areas that used to work high-paying manufacturing jobs aren’t able to find these kinds of jobs because, as Lichtash mentioned, they have been outsourced overseas.

As a result, many are forced to take up low-paying service jobs. However, in the US as a whole, having a degree can vastly improve pay. In fact, vocational schools can be even better financially than college. “Having degrees or training that get you decent paying jobs is very important, too,” said Lichtash. Caskey endorsed this as well, adding that the biggest barrier to jobs in low-income neighborhoods is employability. “The main thing is to get people skills for the jobs,” he said.

And as Philadelphia moves forward, it is going to be critical that everyone — working class people, economists, legislators, and college graduates — comes together to develop solutions that work for the city.

Featured image courtesy of https://cwmote.wordpress.com.

Siddharth Srivatsan

Sid is a sophomore from Ashburn, Virginia (NoVA!) planning on double majoring in Mathematics and Economics. He enjoys backpacking, and DJ’s a radio show on WSRN-FM. You can probably catch him watching Law & Order or reading The Economist.

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