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Experts believe gentrification has caused access to affordable housing even more difficult for residents in Philadelphia.

Credit: Zihan Chen

With the pandemic laying bare Philadelphia's grave economic and racial inequalities, Penn-affiliated experts believe that the city has seen a more gradual form of gentrification through increased housing prices and new development — making access to affordable housing even more difficult for residents. 

Penn experts and Councilmember and Penn alumna Jamie Gauthier spoke to The Daily Pennsylvanian about gentrification in the city and effective solutions against it, as well as the adverse relationship between housing affordability and the pandemic. 

As a representative of the 3rd District, which covers West Philadelphia, including University City and Penn, Gauthier is taking action against Philadelphia's increasing gentrification rates. Gauthier's district had a poverty rate of 35% before the pandemic, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, which is 10 points higher than the city as a whole. 

One form of gentrification in the city that Gauthier said worries her is when companies come back to communities where they were once based in order to take over vacant lots that the community has been using as recreational spaces. The 3rd District is seeing the greatest amount of "naturally occurring” affordable housing being replaced by new development, Leo Addimando, president of the Building Industry Association, previously told the Inquirer.

In response, Gauthier said she is working on new legislation that "would put more of the city’s vacant owned land into community hands to build affordable housing or to keep as urban gardens or green spaces and things that are beneficial socially and environmentally."

The legislation, titled Community Land For Us, is supported by a campaign by local activists such as Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities. Rather than letting the market lead and then retroactively recognizing disparities, Gauthier said that companies should begin the process of development by keeping in mind often overlooked communities.

“We have to ensure that we are building equitable neighborhoods, and I think no matter what income you make, you should be able to live in an amenity-rich neighborhood with transit, parks, schools, [and] access to jobs, and that is what I am fighting for,” Gauthier said. 

Ira Goldstein, Penn lecturer and President of Policy Solutions at Reinvestment Fund, said that he has seen gentrification in the city as a result of increased housing instability caused by the pandemic, which he added could be a possible catalyst for COVID-19 cases. 

In places where gentrification in Philadelphia has been most active, such as areas like Point Breeze, Brewerytown, and parts of University City, Goldstein stated that people have had to find new places to stay, often having to “double up, increasing their potential exposure to other people who are susceptible or have the virus.”

Although Philadelphia has historically been seen as an affordable place when compared to other large cities, Goldstein said that rising home prices, coupled with the stagnant and low wages earned by Philadelphia residents, are making living in the city less affordable — primarily for people of color.

“Demographically, more often than not, the people who benefit from the new construction — and we see this through analysis of the city’s real estate tax abatement — those beneficiaries are disproportionately demographically white,” Goldstein said. 

While he emphasized that there are multiple solutions to ongoing gentrification in Philadelphia, Goldstein said that naturally occurring affordable housing will still only help those in the $40,000 to $60,000 income level. This affordable housing occurs through small contractors and small property owners renovating properties with little subsidy and then creating housing units that people can rent or buy at a reasonable level, Goldstein said. 

He added that the income of $40,000 to $60,000 is “at best aspirational” when put in the context of Philadelphia's poverty rate of 23.3% , however, which makes it the poorest large city in the United States. Thus, Goldstein believes another solution to combat gentrification is enhancing access to more substantially subsidized housing, especially after the pandemic.

Similarly, Eugenie Birch, Lawrence C. Nussdorf Professor of Urban Research & Education and the President of General Assembly of Partners, a global network working on sustainable urban development, believes gentrification can be prevented through making the city more economically and socially stable — particularly by attracting residents who can pay taxes and supporting those who cannot afford to do so. Birch added that if the city invests further in sustainability efforts, it can develop a stronger tax base that can be used for public goods. 

As president of GAP, Birch is tasked with leading an assembly that is implementing the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goal No. 11 to create more sustainable cities and communities. In 2015, the UN Member States had adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals — ranging from ending global poverty to ensuring access to clean and affordable energy — that would enable “peace and prosperity."

Penn community members have also long engaged in efforts to create a more equitable relationship between the University and West Philadelphia.

Amelia Carter, Penn Community for Justice co-founder and Assistant Director of the South Asia Center, believes that paying taxes — specifically Payments in Lieu of Taxes — is a way for institutions like Penn and Drexel University to begin paying back what they owe to the Philadelphia community.

Through PCJ, Carter helps organize work around addressing how Penn and other major institutions contributed to displacing thousands of Black residents and gentrifying West Philadelphia through their Urban Renewal Plan. Carter referred to the process of gentrification driven by the University in West Philadelphia as “Penntrification.”  

She explained that the once-taxable land in West Philadelphia was prevented from contributing public funds due to nonprofit organizations like Penn, which are now multi-million and multi-billion dollar nonprofits establishing tax-exempt development. 

Members of the University and local community believe that greater citywide engagement and empathy is needed in order to fight gentrification. 

"An important piece of it is community engagement," Gauthier said. "If you engage with the community, then they'll tell you what works for them, what's good for them."