December 02, 2016 by Ramsha Ahmad
The word “gentrification” has been passed around quite a bit recently in relation to University City as the neighborhoods around it are visibly changing, with college students moving in and the demographic shifting significantly.
The 20-year Schuylkill Yards plan has already commenced and there is still the question of how the proposed innovation district will affect long-term homeowners in low-income residential areas that have already been hit hard by high rental rates.
Philadelphia aims to transform neighborhoods in light of rising crime rates and a lack of facilities.
As a result, long-term tenants of neighborhoods face the threat of being forced out of their homes as waves of wealthier and whiter residents move in and buy out these apartments, making their value rise dramatically.
The tenants are outpriced and end up moving to areas of lower income neighborhoods associated with high crime rates, fewer job opportunities and lower performing schools. The statistics speak for the people who won’t be heard.
26.9 percent of Philadelphia’s residents are considered poor or live beneath the poverty line. This is reality for neighborhoods in North Philly, Center City, West Philly and University City.
The average home value in west Philly has risen from $78,000 to $184,000 since 2000 according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. As neighborhoods around Drexel like Mantua and Powelton Village, identified as part of the Promise Zone, become gentrified, rental prices skyrocket by almost 200 percent.
In Mantua alone, half of the residents live under the poverty line and for children the statistics are worse: 96 percent of Mantua’s kids under 5 live in poverty. One in five housing units are vacant. Many of the homes remaining are tax delinquent properties being seized by eminent domain.
What stems from gentrification is seemingly a long list of negatives: foreclosure, eviction, moving out and not being able to cover housing costs.
In the game of gentrification, land developers are the key players but so are universities. Currently, advocacy groups are trying to fight the city for sustainable housing funds.
I spoke to Ariel Morales, an organizer at the Women’s Community Revitalization Project, an advocacy group associated with the Philadelphia Affordable Housing Coalition.
The coalition believes that land developers, who are always the winners, should have to pay for housing, and thus help double the amount of money in the housing trust fund for residents facing the threat of foreclosure due to gentrification.
Universities are part of the problem, but they also have the power to bridge the gap. Drexel has an obligation to the community members who are affected by expansion efforts.
Universities can do so much but they are feeding into their corporate interests rather than bridging the gap between universities and the community.
Drexel University president, John A. Fry has already declared that Schuylkill Yards will help employ residents in struggling areas. If residents from the Promise Zone are employed, businesses receive breaks for hiring those residents.
Bruce Katz works at the Brookings Institution, which is collaborating with Drexel to create the innovation district.
“From the starting point, there is a commitment to neighborhood regeneration, affordable housing, ensuring that market forces don’t just sweep over communities, which are literally a walk or a bike away,” Katz said.
It seems unlikely however, that expansion will take place without displacement.
Drexel aims to bridge the gap and create sustainable partnerships with the community. The Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships serves mainly local low-income residents in Mantua and Powelton Village neighborhoods.
The center also supports UConnect, an initiative that trains students, employees and alumni to refer residents to programs and counseling agencies. Career services are offered at Dornsife, too.
What’s more, a law clinic, a computer lab, a wellness center and a community kitchen are all currently available to residents.
As of this year, the Dornsife Center introduced a tax outreach program that partners with City Hall officials. Students work one on one with residents who are facing tax delinquencies and refer them to housing counselors.
Jennifer Schultz, a legal representative for Community Legal Services explained: “Some of the notices residents receive in the mail say ‘We may proceed to sheriff sale your house,’ and this creates a lot of panic because residents believe they’re going to lose their homes and they’re not prepared. But what this program can help do is inform residents of the LOOP program that essentially helps reassess taxes, and create a sustainable installment plan.”
LOOP is the main gentrification relief program meant to get residents on the right track towards fulfilling payments, handling important paperwork regarding home ownership, and making sure they are not at risk for tax delinquencies in the future.
Now that cities are becoming places of interests to businesses and to middle class residents, universities see the opportunity to gentrify, but the marginalization of lower income communities results when expansion proceeds unchecked.
Ultimately, Drexel needs to reevaluate what its priorities are because incentivizing gentrification of surrounding low-income neighborhoods is not the answer.