There Goes the Neighborhood

As gentrification pushes northward, a community of survivors is slowly displaced.

By Kia Gregory
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 26, 2005

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"We haven't had any gentrification in the North Philadelphia portion of my district," Clarke says.

Clarke's 5th Council District includes North Central Philadelphia, Strawberry Mansion (where Clarke lives), Lower Hunting Park, Ludlow, Yorktown, West Poplar, Fairhill, Brewerytown, Francisville, Spring Garden, Fairmount, Logan Square and small sections of Center City. After redistricting last January, he picked up parts of Northern Liberties, from Sixth Street to Third Street.

At the meeting Clarke read from a list of affordable housing developments. He says the city has created some 6,000 affordable housing units in his district in the last 10 years. He contends that less than 1 percent of the new development has been private-sector market-rate housing.

But he still hears complaints of soaring real estate prices and increasing property taxes, along with the charge that he's attracting new developers and residents while leaving faithful longtime residents out in the cold.

"The reality is," says Clarke, "if you improve a neighborhood, at some point the property values are going to go up. So you have to make a decision: Do nothing and let the neighborhood deteriorate, or try to improve the neighborhood."

Clarke says aggressive property tax increases are a legitimate concern. Less than a year ago he proposed a cap on property taxes for senior citizens that's now stalled in the state Legislature. He agrees with residents that the city needs to revisit the idea of granting 10-year tax abatements for new construction projects built in the city.

"There is some level in people's minds of unfairness," Clarke says about the policy. "People who have high-end houses are getting tax relief while other people are seeing their taxes go up."

Last month Clarke, along with Councilman Jim Kenney and City Council President Anna Verna, introduced a resolution to investigate legislative solutions to "support longtime residents of gentrifying neighborhoods." Eventually Council will hold public hearings to determine the impact of gentrification in the city's neighborhoods.

But for now Clarke is focused on the big picture: making North Philadelphia an attractive place to live.

"We've been one of the most underserved communities in the city," Clarke says. "Now I ride down the street and say, 'That neighborhood's rebuilt.' People are excited about living in North Philadelphia. It's all good."

David Koppisch calls the stretch of Girard Avenue that runs from Front to Sixth "the Wall."

"This area was sort of left to die," says Koppisch, lead organizer at the Women's Community Revitalization Project (WCRP), a community development corporation located at Fourth and Fairmount. "No outside entity would step foot in North Philadelphia. Now it's becoming the next hot place."

When Koppisch walks around the neighborhood where he works, he sees the Wall crumbling. He thinks the city needs to act now.

WCRP, which started some 18 years ago as an advocate for low-income families, develops childcare and community facilities. It has converted vacant lots into community gardens, provided voter education, and distributed eviction guidelines and warnings about predatory lending. It also built and now leases 125 units of affordable rental housing in its target area, east of Broad, from Front to 10th, and from Girard to Allegheny.

WCRP assists working-class and low-income people who are struggling to find housing--even subsidized housing, like Section 8. The group is now building 33 affordable housing units at Fourth and Diamond, once a ghost of a neighborhood, which will be completed this year.

Through an internal subsidy, the agency makes units affordable to people with annual incomes as low as $7,000, far below the government's requirement. There are more than 300 people on the waiting list. Linda Wilson of Rev. Saunders' church, whose apartment building was recently sold, is one of WCRP's clients.

Last month the agency started going out into the community, surveying residents' issues and concerns. Koppisch says gentrification topped most people's lists.

"There's a sense that outside forces are determining changes in our neighborhood," says Koppisch. "Some of it may be good, but it's happening to us and not with us. We watched our community be decimated by vacancy, and we couldn't get attention. Now these outside forces are coming into our neighborhood, and the powers that be are doing everything to help them."

Staci Moore, who's lived on the 300 block of Brown Street for about 10 years, agrees.

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