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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"It's not like low-income people don't want cleaner streets and trees," she says. "Why is it that these things only come with people with more money? And where do people go who can't afford it?"

Seven years ago, when the agency did its first surveys of the community, the biggest issue was vacant land. Now the land has become extremely valuable, leaving less opportunity for community development corporations like WCRP to build affordable housing.

"The city has a strategy to increase the tax base," says WCRP director Nora Lichtash. "But those policies don't leave resources for the work we do. We're not against investing in the community, but the government needs to make sure longtime residents can stay here."

For years WCRP, as part of a coalition of community development corporations, has begged the city to create a housing trust fund--similar to programs already underway in many cities--that would provide a dedicated money source for building and repairing affordable housing.

Last week the coalition and the city reached an agreement which would provide $10 to $14 million annually by doubling fees for recording deeds and mortgages. According to the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, this new source of funds should create about 275 units of affordable housing every year, assist more than 900 homeowners with home repairs and prevent nearly 1,000 families from becoming homeless.

Although WCRP calls the fund a "huge victory," the agency says the city can do more.

Perpetually frustrating are the tax breaks associated with the city's Keystone Opportunity Zones, a 10-year tax abatement to buyers of new development.

"Imagine how much money that would bring into this community," says Koppisch, pointing to the Cigar Factory Condominiums at Fourth and Girard. According to the city's Board of Revision of Taxes, the 32 loft-style condos represent more than $200,000 in unpaid real estate taxes to the city.

Koppisch says many cities have developed policies to curb gentrification's impact on longtime residents of improving neighborhoods.

Atlanta allows existing residents to defer property tax payment until they sell their homes. Washington, D.C., is considering a policy of inclusionary zoning that would require new housing developments to set aside a specific number of affordable units.

Some cities put caps on property taxes for elderly and low-income residents. Other cities require developers to invest a percentage of their profits into the community.

Lichtash would like to see developers create a fund to help residents repair their homes. The city has a similar program she says is "woefully inadequate," charging that only one in 10 eligible residents gets the promised funds.

WCRP plans to organize neighbors to testify at the upcoming City Council hearings on gentrification. And once their survey of the community is complete, the agency will use the data to prioritize its agenda, which centers on securing affordable housing units within new market-rate development.

"There are many misconceptions, but you can have true mixed-income neighborhoods," says Koppisch, citing cities like Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, D.C. "It's a thing we can fight for and win."


"I was just telling my husband that in five years everything is going to be different," says Rev. Saunders, sitting in her living room one recent snowy Saturday morning. "We're not even going to know our own area. They're just destroying stuff."

A few days earlier Saunders had an emergency meeting at a nearby community center after hearing that the long-vacant Dietz & Watson warehouse at Third and Girard, near Northern Liberties' trendy nightspots, was being converted into a 17-unit apartment complex. Saunders urged residents not to sign the zoning petition winding through the neighborhood.

"We don't need people coming into our community, bringing things, and we don't know what we're signing," says Saunders.

Saunders is planning another meeting, where she hopes to unite neighborhood groups throughout Old Kensington around community concerns. There are sewage problems, a sinkhole and fear that revitalization is pushing further north. "It's already starting," she says. "It's happening right before my eyes."

She moved her family into the neighborhood three decades ago. When things turned bad, they stayed. They chased drug dealers off street corners, converted trash-sewn vacant lots into community gardens and held block parties to boost neighborhood pride.

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