The University of Pennsylvania’s Chad Dion Lassiter took to the philly.com recently to decry Temple’s role in the gentrification of our region of North Philadelphia. It began when Google re-labeled the region around Main Campus “Temple Town” on its maps application. Community leaders took to the local media and voiced their displeasure at what they saw as a hostile rebranding of the neighborhood, known officially as the “Cecil B. Moore Community.” Google Maps dropped the name in September, but the debate over Temple’s role in the local community is still a hot button issue.
The way Lassiter sees it, the influx of businesses, real estate developers and student residents into the area around Main Campus is tantamount to institutional racism.
I respectfully disagree with his summary. Change and transition is always painful. It is unfortunate that communities get displaced, and that it is happening here; but the fact that millennial students want a quality education in a safe urban environment is not racist.
Temple is bringing resources to the community. The student population living off campus stimulates the local economy. Cash is flowing from the tenants, to the landlords, and to the city in the form of property taxes. Those student-tenants are buying groceries locally, they’re using SEPTA, they’re paying city payroll taxes and most of all, they’re going out on the town.
It may be a crass argument, but the more people with disposable income moving to the city, the better, because that money that people spend locally funnels directly back to the city. The more we go out to bars and restaurants, the more we go to events, the more venues and businesses that open to support our urban lifestyles, the more money the city gets in taxes.
The phenomenon of “white flight” depleted the city’s tax base to mostly the poorest people in the city. Moreover, the dilapidated and tax delinquent properties all over North Philadelphia have been a further drain on the tax base, adding $9.5 billion in uncollected city tax revenue, according to planphilly.com. In addition, tax delinquent properties lower the values of single-family homes around them – meaning those homes get taxed less, resulting in less city revenue. In short, when a few properties don’t pay their fair share of city taxes and fall into squalor and disrepair, the losses increase exponentially.
According to planphilly.com, the national average rate for property tax collection – or taxes collected on time – in the U.S. was 95 percent in 2011. It was about 85.6 percent that same year in Philadelphia. These are property taxes, the ones that pay for things like public schools.
Temple’s gentrification is the opposite of white flight. The millennial generation is realizing the limitations of life in the suburbs and starting to migrate back to urban centers, and they’re bringing their skills and their wallets with them. TempleTown Realty and Temple Villas are buying up those delinquent and abandoned properties and turning them into profitable real estate for the city. That is why Temple’s push to gentrify the neighborhood will benefit it more in the end than if Temple had left the neighborhood alone. Many millennials want to spend their lives in cities. The only way that will happen is if the economic infrastructure of the city is amenable. This includes living-wage jobs, modern transit infrastructure, public safety, affordable public education and a vibrant nightlife.
All this being said, what also must happen is that the incoming millennial population must find a way to strike a respectful social balance with the local community at the same time. Just because we live here doesn’t mean we can just impose our social footprint on those who’ve lived here for years. We should look to the neighborhoods along Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia, which underwent similar gentrification transitions years ago.
The area is filled with University City students, faculty and other urban professionals. The newcomers – if they can still be called “new” – found a way to find a positive social interactive balance with the long-term residents West Philadelphia. While we have every right to move into the area around Main Campus, we all have to acknowledge that it’s a community of both newcomers and life-long residents.
Lucke Harrington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @Duke_Harrington