Imagine walking through a brand new development of beautiful homes decked out with balconies, garages and freshly paved driveways. Imagine sprinklers spraying cool water onto lush, green lawns in a quaint little cul-de-sac. Truly, this must be a suburban paradise.
Now, imagine turning the corner and finding abandoned, partially destroyed homes and empty lots filled with trash. Is this the Twilight Zone? Not exactly. Welcome to North Philadelphia.
Gentrification has become a dirty word around these poor, working class neighborhoods, but why? The Philadelphia Housing Authority is swooping in and rehabilitating entire blocks, creating beautiful new homes that anyone would be happy to raise a family in. Crime is going down, middle class families are moving in and Center City is moving its boundaries up to include Girard Avenue.
Here’s a quick life lesson: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The residents of these neighborhoods are not nearly as pleased as the rest of the city is about all the redevelopment.
When PHA selects an area to be rehabilitated, current residents are given priority to come back and take advantage of the brand new homes. This is a great policy on PHA’s part, but the problem is they are not guaranteed housing.
Former residents must apply for housing like everyone else, and they must meet higher standards of qualification than they had to for their previous home in that neighborhood. These criteria include credit history and rental payment records. It is unfair to convince someone to leave their home, entice them with ideas of a brand new house and then bar them from returning.
Residents who choose to keep their current home are not much better off. Defiant people living in areas earmarked for rehabilitation have been forced to relocate to other public housing. A family that has been living in the same home for 40 years will be made to leave when they know they cannot afford to return.
There was a time when this kind of thing was called discrimination, unjust, and just plain wrong. Today, it’s called progress.
Another negative effect this development has on residents is the sharp increase in property taxes. These new homes have been valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars. As a result, property taxes of nearby homes in undeveloped neighborhoods skyrocket to levels residents cannot afford. The city offers funding to help, but to be eligible your income must be lower than what is needed to support a family.
PHA has done a few things right in all this. It has set rental rates at 30 percent of one’s total income to make housing affordable, and given preference to senior citizens and the disabled during the application process. These considerations do little to correct the mistakes PHA has already made.
I am all for sprucing up North Philadelphia and the rest of the city as well. It would be great if these developments bring in more middle class families and turn this part of the city into an economically and ethnically diverse neighborhood.
The problem is too many people are being neglected in the process. Philadelphia cannot just kick out its poor residents and let them fend for themselves. PHA is promising these families something that it just can’t live up to, and in some cases removing those who are too smart to fall for it.
There is a better way to make improvements: to look at the problems of crime and poverty from a human perspective. Instead, PHA is simply content with moving people around until they see demographics that better suit the city.
Torin Sweeney can be reached at email@example.com.