I Don’t Care About Your Opinion on Gentrification

No, I really dont.

This is going to come as a shock to you. ūüėé

For many, many years my opinion has held firm that gentrification is a force for good in Philly. ¬†There are plenty of examples of gentrification pissing residents off. ¬† There are hordes of stories that there exist apartments located far away from bustling city centers north of $3,000 for a one bedroom. ¬†Tales of huge masses of people decamping for the wilderness as luxe living spreads like a cancer, eating everyone’s souls.

Many of those tales of decampment are re-told as if they’re the lives of vast swaths of Philadelphians. ¬†Every single anti-gentrification activist or group that has popped up imports these tales from out of town.

Gentrification just isn’t a problem here

Sure, gentrification does happen quite a lot in some top tier cities. ¬†New York, D.C., LA, London, Moscow, Boston. ¬† It’s a well-documented problem in San Francisco. ¬†Thousands of blog lamentations a day are posted to Medium.com from over there.

You know what San Francisco has that we don’t? ¬†A huge growth industry that pays very high salaries and keeps adding jobs by the day.

Salesforce Tower in San Francisco

A potent symbol of how much the tech industry has enveloped the whole Bay Area is now evident on its skyline: Salesforce Tower.   A building named for a website.

While we do have our signature companies in Philly (hint: it’s mostly just Comcast), our city is not a jobs engine. ¬†It hasn’t been since the end of the Korean War. ¬† So where is the money coming from to fuel all this residential construction we’ve had in Philly for the last 17 years? ¬†Simple. The¬†suburbs.

That suburban job growth is nowhere near as meteoric as New York, Boston or the Bay Area where the rents are pushed up due to income growth and job expansion in those places. ¬† Since 2000 there has also been a concentration of more creative and technical jobs to a few coastal cities that mostly leave places like Philly behind. ¬†Even with the recent attempts to incubate tech companies into the city, there just haven’t been very many 100-employee firms popping up. ¬† The university expansion of the 2000s and early this decade has also come to a halt so the growth of payrolls in that space is nearly dried up.

Until that situation changes and the City adopts a pro-business and pro-growth agenda, there’s no real need to fret over a few of Philly’s neighborhoods redeveloping. ¬†There certainly is not enough economic juice to spread redevelopment across the entire city much less blast house prices into the stratosphere.

People disinvesting from Philly is a real problem; gentrification is not.

Pew Study on Gentrification in Philadelphia

Don’t believe me? ¬†Here’s Pew Charitable Trusts own 2016 report¬†on Philly’s gentrification–it’s anemic. ¬†Far more worrisome for Philly is how much incomes and property values are falling in the city’s outer neighborhoods. ¬†That problem dwarfs what’s happening in Philly’s inner core.

Someone’s mad at Ori Feibush again

This decade is nearly over, and we’re still talking about Point Breeze and Kensington

Do you¬†know when gentrification began in Point Breeze? ¬†I do.¬†2006. ¬† The iPhone didn’t even exist yet. ¬†It’s only been a year since real-estate types have started openly¬†considering¬†projects in next-door Gray’s Ferry. ¬†And there’s still plenty more Point Breeze left to go.

Rehabbers have done most of the “gentrification” work while new home construction got most of the ire and disdain from activists. ¬†Home rehabbers tend to double if not triple the intrinsic value of an intact original Philly rowhome. ¬†The high cost of materials and labor in the city would normally dictate that nothing could ever get built without public subsidy. ¬†But it certainly is possible to find homes nobody would buy for more than $80K and turn them into a gut-and-remodel $250K.

Honestly though, without a jobs engine within Philadelphia itself juicing up demand multiple times above the level we have today–can you honestly say that Strawberry Mansion, Frankford or Tioga is going to get redeveloped? ¬† Commercial development in Philly is similarly anemic and relies heavily¬†on subsidy.

While it’s interesting that gentrification happens in highly visible neighborhoods in Philly where car drivers can see Fishtown from I-95 and the Devine Lorraine has finally been rehabbed, the outer neighborhoods have nothing to worry about.

Affordable Housing developments have mostly been a joke

This is one of the items that really angers me. ¬† Projects billed to the public as “affordable housing” are not what they seem. ¬†The biggest irritant with these tax-credit fueled projects is that they are not designed at all for original residents of any neighborhood they go in. ¬† Nobody who lives in Point Breeze and has lived out a portion of their life there ever transitions into these projects.

In many respects the projects are themselves gentrification–just with subsidies and a heavy reliance on getting the City to fork over the land below market value.

While affordable projects get all the warm-fuzzies from people who don’t know better, the same hurdles that are put up to stymie¬†market-rate developers also hit affordable housing developers. ¬† Namely the political games involved with Councilmanic privilege and brokering for lot assembly makes this type of redevelopment¬†slow and weak.

The City still will not push for infill development of existing rowhousing

Areas of Philly which still look bombed-out and are too far away from market development are still not seeing much love from the City. ¬†There has been no major effort to shift the City’s attention into housing preservation, where existing workforce housing is upgraded and blocks with middle vacant lots are replaced with a home.

A few non-profits exist do work in this space and also push the idea, like Kensington Renewal.

If we had the kind of gentrification that San Francisco gets, this problem would disappear quite rapidly. ¬†The thirst¬†for land combined with existing residents fighting upzoning pushes development to go horizontally. ¬†Can’t build four apartments in one lot? ¬†Build four houses by-right and rent them all out. Simple enough.

The racial component with all this

The biggest click-getter of all with gentrification is, of course, race. ¬† Anti-gentrification activists come in with an unspoken presumption that white and Asian people with jobs should only live in “their” respective corners of the city. ¬† When the activist doesn’t want to speak to race, she (zir?) will immediately divert to class. ¬†People with higher incomes shouldn’t live near poor people, that will make poor neighborhoods unaffordable.

While the anti-development “don’t build anything” crowd has some fun and very simplistic logic with theories, they’re crushed by the soulless private real estate market and centuries of private property law. ¬† Redevelopment certainly does bring in people with incomes that can afford to maintain the units they’re moving in to. ¬† Real estate also functions by¬†supply and demand, both the rental market and the sales market. ¬†More desirable areas tend to attract people who want to live in desirable areas based on the underlying value the neighborhood has–such as transportation and service.

Would a neighborhood that has bad access to transportation with no convenient way to reach amenities, a high crime rate, below-par schools, below-par housing coalesce into GentrificationTown? ¬†Not unless the neighborhood next door does. ¬†It doesn’t matter what race of people live there or what their incomes are.