Part III in a series by Dylan Lewis, ecoWURD Senior Producer
We can’t talk about affordable housing without talking about gentrification. The Urban Displacement Project describes gentrification as “a process of neighborhood change that includes economic change in a historically disinvested neighborhood —by means of real estate investment and new higher-income residents moving in – as well as demographic change – not only in terms of income level, but also in terms of changes in the education level or racial make-up of residents.”
Gentrification, similar to “affordable housing,” has transformed into a type of jargon where corporate landlords can claim to care about it – yet, meanwhile, they are fundamentally furthering the displacement of neighborhood residents. Gentrification is not a mythology, it’s not some tall tale. It has real human consequences that rupture neighborhoods and destroy communities. Ty Brown illustrates it best …
“We grew up in our neighborhoods, vibrant, sitting on our front steps with our friends, with our neighbors and what happened? When you move out of your neighborhood–you might be forced out of your neighborhood–you move for whatever reason and you go back to your old block where your grandparents lived or where you were or are still in and it’s not the same anymore. Now there are signs that say “no loitering” and you’re sitting there on your neighbor’s steps that you sat on for your entire life. And suddenly a police officer rolls up and says, “I need to see your ID” and then it’s like “Well, you can’t be loitering right here.” You can’t be standing in front of this corner store. You can’t. It’s like those things that are cultural staples of ours that make us maintain community and maintain community bonds are being stripped from us. And it’s still being done in a structural way. It’s changing the face of our neighborhoods and changing our ability to organize holistically in a way that we’re not just joining organizations, but we’re also just talking to our neighbors. Because that is happening, the exchange of information and our ability to build bonds and really build a self-determination model for our communities is evaporating right before us, along with the practice of gentrification and actual bodies being displaced out of our neighborhoods.”
The story Brown told is one that many Philadelphians know all too well. In 2019, The Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities reported that between 2000 and 2016, North, West and South Philadelphia all saw a decrease in the number of Black residents while seeing an influx of white residents. In West Philadelphia, there was a 35 percent decrease in Black residents and a sharp increase of 74 percent in white residents. These statistics are just a snapshot of how gentrification plagues our city. While we can see the numbers, we can also see the dissolution of community institutions and values.
The Path Forward
The unaffordable housing crisis is an environmental crisis. EcoWURD magazine is about solving problems related to environmental injustice. Here were some of the solutions that our guests provided …
New Housing Models
There are other ways to create affordable housing outside the model of building more rentals. Some of the panelists proposed other models that would allow people to control their housing versus being subject to the control of the state or landlords.
“I think we have to also broaden our definition of home ownership of not just thinking about kind of the one one family home with a white picket fence, but look at co-op and condo models as well and figure out how do we expand the notion of equity within the context of housing and making sure that all classes and races of people get access to to those homeownership opportunities,” said Sen, Parker. The housing cooperative (co-op) model that Parker proposes is promising. The corporation consists of individual shareholders who own the real estate, and each shareholder possesses a unit within the building. Another model for affordable housing includes community land trusts where a non-profit organization develops land on behalf of the community. The Community Justice Land Trust in Philadelphia has built several rent-to-own properties in Port Richmond and has plans to build more in other neighborhoods.
New Policy Tools
Policy innovation would allow for a full-on approach where the government would play a crucial role in helping citizens obtain housing.
“During the pandemic, we developed a lot of innovative policy tools that were emergency solutions, such as the rental assistance program here in Philadelphia,” said Sen. Saval. “There was a pioneering effort to combine rental assistance with eviction diversion so that no one who was facing an eviction could be evicted without having exhausted every attempt at applying for rental assistance. This cut evictions by 75 percent in the fourth highest evicting city in the country, basically pointing to a model in which you could end poverty-based eviction.” The free Eviction Diversion Program that Saval describes operates out of the city’s Department of Planning and Development and allows landlords and tenants to go through mediation to avoid eviction and create sustainable agreements.
Communities will also, simply, need to find ways to fight back. “Localities haven’t been able to articulate and replicate legislative packages that effectively counter gentrification at the city and state levels, let alone nationwide,” argues Dr. G.S. Potter. “There have been wins, but they have not been scaled. Community leaders working at the city and state levels need to unify and share best practices to organize communities and pass protective policies.”
Affordable rent is only a temporary solution to a systemic problem. For a more permanent solution, there must be a conversation about home ownership.
“I think we need to be clear about, especially in my work with the Black Homeownership Project, are we trying to get individual people rich off their housing by using it as an investment and speculative asset? Or are we trying to house everyone long term, affordably, permanently?” asked Bazile. “Is the answer to correct this injustice then getting more Black and Hispanic households into the traditional market-based homeownership? Or is the answer to change the rules of the housing market game fundamentally and to make it more just? And so when I’m thinking about solutions, I’m thinking about not just tweaking on the edges of the market-based system to make it incrementally better for a select few individuals.”
Inclusionary zoning/zoning reform is another way for the government to solve the current housing problem. Local governments could regulate the landscape of affordable and inclusionary housing by controlling the zoning of specific areas. Lauren Bealore broke it down …
Zoning allows local governments to regulate which areas under their jurisdiction may have real estate or land use for particular purposes. Some zoning classifications include residential, commercial, agricultural, industrial or hospitality, among other specific designations. Those zoning laws can be changed by local government, and this is where policymakers are so important and vital to drive this conversation around inclusionary zoning, also known as inclusionary housing. These policies that mandate or encourage developments to dedicate a share of homes to low or moderate-income families are inclusionary housing strategies. The most common method is inclusionary zoning, which creates specific affordability targets.
Despite several attempts from different members of City Council, Philadelphia still needs widespread inclusionary zoning laws. As of right now, there is a bonus for mixed-income house zoning. Developers can add more space in exchange for allotting some of the units in their projects to affordable housing or paying into a fund that goes to affordable housing.
One huge thing city and state governments can do is restrict developers.
They can tell developers that they can’t build in certain areas. They can put caps on rental and home prices. All they have to do is want to do so. “We can tell builders they can’t build in communities of color. We can do that. We can pass rent control. We can renegotiate landlord agreements to make sure they’re longer and that they benefit renters. We can do protections legislatively to make sure people stay in their homes.” The system that we currently have in place does not benefit renters, but rather it serves the landlords. However, we should place restrictions on developers. In that case, we can change the landscape to benefit the majority instead of the wealthy minority.
Starting with the Money
One significant issue brought up during the panel discussion was the structural barriers of banking.
Looking to alternative models for individual housing would open up opportunities for people who currently face barriers to obtaining loans or mortgages. “Other things that are needed to address this would be looking at CDFIs or community development; these are financial institutions that can help communities address these gaps […] So this model involves providing loans, training and technical assistance to resident organizations,” said Bealore. Community First Fund is a regional example of one of the community development financial institutions (CDFI) described by Bealore. CDFIs serve low-income communities and help them build capital and create affordable housing.
While affordable housing seems like an issue concerning physical space, it is about the people and community.
The UC Townhomes situation in West Philadelphia is a prime example of the community mobilizing to protect their homes and their neighborhood. “The first thing is what we’re doing now, which is expanding the conversation about housing and organizing ourselves and getting people who are like minded and see housing as a fundamental right to work together and organize,” said Sen. Parker. A broader example of organizing is the Philadelphia Tenants Union: an organization dedicated to empowering tenants and organizing against gentrification. Another great example of organizing is the Philadelphia Rent Control Coalition, which advocates for capping rental prices and increases.
The people hold power when it comes to voting. Now is a prime time to take advantage of democracy and elect city officials who will prioritize creating inclusive housing for the people of Philadelphia.
The upcoming Democratic primary for mayor is May 16, 2023. That primary will, presumably, pick the next mayor given the city’s current political composition. Each candidate is vested in obtaining the vote from the people of Philadelphia. Before casting your vote, research candidates’ positions on fair housing practices.”If developers have pieces that support certain candidates you’re going to want to be wary of that because you have to protect yourself. That’s where everything has to be rooted in protecting the vulnerable communities,” said Dr. G.S. Potter. Some candidates with connections to the real estate industry include “Condo King” Allen Domb and former state rep. Amen Brown. This mayoral race will be instrumental in determining the future of affordable housing in our city. Brown described it best when he said, “We need a city that is determined for us by people that are us. Also people that are principled may not look like us, but they’re principled enough to know that the way that we build this movement is through people power, and we have to cultivate that.”
The problem of unaffordable housing is a complex one. To tackle the crisis, a multi-pronged approach – where all actors cooperate to make housing equitable for the people – would have to be adopted. A long-term solution would require a massive paradigm shift where we treat housing as a universal right. “For me, it comes back to do we want to keep continuing to work and maintain and exist in this broken system–a market-based system–that continues to produce discriminatory outcomes?” Said Bazile, “Or do we want to separate ourselves from it? Untangle ourselves from it, and remove ourselves from the speculative market. Create alternative models, public housing, community land trusts and cooperatives, again that increase governance and ownership or stewardship that allow for people to control their own self-determination, destiny and autonomy.”