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15 changes Philly needs most in 2019 | Opinion

Suggestions from Malcolm Jenkins, Helen Gym, Ed Rendell, and others.

We asked 15 prominent Philadelphians: What's the most important change Philly needs in 2019?
We asked 15 prominent Philadelphians: What's the most important change Philly needs in 2019?Read moreStaff/Handout (custom credit)

As 2018 draws to a close, it’s a good time to take stock of accomplishments (Hello, Super Bowl) and missed opportunities (Goodbye, Amazon).

It’s also an opportunity to look to the days ahead, to be optimistic about what the future might hold. The Inquirer’s Opinion department has spent the last few weeks asking people from around the region: What is the most important change the Philadelphia region needs to see in 2019?

Rethink the criminal justice system

Philly has powerfully reformed criminal justice, reducing our jail population by almost 40 percent in three years. While we’ve made headlines as a model city for its progress, our beloved city has also generated national attention for commonsense reforms that have yet to be put in place … specifically around parole.

One out of every 22 Philadelphians is on probation or parole. A staggering 55 percent of people in Philly jails are held indefinitely on a “detainer,” with almost no chance at pretrial release, because they are accused, but not convicted, of some new crime or a small violation. They cannot be bailed out.

In a city where people receive decades-long probation terms, the risk of returning to jail on any accusation looms large. To keep people home where they belong, instead of in jail away from families, treatment, and employment, we must rethink this detainer and probation system. The time is now. — Malcolm Jenkins, Eagles safety and Players Coalition Cofounder

Don’t waste money

Philadelphia has so much going for it, but we need to make sure that our local government doesn’t hold back our city. Too often, city tax dollars are wasted, or used to benefit the connected few instead of the majority of our residents. People know this, and they want change.

By spending tax dollars more carefully and with the majority of residents in mind, Philadelphia would have more resources to invest in the biggest challenges facing Philadelphia — the opioid crisis, the trauma of gun violence, and our high rate of poverty. Government could then start rebuilding the trust we’ve lost from years of corruption and waste. And, the city would be able to provide better services to our residents. — Rebecca Rhynhart, Philadelphia city controller

Set up a safe injection site

Philadelphia has felt the negative effects of the opioid epidemic in a very real way. In 2017, 1,217 people died of an overdose in Philadelphia. But there is a way to reduce this carnage in the future: Set up a safe injection site.

At a safe injection site, users would bring their own drugs and needles and inject themselves in the presence of trained medical personnel. Before users take any drugs, they will have to meet with counselors who will urge them to get treatment and can immediately place them in a treatment program. If the users choose to take drugs, the trained medical professionals will be prepared to administer Naloxone, an overdose reversal medication, in the event that the user has a bad reaction, which is not uncommon given the level of fentanyl found in heroin in Philadelphia.

Experience in other cities shows that a safe injection site is likely to save somewhere between 25 and 75 lives per year.

Critics of safe injection sites have argued that sites would promote illegal activity and would violate the federal law designed to stop crack houses. I don’t believe that the people who drafted this federal legislation intended to apply it to volunteer medical personnel trying to save lives. Additionally, because of the severity of the opioid epidemic in Philadelphia, I believe prosecutors should use their discretion and refrain from enforcing the law. Federal prosecutors do this routinely. Prevention Point’s needle-exchange program has been an unqualified success in its 25 years of operation and it too technically violates federal law, but no harm has been done to the community. Safe injection sites are the next step to stemming this crisis. — Edward G. Rendell, former governor of Pennsylvania

Pass gun laws to save lives

As Meek Mill said, "Despite all the adversity we’ve been through, it feels like our time is right now.” You might think it odd for me to quote Meek, but he’s absolutely right. Philadelphia’s time is now. But only if we seize it. That’s what 2019 is all about: seizing opportunity for everyone in our region, regardless of circumstance or zip code. One of the more startling things I learned in 2018 is that our children participate in active shooter drills at school. We must pass laws that save lives; we must ask more of our gun owners than we do of our children. These laws will not infringe on anyone’s Second Amendment rights. These laws will adhere to every individual’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We need laws to keep guns out of the hands of those who should not possess them. — Madeleine Dean, congresswoman-elect for Pennsylvania’s 4th District

Stop economic violence

Philadelphia has the highest child poverty rate among America’s biggest cities. Where there is poverty, there is greed among the business people who refuse to pay living wages, and cowardice among our leaders who allow this economic violence to continue. Adults of the region should stop pretending that “charity” is a solution. Charity is embarrassing for everyone. No one should suffer the humiliation of waiting in line for low-quality, secondhand food, or wait for hours at a community center for random donated holiday toys they take home in a trash bag. For those of us trying to prevent homelessness and despair, we need to do less “case management” and do more this year to generate collective power, where families can demand their right to food, to health, to prosperity, and to peace. Philadelphia’s children deserve better schools, safer neighborhoods, living wages for their parents, and more beautiful places to play and to be free. — Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities and co-principal investigator of Children’s HealthWatch

Repair the schools

We can and should measure the state of our city through the health and wellness of our young people. For the last year, the Philadelphia Inquirer has devoted its pages to the devastating impact of unhealthy aging school buildings. None of us can be complacent when reading stories about a third grader who was poisoned at his school because he ate paint chips off his desk to keep his space clean. Repairing schools is not just a School District concern. These are community investments, job opportunities, and a promise to our future. We need equitable, permanent funding sources to do this urgent work, including fixing the tax abatement program, which costs our children hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for their schools while some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods remain the beneficiaries. We need all entities at the table to figure out solutions — business, higher education, health care, educators, and elected officials. We can’t rest until every city school that reflects the promise of the children inside of them. — Helen Gym, Philadelphia city councilmember

Let Philadelphia be average

In the nine years since the recession, Philadelphia has added jobs every year, an average of 1.4 percent increase per year since 2010, our longest winning streak in decades. But these gains pale in comparison to the average annual growth of the 25 largest cities in America (2.3 percent per year) or even the national average (1.7 percent per year). Had we been average we would have had about 50,000 more jobs than we do today — the equivalent of Amazon coming to Philadelphia.

The recession devastated those limited in education or skills. Philadelphia’s poverty rate surged from 23.8 percent to 28.4 percent from 2007 to 2011. As we started adding jobs, the number in poverty declined by 4,600 each year; dropping the rate to 25.7 percent. That’s still appallingly high, but the message is clear: Grow jobs, reduce poverty.

So why do we grow so slowly? Two diverse tax commissions suggested looking in the mirror: Support government with high taxes on workers and business and both will leave. Rely more on real estate taxes, there’ll be more growth and more for schools. Among big cities, we have the highest wage tax and the highest poverty. We’re the only big city taxing both gross and net incomes of business.

Better tax policy sounds boring. But it’s the best way to beat the averages, expanding growth citywide. — Paul R. Levy, president and CEO of Center City District

Forget ‘best’ once in a while

I’ve lived in Philadelphia since 2000 and experienced its boom — in housing, dining, the arts – in positive ways. But the fact is, a lot of people born and bred here are not experiencing the same Philadelphia that I am. There’s a big gap between those with enough wealth to enjoy the city’s assets and those who can’t pay their bills. When I read a headline about how Philly is the best city for millennials, say, or for empty nesters from the suburbs, I wonder: “What did we sacrifice to be ‘the best’ in that category? How can we make this the best city for everyone?” For all of our accomplishments, we’re still the poorest big city in America. In 2019, I’d like us to start talking about ways to meet somewhere in the middle, so that our new “bests” don’t make life worse for those without wealth. Making progress doesn’t have to mean being the best in something. It can also mean making things better than they were the day or week before, making the city more livable for more people. — Tiffany Tavarez, vice president of community relations at Wells Fargo

Use tax incentives to create change

Realizing the full impact of the new federal Opportunity Zones tax incentive is the most important effort that the Philadelphia region could undertake in 2019. This new tool gives private investors the ability to defer, reduce, and even eliminate capital gains taxes if they target their investments to designated low-income areas. With aligned public and philanthropic resources, this new tool could help raise and deploy private capital for investments in low-income communities. This could produce and preserve affordable housing, support female- and minority-owned businesses, revitalize former industrial properties, advance energy efficiency, and build wealth. Philadelphia has an enviable concentration of experienced practitioners in local government and entities like the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, Ben Franklin Technology Partners, the Reinvestment Fund, the Enterprise Center, and Shift Capital. These institutions and individuals could drive smart investments and create norms and models for the rest of the country to follow. — Bruce Katz, cofounder and director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab at Drexel University

Don’t forget diversity

The most important change we need is an embrace of economic growth strategies where people of color, women, people with disabilities, immigrants, and refugees are shaping policies and programs that directly impact our communities. By ensuring that decision-making bodies in government and business reflect our increasingly diverse population, we improve the odds of making smart investments in our education and workforce systems, health care and social services, infrastructure, housing, and transportation systems.

I look forward to 2019 with great optimism knowing that more than 75 dynamic people have recently completed the Welcoming Center’s Immigrant Leadership Institute and have already begun to share their ideas and engage hundreds more in conversations with business leaders and elected officials. These exchanges have led to the development of new approaches for recruiting diverse talent, promoting English language learning, delivering health-care services, and supporting entrepreneurs in accessing capital to launch new businesses. — Peter Gonzales, president and CEO Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians

Eradicate homelessness in Philadelphia

Homelessness is a complex issue that is solvable in our lifetime, but surging social forces have put us on the verge of a new homeless crisis. The rise in addiction, coupled with growing poverty, mental illness, and young adults experiencing homelessness is elevating the issue to a whole new level.

The critical change Philadelphia needs to see in 2019 is our community coming together, forging critical partnerships to address the issues of addiction and other underlying causes of homelessness.

Project HOME understands the impact these new forces create and responded with MPOWER, a public-private partnership that draws on a powerful network of people and ideas to scale solutions. In less than a decade, MPOWER has multiplied Project HOME’s impact by 163 power. Through the partnership, Project HOME leveraged $25 million into more than $250 million, providing services to more than 15,000 people and ending chronic street homelessness for more than 2,000 people.

My wife, Leigh, and I share Project HOME’s bold goal of eradicating homelessness in Philadelphia, and we believe we can make tremendous strides by supporting the organization’s work. Let’s make 2019 the year we make it happen. — John Middleton, philanthropist, Phillies managing partner

Create a citywide, intersectional approach to dealing with poverty

We need to better address the disproportionate impact of poverty, unemployment, and homelessness on specific populations, including LGBTQ people of color and especially transgender women of color. Even when controlling for levels of education, these populations are still underpaid and underemployed.

While Philadelphia offers a wealth of services for underserved communities, we need to create and offer intentional resources to address the intersectional oppressions our communities often face. For example, when we provide job preparation programs, we could couple them with expungement clinics to address the over-policing of transgender people and communities of color. Additionally, being able to work requires being healthy enough to work, and we know that LGBTQ+ people, poor folks, immigrants, and people with disabilities face disparate health outcomes. My office and the Mayor’s Commission on LGBTQ Affairs provide resources to LGBTQ Philadelphians, but there’s always more work to be done. Let’s make it a citywide effort. — Amber Hikes, executive director, Office of LGBT Affairs, Office of Mayor Jim Kenney

Grow the next generation of leaders

Philadelphia’s success is rooted in the success of its people, and nowhere is this city’s booming energy more evident than in the thriving start-up and tech communities. However, there can be financial and cultural barriers that make it hard for everyone who wants to be a part of these communities to learn and grow. This can make it hard to build the next generation of leaders.

I’d like Philly’s start-up and tech communities to focus on a cohesive growth strategy that includes collaboration between businesses, institutions, community organizations, politicians, and residents in order to truly move the entire city forward. Voices from all corners and communities deserve a seat at the table, even if that means building a bigger table. — Kiera Smalls, executive director of Philly Startup Leaders and cofounder of City Fit Girls

See Philly as a true international city

In 2019, one of Global Philadelphia’s major areas of focus will be the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We urge Greater Philadelphia businesses and communities to get behind these goals, which include eliminating poverty, providing quality education, taking care of the environment, and promoting gender equality, among others. Our collective work toward the SDGs will not only boost our region’s economic and social well-being but also increase the Greater Philadelphia area’s visibility internationally as a forward-thinking destination for commerce and tourism, and create more goodwill for our community as a force for inclusion, equality, and sustainability.

There is great opportunity and power in collaborating with the business sector to intentionally promote everything Philadelphia, the United States’ first World Heritage City, has to offer the world and effectively boost our region’s international standing in the process. — Rob McNeill, chair, Global Philadelphia Association and Greater Philadelphia managing partner, Deloitte

Make kids’ health a top priority

While Philadelphia has much to celebrate, we can’t lose sight of the fact that it’s a place where thousands of children struggle. Many of our youngest residents are hungry, homeless, and unhealthy. Some of these challenges are linked to their environment: The neighborhoods children live in and even the condition of their homes have a profound impact on their health.

Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has many initiatives that address the crises our children face, including a partnership with the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation, that creates healthier housing for children with asthma.

In 2019, we will call on others to join us to combat issues such as behavioral health, obesity, and violence. Together, we can ensure that every child – no matter their zip code – has a fair chance at a healthy future. — Madeline Bell, president and CEO, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia