Philadelphia’s population and prosperity fell so far for so long that any bit of good news used to be welcome. But two decades of real estate development in Center City, University City, and a half dozen other fast-evolving neighborhoods, as well as an increase in the number of residents for the first time since 1950, have raised expectations.
Take the recent federal report that found Philly’s poverty rate edging down from 25.7% in 2016 to 24.5% in 2018. It drew little attention (perhaps because we’re still the poorest of the nation’s biggest cities, even as the number trends downward).
Other recent data also offer a sobering perspective, but do suggest priorities to lift up more of Philly’s struggling citizens for the new decade.
Education, job training, and capital improvements in neighborhoods citywide — smart, targeted, training-to-job pipelines, not press releases — can help enfranchise swaths of the city that continue to struggle. Nurturing an innovation economy in neighborhoods with unique locational, architectural, or transit advantages also is in order.
Consider: An unprecedented nine straight years of job growth have the city approaching, but still 23 percent below, 1970 employment levels. Much of the increase is in unskilled, low-wage service positions.
And as The Inquirer’s Alfred Lubrano reported last week, new census data show median incomes have fallen in 39 neighborhoods; among the latter are every section of Northeast Philadelphia save for Bridesburg. And 30 percent of the zip codes in Philadelphia continue to lose population.
So: Those lively streets and stylish new buildings gracing the Center City-University City core and surrounding neighborhoods seem to have had scant positive impact on the lives, let alone, the livelihoods, of the one in four Philly residents who live in poverty.
A City Council measure approved this month to require Community Benefit Agreements as part of certain major development projects could have more impact by formalizing ad hoc practices that have worked well between some developers and neighborhood groups. CBAs typically provide affordable housing, public improvements, or job training to attract public support for a project; as Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron wrote last week, 50 North Philly residents are being hired and trained as building trade apprentices at a construction project in the West Poplar neighborhood. The bill, which was heavily amended before approval, leaves open an opportunity for Council and the Kenney administration to write rules and regulations that can give CBAs more power and help more citizens.
More people working at jobs that pay well would begin to lift up the city’s poorest neighborhoods and would share the wealth-creating effects of real estate development not just with out-of-town condo buyers and investors, but with everyday citizens already living here. Inclusive growth policies also must work hand-in-hand with local and state efforts to reform the criminal justice system. Mass incarceration — one in 14 African American males in the city are under supervision by the criminal justice system — deeply damages the employment prospects of tens of thousands of city residents.
In many respects the era when managing the city’s decline has passed. Now the goal must be to ensure that all Philadelphians can share in their city’s rise.