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Can Philly learn a lesson from the most gentrified city in America? | Ideas We Should Steal

Philly should mimic a Portland B Corp pushing a more inclusive process for building up a neighborhood.

Radix Consulting Group is a certified B Corp, to develop a process for community-inspired and community-led urban development in Portland, Oregon.
Radix Consulting Group is a certified B Corp, to develop a process for community-inspired and community-led urban development in Portland, Oregon.Read moreRadix Consulting Group LLC

"Ideas We Should Steal" is a regular feature of the Philadelphia Citizen, which will be holding an Ideas We Should Steal Festival on Nov. 30.

Cat Goughnour returned home to Portland, Ore., from London with a master's degree in sociology from the London School of Economics under her belt, excited to pursue a job in the field and move in with her brother, who owned a home in North Portland. Instead, she spent a year living with her mom in a friend's garage because her brother's house was foreclosed on, partially as a result of rising property costs.

Goughnour had been displaced, she and her family collateral damage of a neighborhood they could no longer afford, a common occurrence in Portland, considered the most gentrified city in America.  She joined a few regional housing advisory councils, and quickly noticed that even when city residents sat on these councils, they often weren't the people +— poor and African American — who would likely be negatively impacted by new city developments.

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So Goughnour founded Radix Consulting Group, a certified B Corp., to develop a process for community-inspired and community-led urban development that would benefit everyone. Along with an antidisplacement group, ADPDX, Radix developed 11 community-focused principles of land use, including shifting some funds to help keep people in their homes, emphasizing "permanently affordable" models of home ownership, instituting renter protections, and deliberately including lower-income community members of color in the development planning process.

"What we've found is there is an understanding that gentrification is happening but there isn't a focus on people," she says. "There's a lot of focus on place. It's not looked at as a public health issue, which it is."

A version of those principles were included in Portland's 2035 Comprehensive Plan, published in 2016. The comprehensive plan only went into effect this past May, but Goughnour spent the intervening months demonstrating how it could work in real life. Radix took on the Albina District, the historic heart of Portland's black community, and created a master plan for the area that included a pedestrian corridor to connect neighborhoods, with an entertainment venue, a community resource center, and a food market, as well as increased building of small housing as an affordable option for residents who might otherwise be pushed out.

The development plan, Right to Root, has not yet been adopted, but Goughnour is talking to the city and others – like Detroit and Minneapolis – about how to implement some of its ideas.

"The goal is to really show that for a very nominal amount of money or a land transfer of underutilized land, we could build a hub for everything else to happen," explains Goughnour.

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Unlike in Portland, Philadelphia is at a point where gentrification can still be managed. As a Pew Report noted in 2016, most Philly neighborhoods, even those around Center City, are not experiencing the financial upheaval that signals gentrification. But there are significant indicators of what's at stake. In Graduate Hospital, the percent of mostly working-class African American residents dropped from 90 percent to 38 percent from 2000 to 2014. In parts of North Philly, the median home value tripled between 2000 and 2012, while the median income decreased by 6 percent.

Right now, says John Landis, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia's approach to property development is progressive on paper. If a developer wants to embark on a project that isn't up to code — and the vast majority of them are not — they must apply for a variance. To get that variance from the Zoning Board, he must obtain a letter from the neighborhood's Registered Community Organization, or RCO, which engages with the community, provides feedback, and either supports the project or doesn't.

But not all RCOs are created equal and many projects can be approved without their support. Take the Temple football stadium, for example. The project is roiling residents' tempers; though no residents would be displaced, neighbors fear rowdy crowds and higher rents and complain that besides students, the university has not engaged the community in its planning.

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Ensuring collaboration would mean a shift in how planning happens in Philadelphia. Landis says the best way would be for the city to hire urban design consultants to work with RCOs to bring the ideas of community members to fruition, something Vancouver, British Columbia, has dabbled with. Otherwise, the work is simply "an exercise in community aspiration."

In Portland, Goughnour acknowledges that it will take more than just changing the planning process to ensure people can stay in their homes. She has also begun tackling the problem in other ways, by setting up community markets allow black small-business owners to build financial capital and starting a collective that supports black women in Portland creating or scaling up small businesses.

Jill Harkins originally wrote this for the Philadelphia Citizen.