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Is there hope for improving North Philadelphia’s gentrification problem? The solutions are varied

Jaylah Lee, Isaiah Allen, Kwesi Daniels, Judith Robinson and Cornelius Moody. March 24, 2017 Category: EventFeatureFeaturedLongMethod

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Editor's note: A previous version of this story stated erroneously that Isaiah Allen had been in foster care. It has been corrected. (3/27, 11:05 a.m.)
Ninth-grader Jaylah Lee has had to move with her family to different homes so often — their rent was being raised too much, the space was too small for all of her family members — that even in her current home of three years, she’s still afraid of what could happen the next day.

Isaiah Allen, also a ninth-grader and the oldest of five siblings, remembers a time when his family was able to settle into a comfortable home on the 1700 block of N. Diamond Street, only to be told they had to pack up and leave in two days or the police would show up. Since then, it’s been moving from home to home with his large family, which he said has a clear effect on his education.

“I never got to sit down in one place and learn,” he said.

These stories from Lee and Allen set the tone for what would be discussed at The Advocate Center for Culture and Education’s What Matters Forum about housing and gentrification in North Philadelphia on Thursday.

As someone who was born in 2000 and has been experiencing housing problems ever since he was little, Allen asked the somewhat bleak yet central question, “Is there any hope for change?”

A mural at the Church of the Advocate. (Photo by Albert Hong)

A mural at the Church of the Advocate. (Photo by Albert Hong)

Much of the area’s changes in the past few decades are due to development driven by nearby Temple University. New housing is catered to students, and property values and rents are increasing — which in turn has pushed out many long-term residents.

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Those aren’t the only problems, though.

Kwesi Daniels, a Ph.D candidate in Temple’s Department of Geography and Urban Studies, pointed out that in the face of practices like redlining in the city — which affects multiple generations of mostly African-Americans North Philadelphia residents — the notion of higher-quality housing creating higher-quality neighborhoods doesn’t take care of the problems that were already in an area. It just pushes them out further.

“We were put in North Philly,” Daniels said. “I think a way to combat that is we have to re-educate ourselves.”

Daniels, who was born and raised in Asbury Park, New Jersey, also mentioned that the tensions between the Temple student community and residents (the topic of discussion for The Advocate Center’s first What Matters Forum) need to improve if they want to avoid what he sees back home, where he said he feels like a stranger when he’s pulled over by a police officer who’s only been living in that area for five years.

(Rev. PJ Craig, executive director of The Advocate Center, prefaced the night’s discussion by saying that a partnership with Temple is moving forward, with collaborative events planned for the upcoming months.)

Judith Robinson, a local community activist with 30 years of real estate experience, made it obvious what organization she holds accountable for much of the dismay surrounding gentrification and housing in the area: the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

She said the government agency looks and acts differently than when the government agency used to represent low-income residents. Now, she sees the problem of “wheeling and dealing” going on in real estate — including that the PHA often forcefully claims property. At the heart of it, she said, “this is a social problem.”

“What I see is a lack of respect,” Robinson said. “It’s more of a disrespect for history.”

The What Matters Forum on housing and gentrification. (Photo by Albert Hong)

Audience members. (Photo by Albert Hong)

When the panel discussion opened to the audience for comments and questions, it became clear how the issues of housing and gentrification are inexplicably jumbled up with myriad other social problems — youth homelessness, “unscrupulous landlords” and funding being diverted to shelters when it could be directed to creating more affordable housing.

But as one Temple student said when she stood up to thank the two ninth-graders for sharing their stories, conversations like these are eye-opening and make room for change. Another audience member pointed out that it can start by politicians participating in these public discussions. (Rev. Dr. Renee McKenzie, chair of the board at the The Advocate Center and the panel’s moderator, said that the center invited politicians to the night’s event but no one showed up.)

To someone like Cornelius Moody, a Temple alum and member of the Philly Coalition for REAL Justice, housing and gentrification isn’t just a local issue, especially after hearing the living conditions experienced by Allen and Lee.

“What I heard today is the description of an experience of a refugee,” Moody said. “Literally everyone in the city should be concerned with gentrification.”

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