Most Philadelphians can’t afford Center City. Can inclusionary zoning make a difference?

City Council is pushing for mixed-income housing while Philly is being called a “tale of two cities.”

Philadelphia skyline
Flickr via ChrisinPhilly5448

Anne Fadullon, the city’s director of planning and development, spoke first during a City Council hearing this week about inclusionary zoning, becoming the first to answer a question posed many times throughout the session: Is Philadelphia turning into a tale of two cities?

“I believe,” she said, “we’re on that path.”

Others would go back to the phrase as the hearing over the bill continued. The bill, sponsored by Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, as well as Clarke, Kenyatta Johnson and Jannie Blackwell, aims to spur the construction of more affordable housing by mandating developers to include these units on their properties or contributing several thousand dollars per developed unit to the Housing Trust Fund. The current rendition of the bill affects only developments in high-density areas, i.e. Center City and parts of University City.

Developers and leaders of neighborhood associations criticized the bill’s focus on Center City, some believing it would stall development and make housing less affordable elsewhere in Philadelphia. Proponents of the bill believe it will lead to mixed income housing and ensure Center City isn’t just a playground for the wealthy.

But Center City has mostly become that playground. It is startlingly different from the rest of Philadelphia in terms of rent, education, income  and more. The typical Philadelphian is mostly not represented in Center City and cannot afford to live there

Census data for the tracts encompassing a popular definition for Center City (Vine Street to South Street, river to river), compared with data from outsides these boundaries, show Philadelphia already has “a tale of two cities.”

The income and poverty gap

Philadelphia has for years held the distinction of the poorest of America’s 10 largest cities. The median annual household income here is about $38,000 and about 27 percent of Philadelphians are under the federal poverty level.

As Pew reported earlier this month, Philadelphia has a greater concentration of its metro area’s poor residents than most other big cities in metro areas across the country. This income segregation plays out within the city, too. Center City has a much lower share of impoverished residents compared to the rest of Philly.

In Center City, 15 percent of people are under the federal poverty level, and 74 percent of households make more than $35,000 per year — essentially more than Philly’s median income. The only parts of Center City with income and poverty levels comparable to the rest of Philadelphia are Chinatown and Market East.

It’s almost impossible for people making near the median income of Philadelphia to live in Center City because rent is so high.

The rent gap

Proponents of the inclusionary zoning bill have stated over and over the importance of affordable housing and how it’s necessary for families to have a stable residence before tackling education and other issues afflicting the city.

Philadelphia is still a bargain for housing on a regional scale. Home prices and rents here are well below those of other major East Coast cities. But “affordable housing” as defined by the government and the affordable housing we’d think as befitting Philadelphia’s median income households are nearly impossible to come by — especially in Center City.

According to Census data, only 15 percent of rents are offered at less than $1,000 a month in Center City. In Philadelphia, excluding Center City, the number below $1,000 a month is 77 percent. Between $1,000 and $1,250 is about the limit a household with the median income of $38,000 could afford without being overburdened by rent. So the typical Philadelphian can afford about 15 percent of rentals in Center City.

Quiñones-Sánchez and others are attempting to alleviate that problem with this bill. They want more housing options for the working class in downtown Philly, believing closer proximity to work would benefit them. Most jobs in Center City don’t require a college education, even though most people living in Center City have bachelor’s or advanced degrees.

The education gap

According to the Center City District, core Center City (defined as Vine to Pine streets, river to river) features 248,000 jobs. About 32 percent of those jobs can be attained with an associate’s degree and 30 percent a high school degree. That leaves 38 percent requiring at least a college degree.

Philadelphia has plenty of residents who have not earned higher education degrees qualified for and working those 62 percent of Center City jobs. Very few of them, however, live in Center City. Just 22 percent of the 45,000 people over age 18 living in Center City are not college graduates and 78 percent have a bachelor’s or advanced degree. This is almost the exact opposite of the rest of Philly. Outside Center City, 77 percent of the 978,000 residents over age 18 lack a college degree and 23 percent have one.

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