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As wealth and population flowed back to America’s urban centers at the turn of the millennium, reversing decades of decline, Philly was a center of the new growth.

The upside: median incomes and property values grew in neighborhoods that had seen years of disinvestment and systemic racism that led to deep poverty. The downside: The growth sometimes accompanied displacement or discomfort of longtime neighborhood residents, many of them Black and brown.

Can there be development without displacement? Can growth be regulated so it happens with the least amount of harm?

Billy Penn posed the question to the candidates for Philly mayor. Four of them provided cohesive answers.

By the start of the 2010s, Philadelphia was one of the seven most gentrified cities in the country, per a study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

“Gentrification is our number one problem,” longtime Point Breeze resident Betty Buford told Billy Penn in late September, standing with her neighbors at a Save Black Point Breeze rally. “We are losing our community, our history, and you have nothing to fall back on because it replaces us,” she said. “That’s what gentrification does. It’s another money-making deal.”

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In Point Breeze (as in Fishtown), median household incomes have risen $40,000 or more in the past 10 years. At the same time, Point Breeze has seen a drop in African American population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which found the share of Black residents decreased from 37% in 2011 to 28% in 2021.

Over the past half-decade, Philadelphia has implemented policies that try to curb the negative effects of gentrification — and the efforts have been nationally recognized.

In a 2019 followup to the NCRC gentrification study mentioned above, Beth McConnell of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations enumerated some of those policies, and suggested Philly could serve as an example of how to uplift the city’s economy without undue harm.

How do the people who want to be Philly’s next mayor see it? Here’s what they said.

Cherelle Parker

Cherelle Parker, who joined City Council in 2016 as the representative for Northwest Philly’s District 9 but resigned to run for mayor earlier this year, pointed to several initiatives she championed while in office..

She acknowledged that gentrification — which she defined as “when newer, wealthier residents move into historically poor or working class neighborhoods and price out long-time residents” — is happening in areas of the city many people never thought it would reach.

However, Parker said, “the prime culprit for the negative effect of gentrification is that the city hasn’t put in place enough effective programs and guardrails to help preserve the identity and affordability of these neighborhoods, and to keep people who have lived there a long time in the homes they love.”

As examples, she mentioned programs like the Philly First Home program, which gives grants up to $10,000 for down payments and closing costs to new homeowners, and the Restore, Repare, Renew program and Basic Systems Repair program, which give loans or grants for necessary fixes to help people stay in their houses.

When it comes to new construction, Parker said, “the city has several levers to pull to ensure that private developers are held accountable and build truly affordable housing.”

She pointed to the Philadelphia Land Bank and the Neighborhood Preservation Initiative, and advocated for passing a new tax break only for buildings that offer affordable housing units in areas that have blighted properties.

“It is through expansion of programs like the ones I’ve been working on my entire career,” Parker said, “[that] the city can implement smart planning to take us into the next 30-50 years continuing the tradition of strong neighborhoods that are the backbone of Philadelphia.”

Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Helen Gym

Helen Gym, who had served in an at-large seat on City Council since 2016 before stepping down to run for Philly’s highest office, also pointed to her past affordable housing work on the legislative body — but added that “as Mayor, I’m ready to do far more.”

One of her main focuses in this regard is changes to tax policy, which she believes should be continually reviewed and tweaked as conditions change.

Gym called herself the leading advocate for reforming Philly’s existing 10-year tax abatement, which she said “no longer served its original purpose and instead resulted in the richest neighborhoods getting the overwhelming majority of the benefit.”

She also touted her work in creating Philadelphia’s program for helping renters avoid getting evicted, which has been held up as a national model.

If elected, Gym said she would convene a new commission to overhaul the city’s tax structure “to better ensure equity alongside growth,” while working closely with the housing and development community to continue to refine the tax incentives.

“I have every intention to grow Philadelphia, and I’m equally determined that true development must lead to safety, quality schools, decent transit and affordable housing in every single one of our neighborhoods, not just a select few,” Gym said.

“I invite developers to be partners in that vision. We should aspire to be a city where lifelong residents can afford to stay and where others will want to come.”

Maria Quiñones Sánchez

Maria Quiñones Sánchez, who served four terms in the District 7 seat on City Council until resigning to run for mayor, noted that she grew up in public housing and has represented some of the poorest and most rapidly changing neighborhoods in Philadelphia.

“Gentrification happens when government doesn’t have an aggressive policy to ensure diverse mixed income neighborhoods, allowing the “market” forces to displace long-term residents,” Quiñones Sánchez said.

She called herself “the leading voice on Council” pushing for investments in affordable housing and creating tools to preserve affordability.

As examples, she pointed to programs that allow for income-based payment plans for city debt and initiatives that prevent foreclosure for things like nonpayment of water bills.

Quiñones Sánchez has long been an advocate of mandatory inclusionary zoning, which would require developers to set aside a portion of any new construction as affordably priced units, including some that would have to be on the project site.

She also mentioned the mixed-income housing bonus and transit-oriented development as a way to stave off displacement, and said some of these solutions were piloted in the 7th District, and then found success citywide.

“We created welcoming, multigenerational spaces that prioritize the needs of long-term residents,” Quiñones Sánchez said. “Intentional public policy can absolutely support the growth of diverse, mixed-income neighborhoods without displacing long-term residents. As mayor I will set this as a top priority.”

Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

Rebecca Rhynhart

Rebecca Rhynhart, who served as city treasurer and budget director before being elected controller in 2017, said she does think it’s possible to balance growth and the needs of long-term residents — but that it requires additional action.

“While development is an important part of growth in our economy, we must work to keep long term residents in their homes and neighborhoods across our city,” Rhynhart said.

She’d expand the existing renter eviction program, but added it’s important to also support “mom and pop” landlords. How to do it? Subsidize rent for residents on the verge of getting thrown out, she suggested, so “the resident is protected against unjust eviction and these smaller landlords can still pay their bills.”

Some city programs that already exist to help people stay in their homes — she cited the long-term owner occupied program (LOOP) and the senior citizen real estate tax freeze — aren’t well publicized, Rhynhart said, promising to “start a field effort knocking on doors” to spread the word.

Unlike many of the other candidates, Rhynhart was not a policymaker before resigning to run for mayor, and she suggested that some options are currently being left on the table.

“I do think it’s important to point out that we have an affordable housing problem in our city. At the same time, the city owns 8,500 vacant properties and lots that present a unique opportunity to build affordable housing for our residents,” she said.

That idea is similar to the “Turn the Key” program launched this year by City Council, which aims to transform 1,000 of the Philadelphia Land Bank properties into affordable homes.

“As mayor, I would work with City Council to create a citywide housing plan that prioritizes affordable housing in every neighborhood,” Rhynhart said. “Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the United States, and we must do everything we can to keep people in their homes.”

Note: Candidates Billy Penn asked about gentrification who did not respond include Allan Domb, Jeff Brown, Derek Green, and Amen Brown.

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Clifton Jackson

Clifton Jackson is Billy Penn's newsroom intern. He's a native Philadelphian who grew up and lives in South Philly.