As West Philly home values climb, Penn’s plan to invest in a second public school elicits displacement fears

A gate with signage for Henry C. Lea Elementary School

Henry C. Lea Elementary school in West Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Home prices in the catchment area for West Philadelphia’s Henry C. Lea Elementary School remain below the city average despite doubling since the beginning of the millennium.

That’s now poised to change — potentially dramatically — thanks to a pending partnership between the University of Pennsylvania and School District of Philadelphia that would, over the next five years, see Penn send more than $4 million over five years to the public school on the corner of 47th and Locust streets in a fast-changing section of University City.

“It’s right in the path of University City’s larger expansion and revitalization or gentrification. Choose your word there,” said Kevin Gillen, a senior research fellow with the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University.

The catchment area for Lea is a Tetris-shaped set of blocks covering parts of Walnut Hill, and Cedar Park — two historically Black neighborhoods. The area runs roughly between 46th and 50th Streets and between Sansom Street and Baltimore Avenue, roughly a mile from Penn’s campus.

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A block away, inside the highly sought after Penn Alexander School catchment in University City, the median home price has skyrocketed from just over $171,000 in September 2000 — a year before the elementary school opened thanks to a partnership with the university and the School District of Philadelphia — to more than $720,000 by the end of 2021. That compares to just under $170,000 for the median home price in the Lea catchment.

Zooming out, the median price for a house in the parts of University City outside of the Penn Alexander catchment is more than $200,000 less than the average home price inside the catchment.

Gillen, the analyst behind the data, said that gap means homebuyers are willing to pay a premium to send their children to Penn Alexander because they believe the school offers a higher quality than other city schools.

“Whether we’ll see the same kind of thing with Henry Lea remains to be seen,” said Gillen.“If we started to see price premiums like that there, obviously it would be also associated with some degree of displacement and gentrification as well, even though improved public school quality is also a good thing. So it’s a difficult line to walk.”

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The exterior of Henry C. Lea Elementary school
Henry C. Lea Elementary school in West Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A spokesperson for the university declined to comment on the potential impact of the partnership on residents living in the catchment, but people familiar with the proposed partnership who spoke with WHYY agree that it could have both desirable and undesirable consequences.

Renee McBride-Williams, president of Cedar Park Neighbors, one of two civic associations within Lea’s catchment, acknowledges that a partnership between Penn and the elementary school could change the neighborhood for the worse. For now, though, she’s choosing to focus on the positives the university’s financial support may bring to the children in Lea’s catchment.

Among them, students are now in a position to take advantage of potentially life-changing educational opportunities — opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise get unless they left the neighborhood for them.

“I think this opportunity will actually help motivate them in the future to be who they want to be,” said McBride-Williams.

A former full-time teacher for the school district, McBride-Williams recalled the difficult decision she made to send her son Christian, now a Grammy award-winning bass player, to an elementary school an hour bus ride away from the family’s home in West Philadelphia because the neighborhood school didn’t have as robust a music program.

While her choice turned out to be the right one, McBride-Willams said she doesn’t want families to have to feel like they have to do something similar in order for their children to thrive.

“I really don’t know what’s on the table here, but I could just say that just the fact that they are partnering with the school to me is more of a plus than a minus,” she said.

Akira Drake Rodriguez, an assistant professor of city planning at Penn, sees it differently.

For Rodriguez, it’s hard to overlook the impact of Penn raising the profile of Lea. She said there is no question that housing prices will skyrocket in the community the same way they did in the catchment next door.

“People should definitely consider this another Penn Alexander,” Rodriguez said.

A view of 47th and Locust streets
47th and Locust streets in West Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The result, she said, is that affordable housing options will likely continue to disappear from the catchment as attending Lea becomes more and more desirable and competitive.

“I see it as a threat to low-income families in West Philly,” said Rodriguez, who is actively studying the impact of Penn’s investments in public school education in the area.

There is a racial inequity in play too as schools become more desirable and property values soar. Between 2000 and 2016, West Philadelphia’s Black population decreased by more than a third as rents and home values rose and the share of white residents grew, according to a 2019 report published by a coalition of affordable housing groups.

That relationship can be seen in the demographic composition of the two schools. In the pricy Penn Alexander catchment, 45% of students are white, 26% Asian, 14% Black, and 4% Hispanic with less than half of the students coming from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Just a few blocks away in the more affordable Lea zone, 65% of students identify as Black, 13% as white, 12% Asian, and 5% Hispanic with 75% of students coming from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Rodriguez said it doesn’t have to be this way. She said Penn could ease the demand and pressure on housing prices and rents by investing in more public schools in West Philadelphia. Instead of just two schools, the tax-exempt Ivy League school could fund maybe six or seven.

The exterior of Henry C. Lea Elementary school
Henry C. Lea Elementary school in West Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“In order to sort of mitigate some of this sort of big pressure and demographic and neighborhood change is to spread out their largesse a little bit across West Philly instead of concentrating it in the two schools immediately adjacent to the university’s campus,” Rodriguez said.

City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, whose district includes Lea, said that she shares concerns that Penn’s investment might cause housing prices to rise to the point that longtime residents are displaced. She has seen that happen to renters and homeowners in the Penn Alexander catchment. A 2020 report commissioned by her office found areas within the Lea catchment facing a growing affordability crisis with renters, especially, at risk of displacement.

But she’s not ready to sound the alarm bells just yet.

“We’ll need to ensure that we control for potential negative impacts, but at the end of the day, I am supportive of our community getting the funding and support they deserve. I hope that Penn and other institutions will continue to put their abundant resources to work for the betterment of Philadelphia, both here in the 3rd district and throughout the city,” said Gauthier in a statement.

The Philadelphia School Board will vote on the measure during its meeting on Jan. 27. Penn’s spokesperson said the university will have more to say after that happens.

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