Point Breeze needs development without displacement

I have seen the same story far too many times: blocks of market-rate homes go up, middle- and upper-class residents go in, and low-income residents go out. The story of gentrification is not unique to Philadelphia, but I’m concerned with the current tone of discussion around development.

When you live in a neighborhood for half a century, you witness ample change. I remember when our neighborhoods were trash-ridden lots. But over time, community groups, residents, developers, and political representatives have worked together to revitalize our distressed neighborhoods. We have seen a complete transformation in Northern Liberties and we are seeing it in my home of Point Breeze.

I have seen the same story far too many times: blocks of market-rate homes go up, middle- and upper-class residents go in, and low-income residents go out. The story of gentrification is not unique to Philadelphia; we are seeing displacement as a result of development all over the country. But Point Breeze is my home, and I’m concerned with the current tone of discussion around development.

At a recent meeting, my RCO (registered community organization) approved plans for affordable housing units in Point Breeze, to be located on South Capitol and South Taylor Street. After hearing from the Point Breeze community through project managers Women’s Community Revitalization Project and CATCH Inc., and the delivery of 278 signatures of support, the Zoning Board unanimously approved plans for the Mamie Nichols Townhomes. These plans outline 33 units of affordable housing, a third of which will be dedicated to low-income veterans.

Some developers believe these projects are only about parking spaces without understanding the full picture. Many low-income and veteran residents require disabled accessibility for their homes and a dedicated nearby parking space helps them.

Beyond that, these developments are about keeping long-term residents in their community. As market-rate developments are built, we must also construct affordable housing units.

Over the past decade, Philadelphia has lost a fifth of its housing units that rent to low-income families. I understand real estate is a business but I believe there is a way to conduct business while respecting people of this community. As I walk through my neighborhood, I see Point Breeze as a collection of people and stories. By ignoring these stories, we are viewing the neighborhood as properties and values rather than people with narratives.

The divisiveness needs to stop. We must come together.

I am in no way anti-development; developers need to build more commercial and residential properties. I am pro-smart development, pro-equitable development and pro-collaborative development. When partners come together to better the community through responsible development, as WCRP and CATCH have, our neighborhood flourishes and our long-term residents are able to take part in that growth. When self-interested developers build up Point Breeze without plans to bring the community up with them, we see disparity and displacement.

We can all work together to make Point Breeze home for everyone.

We have seen vocal support from Point Breeze Councilman and ward Leader, Kenyatta Johnson. He has called the project “smart development,” and with City Council’s support, we would love to see more smart development in our neighborhood.

But we need more than that.

We need legislation that guarantees affordable homes are built as market-rate homes are constructed. We need tools like the land bank to make sure city-owned land is used to benefit all Philadelphians, regardless of their income-level. And we need leadership to require developers to invest in more than just land and structures. They must invest in communities and people. By pushing low-income residents and veterans out of their homes, these communities are not being built up – they are being destroyed.

It’s not too late.

The zoning and construction process in Philadelphia requires collaboration. As the leader of an RCO, I know this first-hard. Long-term residents and developers must sit together at the table to discuss plans for each structure and how it works with the community. We must sit at the table and see each other as equals. It should not be viewed as developer vs. resident or rich vs. poor.

If we work together, we can make Point Breeze flourish without displacing people like me.

Claudia Sherrod Zelda is the executive director of the registered community group South Philadelphia H.O.M.E.S, Inc. She has lived in Point Breeze for over 50 years and voted in favor of the Mamie Nichols Townhomes Project.

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