Q&A: Tony Williams on gentrification, consensus-building, transportation infrastructure, and more

Last week, PlanPhilly sat down with State Senator Anthony Williams, one of six candidates campaigning to be the city’s next mayor. Over a 30-minute lunch in Center City, Williams talked about targeting growth in certain neighborhoods, educating low-income residents about policies that help them stay in and improve their homes, the stereotypes of bike riders, and using his political relationships to Philly’s benefit. Below are some highlights. You can read the full transcript of the interview here.

Also read our earlier interviews with mayoral candidates Jim Kenney, Nelson Diaz, and Doug Oliver.

On gentrification

The tension between gentrification and those who’ve been here for a while, specifically low- and moderate-income, and the new generation that’s moving here, either empty-nesters and people who have money tends to be a conversation that’s had in neighborhoods that reflects division.

And it depends on who you talk to. If you use the word gentrification in one group it’s like, oh, it’s a bad thing, and in another group it reflects millennials. I think both are kind of insignificant, because first of all millennials are not just Center City professionals; they’re diverse people across Philadelphia.

That’s the first thing. The second thing: gentrifying a neighborhood, provided you put in certain obvious understandings, it’s a good thing. The fact that an open lot has been that way for a long time and causes problems, the person who’s a senior doesn’t want that. They just are concerned about, are they going to be taxed out of their homes?

On spreading the word about city services

We have a serious issue relative to information-sharing and education on all levels. It’s much different than it was when I was a kid living in Philadelphia. Community groups, faith-based groups, churches did a good job, so your neighbor can tell you from reading the newspaper, that’s not the case today. Services go unused. So you’ll have somebody in a home who talks about gentrification, they complain about it, they don’t know that there’s a program that actually sort of alleviates your tax burden.

Further, they don’t know this, and they really don’t know this at all: if your property goes up three or four hundred percent, it means you have equity. And that means you have a lot more equity than the tax is going to go up, you have equity to make improvements, equity to repair it, to live in it, to sustain it, support it, take out another mortgage. There’s a lot of things, even on a fixed income, and a modest income that you can do that is significant that I have not seen people understand.

We have a lot of information that we need to get to communities that see these signs, buy a house for a cash, houses we know is probably worth as a shell probably $100,000, they sell it for $60,000, and they redo it for $200,000. There’s a lot of misinformation that exists that could push us collectively in the direction of fixing up our neighborhoods.

… And I think if we’re smart about educating people about how to hold onto their houses, the equity in their properties, you will see neighborhoods growing and flourishing with people who live there, who are indigenous to those communities, because they’ll know the resources that are available. They’ll be more educated about the decisions they’re making. They’ll be supported by the administration. Those things are doable and designable within the next administration.

On targeting investments in certain neighborhoods

When I was young, South Street was dilapidated. They used to call it Skid Row. The city targeted an area and drove commerce to that section. And the zoning process that the mayor has, the mapping that he’s doing I think is very good. I think that will support the ideas about how we actually map out an economy across the City of Philadelphia.

Then we’ve got to apply that to tax policy. Or abatement policy for tax credits. Abatements which are significant and people see them as sort of high-rises in Philadelphia, which, the truth is, they’re more than high-rises. We could take that same concept and take a law firm. Significant sized law firm planted in a neighborhood in West Philadelphia, Northeast Philadelphia, North Philadelphia, whatever it is: free parking. And you can drive an economy around it, secondary markets.

So we need to be smart about how we map out the future economically and driving business there. Two, we need to support it with tax policies that make sense. And third, L&I, the experience we need to become business friendly so that those who would even consider it, once we actually market it and brand it, can actually get through the process of paperwork and all that other stuff.

On West Philly as the best Philly

Around Penn for instance, there’s a very integrated economy. It’s not Penn or else, it’s Penn plus modest and lower-income. So when you go on Baltimore Avenue, I’d say between 51st Street and down towards Penn, you have a collage of restaurants and types of businesses that are—we actually have a brewery—all those things are doing well because there’s turnover dollars, and it’s integrated dollars. So that’s what you need in neighborhoods.

I am a little biased; it’s my area. But it is really one of the most significantly mixed— economically, ethnically, academically, socially—in the entire city of Philadelphia. When you walk by those parks—there’s two: Clark Park and another park up the street—there’s a guy who clearly has a brown bag, and he’s playing checkers with a kid from Penn.

And I’m not saying they don’t have crime, but it’s very much controlled. And people for the most part feel safe. And I think that’s because they have interacted a lot more in terms of development than most.

On serving on SEPTA’s board of directors

I learned that politics—I don’t know what it’s like now because this was a long time ago—politics certainly had an imprint upon that board. Republican vs. Democrat. … Philadelphia was and still is managed—its public transportation system is affected by people who don’t live in Philadelphia. The consequence of that is not necessarily reflective of everything we want to do here, but it’s not negative. I don’t think the relationship is adversarial as it had been.

And I do think that because a majority of the board are Republicans that it presents an advantage for us to go after money. So when we’ve had these cost increases, it wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have a significant population of Republicans on the board, going to Harrisburg and putting everybody on the spot.

A majority of Pennsylvanians don’t have a system like we do, and so the majority of them don’t care about public transportation.

So there’s benefits and then there’s challenges to the design of the board. The other thing I learned is that we really do have a good public transportation system here. It’s probably the envy of a lot of cities in the country because of how many modes we have, how effectively they run, and they run pretty efficiently. So you can get around the city with public transportation.

And then the last thing is that we have some pretty dedicated professionals that drive these trains. We have a really good safety record here, which means that the people who are doing it really take seriously what they do, and distinguish themselves by how they work.

On building consensus for major projects

Relationships that I have in Harrisburg and the federal level mean something to Philadelphia. And I’m the only person in the race who has them. And it has benefited before and it will benefit Philadelphia again, because to do those projects, Philadelphia can’t do them by itself. But Pat Toomey, Bob Casey: people I interact with all the time. Barack Obama, when he gave his last State of the Union address, I got invited by Pat Toomey to come listen. Now of course, when he starts talking about the president, I have to leave, but in the meantime there was a lot of things that we had common interest in.

At the state level, as much as people talk to me about schools, I’m a guy who got, in this race, again, the lion’s share of funding for public schools, by far, and that came through a Republican-controlled legislature, because I have relationships that help me build consensus so we can resolve things. I’m the guy in this race who has five Council members who have endorsed me publicly, more than anybody else in this race, which indicates that I know how to build consensus.

So all those areas, as it relates to infrastructure, we have to use all those relationships and make the case at all three levels of how we spend our money. We have ideas locally that we talked about, I’ve talked about, that would allow us to spend more money on roads and potholes, but we’re going to need help along with that to also redo all the streets in Philadelphia, not at a snail’s pace but at a modern city’s pace.

On bicycle infrastructure

Most of these bike lanes were developed in a way that, neighborhoods were like, “How does it help me?” It wasn’t clear. Most of the bikers that you saw initially were people who looked like they were stereotyped in a certain space. And some of them were pretty rude, I’ll just say that. And irritating as they rode around the city. Privileged, if you will. But anyway.

But the reality is, in this economy, there are a lot of people who depend upon bikes because they don’t have any money, and we’re getting to the point where—bike share, is that the name of the program?—where they’re putting out the bikes in the neighborhoods for people who need to use the bikes. If we’re honest about what challenges they may face in that regard, then we can protect them. They’ll become a huge success. And if we can get people to follow bike rules and provide safety around it, I think it will be a tremendous success in Philadelphia.

On coordinating bureaucracies

I think what people don’t necessarily appreciate is that citizens interact with government—come out your door: cops, streets, schools, everyday we’re interacting. Government operates vertically. We’re a school, that’s all we do, there’s no relation. We have to design a couple things. One, new technology, so all these departments can stop competing for information, and redesign these departments so they’re not competing against one another and how they communicate to constituents is collective as opposed to siloed.

That means you go to a community about a bike lane or anything else that you’re developing, that entity … arrives with a complete understanding of what the government is doing, why they’re doing it. They don’t have to check back with somebody else about that process, so that the citizens are not frustrated by the lack of knowledge or expanse of information.

… So the Administration has to come prepared with all the facts as it relates to whatever the change is gonna be, immediately and prospectively, in terms of how it works.    

On streamlining permitting at L&I

There’s no reason today, in 2015, you have to go to L&I and wait in line. That doesn’t make any sense. You have a doctor’s appointment, you have an Apple phone appointment, there should be an appointment process driven by technology so that your arrival—you have a window of time, 20 minutes, whatever it is. You have to have all, or if not, the majority of people, housed at L&I. You shouldn’t have to walk around City Hall trying to figure out where to go; it should all be housed at—and the person on the other side of the ledger should be trained, because they’re as frustrated as everybody else. L&I gets beat up a lot, but the other person on the other side of the table is trying their best with limited training and limited skills and resources.

We have to arm them with appropriate training. A lot of them have technology making them much more efficient and effective, so that the experience between the two people is about understanding where you’re trying to go, and really trying to help you, as most people would if they weren’t just bogged down in crap.

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