Remaking Sharswood: Studying how the neighborhood transformation plan affects former Blumberg tenants

The Philadelphia Housing Authority’s plans for the Sharswood neighborhood have stoked much controversy, but even its critics would agree that the effort is ambitious.  

The scale of the project belongs to another era. A ten-year, half-billion dollar commitment to remake an entire neighborhood — after seizing more than 1,300 parcels by eminent domain — sounds like a plan spirited in from the age of Robert Moses, Ed Bacon, and Ed Logue.

Next up is the phased construction of 1,200 units of subsidized and market-rate housing to create a mixed-income neighborhood in what is currently a very low-income area. To help attract middle-class residents, the housing authority bought a closed neighborhood school that a charter operator plans to reopen this fall and it has plans for new investments on the Ridge Avenue commercial corridor. This week the housing authority broke ground on its new headquarters on Ridge as part the transformation effort.

But this isn’t urban renewal all over again, at least not according to Ken Steif. The founder of the public policy data science firm Urban Spatial argues that one big difference between the current Sharswood plan and the days of Moses is that the housing authority is seeking to closely study the effects its intervention will have on affected tenants.

The housing authority approached the University of Pennsylvania’s Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy initiative, lead by professor Dennis Culhane, to craft an initial baseline report on tenants who lived in Sharswood’s Norman Blumberg Apartments and on the larger PHA population. Culhane then compiled a team that included Steif and city planning professor Vincent Reina and they have produced a baseline report comparing PHA residents in Sharswood with those who live in the institution’s subsidized housing elsewhere.

The housing authority is allowing the research team a rare degree of access to their administrative data, which they are then utilizing in conjunction with numbers from the city’s Data Management Office. Culhane’s team has created “a novel administrative dataset featuring de-identified data on every subsidized housing resident” in Philadelphia. (De-identified means the privacy of those who are being studied will be preserved and their identities cannot be matched with the data under review.)

Culhane and his colleagues found that tenants from Sharswood are, on average, poorer, younger, and even more predominantly African-American than the larger PHA tenant population. The researchers found that about 30 percent of the displaced residents opted for Section 8 vouchers in place of their lost housing, 40 percent moved to a different public housing complex, and just over 30 percent moved to scattered site affordable housing units.

They also found that the Section 8 vouchers that some tenants opted for before the March 2016 demolition of the Blumberg complex have largely been used in North Philadelphia. Few have chosen, or been able, to find housing in higher opportunity neighborhoods.

But these results are only the beginning of the story. Culhane, Steif, and their colleagues will continue to monitor the effects of the housing authority’s policies on these displaced tenants, both those who were able to remain in the neighborhood and those who moved elsewhere in the system. The researchers are currently in discussions with the housing authority about the next phase of the evaluation.

This degree of scrutiny is notable not just for those who are following PHA’s work in Sharswood, Steif argues. PHA’s neighborhood transformation plan is one of the most dramatic contemporary embodiments of an affordable housing strategy that emphasizes broadly investing in low-income neighborhoods, rather than just focusing on housing or on getting residents to wealthier and more stable areas.

From the days of massive public housing construction to the rise of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit in the 1980s, housing was basically the only game in town when it came to public interventions in low-income neighborhoods. Community Development Corporations often tried to focus on commercial corridors too, but the results were mixed and housing proved a more reliable strategy.

A rival model emerged in the late 20th century as well, promoting the construction of low-income housing in middle-to-upper class neighborhoods or moving poor residents to such areas.

In recent years a famous series of studies from Harvard University’s Raj Chetty have shown the success of the latter strategy. They found that life outcomes for low-income children were markedly improved by participation in Moving To Opportunity, a program that helped public housing tenants live in wealthier suburbs.

But according to Steif there’s a fresh model, of which Sharswood is an example, that hasn’t received as much scrutiny because it is relatively new. This approach seeks to stabilize low-income neighborhoods by taking the old practice of investing in housing in poor areas and broadens the focus to include schools, community centers, and local commercial corridors. The idea is to look at the community holistically, not just plunk affordable housing down in its midst.

Steif says neighborhood-based interventions that target a whole community, as PHA’s Sharswood/Blumberg Choice Neighborhood Transformation Plan project seeks to do, were at the center of much of former president Barack Obama’s housing policy. His administration championed a series of programs, like Promise Zones and the Choice Neighborhoods initiative, which worked within extremely limited resources to encourage broad-based neighborhood change in poor areas.

“At this point we have really good evidence about the causal effects of creating mobility [for poor households],” says Steif.  “We don’t have a lot of evidence about growing middle class neighborhoods in cities. We just don’t know how this approach will fare in the long run.”

Steif says that studies have been attempted on Sharswood-esque neighborhood change efforts in the past, but it’s always very hard to disentangle the outcomes. Establishing a strong control group for those affected by neighborhood interventions is very tough. How can researchers be sure it was a project that created change and not, say, a bunch of new people moving to the neighborhood during the course of the study? By contrast, life outcomes for low-income tenants who empowered to move to a wealthy suburb can be compared to similar people who stayed in a subsidized unit in a low-income neighborhood.

But the data from PHA and the city’s Data Management Office allowed the researchers to identify for the control group PHA residents who are living in very similar circumstances and won’t be subject to a neighborhood-based intervention.

Moving forward, Steif says that the researchers are hoping to utilize multiple control groups in their research, now that most of Blumberg has been demolished and the tenants moved. One possibility would be studying a group of tenants who were displaced from the towers but stayed in the neighborhood, one group that was displaced and moved elsewhere in the city, and one comprised of PHA tenants who had never lived in Sharswood.

Sharswood still has an abundance of skeptics. There is ample evidence from the Clinton administration’s HOPE VI program—which leveled old high-rise public housing and often replaced it with mid-rise mixed-income buildings—that former tenants were not able to return to the new buildings or their old neighborhood. It is unlikely that all, or even most, of the former Blumberg tenants will return. So the researchers will also be measuring the effects of displacement alongside the neighborhood intervention itself.

It’s worth noting that many local observers are skeptical that the resource-strapped housing authority, with its experience solely in housing, will be able to achieve its lofty, layered ambitions. “As the name implies, the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s specialty is housing,” as the Philadelphia Inquirer’s architecture critic Inga Saffron wrote last year. She accused the housing authority of bringing a “suburban mentality” to its plan for a revitalized Ridge Avenue.

Even for those who believe in the project there are serious concerns about funding, especially as the Trump administration trumpets the probability of sharp budget cuts for a host of affordable housing programs.

But housing authorities have been dealing with shrinking resources for a long time. In fact that’s one of the critiques of the broad-based neighborhood change strategy championed by Obama. Some housing advocates complain that these programs ask housing authorities and other affordable housing providers to do more with less. In the era of greater public resources, they’d just been expected to build housing. Now in an era of austerity they had to save the whole neighborhood.

But Steif contends that interest in neighborhood-wide approaches is only likely to continue—the new federal housing secretary, Ben Carson, promotes the concept while talking up budget cuts—and advocates need to figure out what works. Sharswood presents an opportunity to advance that cause.

“Often money gets spent and no one goes back and asks if it worked,” says Steif.  “I think it’s really amazing that PHA is willing to rigorously evaluate their own program.”

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