Larry Eichel has been the head of the Philadelphia Research Initiative at the Pew Charitable Trust for nine years. The nonprofit seeks to inform the conversation and highlight key issues to provide context for changes happening in Philadelphia. In his time there, Eichel has worked researching the city’s issues and demographics for the benefit of policy makers and the public.
What kind of trends have you seen in your research? Is income moving? Are lower socioeconomic areas getting pushed out? Is that actually happening to the extent that people believe it is?
I’ll answer that in a couple ways. We did a report last year on neighborhood change and gentrification. What we found there was that in some ways, the big story, the most interesting thing about that… the median household income from a period of 2000-2014 declined in 164 of the 372 [residential census tracts]. We classified only 15 out of 372 as gentrifying over that period. For a lot of the city, the story is either no change in income or a slight decline. This is income controlled over time with inflation brought in.
There clearly has been change in some of the areas adjacent to Center City. And the best way I can show that to you, and it’s not perfect, is if you compare our 2017 State of the City to our 2013 State of the City. There hasn’t been tremendous change, but in some areas just north and south of Center City, you see the higher income areas sort of moving out away from Center City to some degree. I would invite you to look at those two maps, they would give you some idea of what’s going on.
Is gentrification necessarily a bad thing? It’s generally perceived as a negative term, but are there positive angles to take with it?
We poll, and in 2015 we asked people two questions that to our mind were about gentrification. I should tell you we did not use the word “gentrification” in either of the questions because we wanted to try to get people’s views on it and not the sense of the word.
One of the questions we asked was, “I’m going to read you two statements, tell me which comes closest to your view.” The first statement was, “The city should do more to attract middle and upper income people to struggling neighborhoods.” The second was, “The city should do more to help long time residents stay in their neighborhoods when housing costs rise.” Twenty-six percent chose the first option, the city should do more to attract people with higher incomes. Sixty-seven percent said the city should do more to keep people in their homes in those neighborhoods. So that is one way to ask it.
Another way of asking the question: “In some parts of Philadelphia, higher income people are moving into what had been lower income neighborhoods. Is this more of a good thing or a bad thing in your view?” Sixty-three percent said good thing. Twenty-eight percent said bad thing. Eight percent said both or they couldn’t choose. Six percent didn’t know. If you take that as sort of two of the pieces of it, you see. If you want to call that ambivalence you could, but obviously people think it’s a good thing for higher income people to move in, but they also care about what happens to the people who have been living in those neighborhoods.
What is the most startling change you’ve seen in your time researching here?
I’m not sure I would call it startling, but the population of Philadelphia declined pretty steadily at varying rates, basically from 1950 to 2006. There were a couple years in the 1980s where maybe it gained a person or two. Now we’ve had 10 years of population increase. I came here in the 1970s in a period when Philadelphia lost 261,000 people in one decade. For me to see a ten-year period of constant population growth, that’s a big deal. It’s not gigantic population growth, it seems to be slowing a little bit, but in the historical context that’s a very big deal.
In that growth, have you seen a rise in average income?
The city is still, on the basis of median income and you can see this in our State of the City report and our census data, is still a relatively poor city. It has the highest poverty rate of the 10 largest cities in the country. It’s not the highest poverty rate, but of the 10 largest cities it’s the highest.
In the last census data, and there’s going to be new census data out in a month, but in the most recent census data the median household income of the city was $41,233. Over the last two years, Philadelphia’s median household income has grown faster in percentage terms than those of all the comparison cities, with the exception of Washington. A year or two of income data from the census may or may not mean a tremendous amount. We’ll get another data point in September, but if we see that continuing maybe that tells us something, that we are seeing income move into the city. We need probably one more data point to know.
Have you done other work in examining the changes in Philadelphia neighborhoods?
I urge you to look at our gentrification report. Not everyone would agree with our definition of gentrification, but it was a pretty carefully thought out one and a precise one where we wanted to be able to get something that we could measure and not just say, “Well that looks like it’s gentrified.” The point it made was very right on the money, which is that gentrification has been limited to specific parts of the city. It’s different in different places.
We classify the gentrifying neighborhoods based on what they had been before gentrification came. We had Center City and adjacent, mixed-income white, old industrial and working class African-American. We found that gentrification looks very different in all of those places. Obviously if it’s old industrial, there aren’t a lot of people being displaced. In the mixed-income white areas, which are mainly in South Philadelphia, there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of new construction. There’s infill construction. That looks very different than a working class African-American district where gentrification happens.
Your biggest qualifying factor is income. Do you look at any buying or selling of properties or new development?
In the definition we used, and we did this based on the original definition, the original definition of gentrification, the term was coined in the 1960s by a British sociologist, and the underlying meaning is basically a shift in a neighborhood’s population from predominantly low-income or working class to predominantly middle or upper class. We decided that to us that meant income.
We thought about this a long time. We did a lot of work on it, we consulted with a lot of experts. Part of the reason why we like the income definition was there’s no really good data on rents in Philadelphia. There’s no government agency that tracks it. There’s good information on housing prices, but there isn’t good information on rents. We thought income is what this is about. It’s the cause.
The reason housing prices go up is because higher income people want to move in. Somebody is willing to pay the price. There are other people who look at it differently. We chose to look at it that way because of the original definition and because of the data was more robust on the income side, you can slice it down to a tract level. Ultimately, it’s about the change in population. It’s about the change in population of who lives in the area. That’s what gentrification is about. Certainly we’ve seen that in some areas.
-Text and image by Jared Phillips.