Is there a way to distribute power amongst neighbors in order to fight gentrification?
by Jason Werley
Suppose you’ve rented a house in, say, Kensington for 10+ years. You’ve accumulated years of memories, watched your kids take their first steps, grown sentimental. It’s your home. Suddenly, you see the neighborhood changing. All your familiar neighbors seem to be disappearing, replaced by young professionals from out of town. Then your landlord informs you he isn’t renewing your lease. You may try to fight this in court, but truth be told, you won’t be able to put up much of a struggle. In Philadelphia, there is no legislation protecting tenants from this kind of practice. Why would your landlord do this? You’ve paid your rent, taken care of the property, and upheld your part of the lease. Well, your new neighbors are most likely paying much higher rent than their predecessors and your landlord wants a piece of the pie. He understands you would struggle with a rent hike and wants you out of the way. All a natural consequence of a socio-economic situation that places a landlord’s individual profits above a renters right to decent housing.
This is what gentrification looks like for many Philadelphia residents. Philadelphia’s rate of gentrification is the second highest in the nation, outpaced only by San Diego. Gentrification is the process of wealthier residents moving to an area and the changes that occur due to the influx of wealth. As wealthier, often white newcomers begin populating a neighborhood, the surroundings begin to change as well. This process often is accompanied by what developers and city planners refer to as “urban renewal” intended to “clean up” the area, code for the colonial-like eviction of long-term poor, largely black and latino residents and businesses. Developers and city officials love gentrification. For them, the rich and influential, it means increased profits from foot traffic with disposable incomes and higher property values. For everyone else it translates to “higher rent, higher taxes, higher expenses.” It means the displacement of long term residents, unable to afford the rising cost of living. It means families losing their homes.
According to low income census tracts in the nation’s 50 biggest cities, the pace of gentrification nationally has more than doubled since 1990. But in Philadelphia, the pace of gentrification has increased by a factor of 1,800 percent over that same timeframe. In the decade between 1900 and 2000, only four low-income Philly census tracts were deemed to be gentrifying by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. Since 2000, 84 tracts have begun gentrifying. That means between 1900 and 2000, only 1.5 perfect of the city’s low income neighborhoods experienced gentrification. Since then, 28.7 percent of those neighborhoods are gentrifying. That’s a staggering 1,813 percent jump. Analyzing Census data from the past 15 years, you can find that Philadelphia lost a fifth of its housing units that rent for $750 or less, which is the rent range deemed “affordable” to the city’s average renter by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.
Before you start packing up your belongings and searching craigslist for a new residence, resistance is possible. The Philadelphia Tenants Union (PTU) is a tenant-led organization dedicated to winning safe, decent, and affordable housing for every renter in Philly. One way in which they are doing this is through a push for legislation called Just Cause Eviction. Just Cause Eviction legislation has already been successfully passed in cities like Seattle and San Francisco to great effect. It’s a way to create a legal protective process to keep tenants in their homes. It gives tenants the ability to match the power of the landlords. After all, it’s the tenants that lose their homes. Landlords only lose some profits and it’s my opinion that the shelter of our fellow Philadelphians should always take precedence over the petty profits of landlords who do nothing to earn those profits other than owning property.
Just Cause Eviction laws are legislation preventing landlords from evicting tenants for reasons outside of an approved list. This list includes:
- Failure to pay rent or late payments after written warning more than four times per year
- The tenant has failed to correct a violation of the lease or laws concerning public nuisance, sanitation, unlawful business, or habitually causes warnings to be issued with corrections made
- The owner’s family is moving into the unit and no adequate other units are available
- The sale of a single-family home
- Tenant-employees who are no longer employees
- Renovation, demolition, or conversion to nonresidential use
- Violation of a legal requirement, such as building suitability or number of occupants
- Tenants who live with the owner
- If drug or health and safety-related crimes are committed (by the tenant or with the tenant’s consent) on the property, street, or neighboring properties
Getting this kind of ordinance passed will be an uphill struggle. The aforementioned landlords and developers dismiss these kinds of laws as forms of rent control. A government interference with the mechanisms of the free market. I say keeping our neighbors (as well as ourselves) in their homes should be much more important than the workings of abstractions like the free market. Not to mention the fact that rent control itself is absolutely necessary to retain Philly’s working class character. The ruling elite of Philadelphia don’t see it that way and they have the wealth and political connections to successfully prevent Just Cause from seeing the light of day. That’s why the PTU needs all the help they can get to fight for this important piece of legislation. They already have a petition with 1000+ signatures and are planning a direct action at the first city council meeting of the year on 1/26. If you would like to get involved with such a fight contact someone in the tenant’s union via Facebook at facebook.com/phillytenantsunion or call them directly at 267-753-9637.