Rich or Poor: Someone Needs to GO

By James Yeun

On October 3, Mayor Kenney signed Executive Order No. 3-18. He outlined his strategy to stop the crisis of skyrocketing rates of opioid overdoses and a rapidly rising unsheltered population. Kensington stands at the heart of the opioid crisis.

Who Do We Trust?

Dubbed “heroin camps” by the media, the demolition of the unsheltered encampments has become one of Mayor Kenney’s core goals. In his press release on the “Philadelphia Resilience Project,” Mayor Kenney takes clear aim at the encampments, placing their removal as a core policy goal. Afterwards, City Hall will work with “stakeholders” (*cough* landlords, developers, and business owners *cough*) to develop a strategy to prevent the reformation and relocation of the camps.

Supporting this will be an initiative to “reduce criminal activity.” In the short-run, we will first see an initiative to increase the presence of police in Kensington through increased patrols and school checks. Second, police officers in the East Police Division have been given the green light to implement Police Assisted Diversion (PAD) programs.

PAD programs offer drug users and sex workers the “opportunity” to choose between prosecution (and the possibility of jail), or enrollment in services and treatment. Research on police diversionary programs is limited, but what exists is positive: instead of charges and jail time, people receive fines and forced enrollment into programs.

Nonetheless, this is still policing. Whether or not you are assigned to enroll in a PAD program, you are first arrested and detained by an officer, and then arraigned before the local Philadelphia court. This is nothing more than a “nicer” way of locking people up. So long as police are primarily used to terrorize Black and Brown people, that’s not criminal justice reform. Democrats implement PAD programs and call themselves criminal justice reformers, while cops continue putting the unsheltered, those suffering from addiction, and sex workers in cuffs.

But what does the City intend to do once it has destroyed the encampments of unsheltered individuals, arrested them and forced them into PAD programs, and mobilized the police to act as border patrol to prevent their return? According to City Hall, the “Philadelphia Resilience Project” will reduce the unsheltered population by addressing the affordable housing crisis, as well as focusing on family reunification and employment assistance. As organizations like Community Legal Services (CLS) document, much of the homeless population is a product of Philadelphia’s affordable housing and eviction crisis.

We would like to believe that City Hall will solve the housing crisis, yet City Hall at every turn has failed. While City Council recently passed Good Cause eviction protections after a multi-year campaign by the Philadelphia Tenants Union, the bill was riddled with compromises forced by the Democrats and their real-estate lobby friends. Similarly, Mayor Kenney killed a bill aimed at eliminating the 10-year tax abatement, a tax cut that allows real-estate developers to avoid property taxes for 10 years. Democrats have not backed simple reforms to help slow the eviction crisis and rebuild the affordable housing stock. They will not do so now.

Keystone Opportunity Zones

With far less fanfare, on September 20, City Hall passed a bill designating 68 parcels of land as Keystone Opportunity Zones (KOZ). Designed to attract investment into underdeveloped areas, business operating out of a property that is designated by the city as a KOZ is exempt from most state and city business taxes for 10 years. Many KOZs lie in Kensington and its surrounding neighborhoods.

However, many KOZs are not even being used to attract new investment. In an interview with KYW 1060 AM Radio, Philadelphia’s Deputy of Commerce Director, Duane Bumb, admits that several properties located on Frankford Ave in Fishtown included on the list would have developed without the tax write-offs.

KOZs are trickle-down economics — plain and simple. They give tax cuts to rich business owners, so the rich spend money in poorer neighborhoods and “share the wealth.” However, when investment is led by profit, we end up with more luxury houses and over-priced restaurants. In exchange, we cut our school budgets and our affordable housing stock disappears. We need investment led by need, not profit and greed. That means we need to stop giving money back to the rich and demand our city actually use our tax dollars to pave our streets, fix our schools, and rebuild our affordable housing stock.

The steady advance of KOZs in Kensington signals City Hall’s intention to ramp up development in the area. Mayor Kenney’s initiative to handle both the opioid crisis and rising unsheltered population is occurring in this context. For City Hall and the Mayor’s Office, it’s pretty simple: you cannot have four of the city’s largest unsheltered encampments in the same neighborhood as upper-middle class families. Someone needs to go.

Who Do You Trust?

City Hall is not innocent in the gentrification process. When given the opportunity to defend Philadelphia from the onslaught of gentrification, they water-down our reforms and give tax cuts to the rich and powerful; they empower the police and courts to empower landlords to evict Philadelphians at accelerating rates. Mayor Kenney has accurately described this crisis as a public health crisis. However, City Hall treats the situation as a public health crisis second and a real-estate development crisis first. We need to solve the opioid crisis, but who do we trust to solve it?

Artist: Corey Brickley

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