11.18.2015

Mixing It Up

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A week ago I posted the following statement on social media:

"We say we want mixed income nhds but then resist rich ppl moving into poor nhds or poor ppl moving into rich nhds. Discuss."

What ensued was a lively discussion with all sorts of perspectives and statements.  But I could've guessed this: whether in the blogosphere, academia, or here in the streets of Philadelphia, gentrification is a hot topic.  And why not?  In one issue, we're talking about race, economics, home, change, cities, and justice. 

I'm not going to wade any further into the topic today.  I did want to counterbalance the focus on gentrification (i.e. "rich ppl moving into poor nhds") by touching on something no one reacted to, which is the heat generated towards "poor ppl moving into rich nhds."  Those with means have many defenses against this, the most common of which is exclusionary zoning, whereby houses have to have a high minimum square footage or lot size, thus deterring the smaller and cheaper options that are needed to allow people of less means gain a foothold in a nice neighborhood or school district. 

On my very block, there's been a lot of hand-wringing over an old rowhouse being torn down and replaced by a plain-looking building that holds eight two-bedroom apartments.  In a sea of twins, the new construction may look out of place.  And parking, which is always a challenge, will become more difficult.  But this is how you make our nice neighborhood and school catchment accessible to a lower housing price point.  By my rough calculation, a family that can move into one of those two-bedroom units can make half to a third the amount that families that bought single-family homes at the peak 8-10 years back. 

In my book, that's a nice diversity of income levels all in one place, all accessing a great neighborhood and a great public K-8 school.  But, again, there's been a lot of hand-wringing.  On the surface, the issues are aesthetics, parking, and historic preservation.  But, below the surface, is it that people actually aren't that comfortable with a wider income distribution?  I can't say I can read people's motivations.  But I can say that whenever there is something that makes possible multiple price points in the same neighborhood by adding lower price points in the midst of higher ones, those of us who can afford the higher price points find all sorts of reasons to protest. 

Sometimes it seems it's easier to give up on mixed-income neighborhoods altogether.  So long as all neighborhoods, at all price points, have basic characteristics like a functioning school and public safety and reasonable municipal services, isn't that a pretty good thing to aim for?  I'm sympathetic to that thrust, although it feels too much like "separate but equal" for me to want to give up just yet on the possibility of more mixing.  Then again, easier said than done.  I'm glad for my block, and the diversity represented on it, and I realize that most Philadelphians, and really most Americans, don't enjoy the same experience.  I still wish more did.
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