June 19, 2018

Urban middle neighborhood problems ignored

Governing - There’s a sense in Philadelphia, as in many major cities these days, that it’s divided between the affluent folks who are driving up condo prices in and around downtown, which is known as Center City, and those being left behind in parts of town plagued by blight and drugs. Philadelphia has received considerable attention in recent years as one of the nation’s top magnets for educated millennials. At the same time, it has the highest poverty rate of any major city, at 25.7 percent. But left out of the equation are places like Mt. Airy, where most people have decent-paying jobs as schoolteachers, as utility company workers or, like James, as nurses. Or they’re part of a generation that was able to retire with decent pensions. Neighborhoods are a little like seesaws. Some are rising to the top, while others seem to be stuck at the bottom. No one seems to pay attention to what’s in the middle.

Middle neighborhoods have been off the nation’s policy radar for decades. While many of them are relatively stable, others have become shaky in recent years, due to a lack of interest from governments and the private sector. That has left large shares of urban America at risk, particularly in older cities. In Philadelphia, 41 percent of residents live in what are defined as middle neighborhoods, where most people earn between 80 and 120 percent of the area median income, which in the Philadelphia region is $66,000. Nationwide, 48 percent of urban residents live in such neighborhoods, which tend to be more diverse than either wealthy or low-income areas. “There are huge chunks of our cities that are not seeing rapid growth, nor are they completely desolate, economically isolated places,” says Jeffrey Verespej, who runs a community development corporation in Cleveland. “They’re not as sexy as high-investment, high-growth neighborhoods and lack the moral imperative to help those who are truly needy.”

But they’re increasingly under threat. The reality is that no place stays exactly the same year after year. All neighborhoods evolve. The question is what direction they’re moving in, and what forces are pushing them that way. Middle neighborhoods have a lot working against them. Most are not especially close to downtown and lack the anchor institutions such as universities or hospitals that spur new investment. Residents of middle neighborhoods generally don’t receive assistance from poverty programs. At the same time, they don’t have access to capital, either. Half of the residents of Philadelphia -- and many in Mt. Airy -- have credit scores below 650, perilously close to the point where banks won’t even bother looking at a loan application. The city’s denial rate for home improvement loans is 62 percent, well above the national average of 37 percent.

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