Insane Surge in Philadelphia Gentrification

Parsing a new study finds Philly's gentrification rate to be among the highest in the nation.


Rendering of the new Point Breeze development reNewbold.| Rendering credit: LPMG Companies.

[Update: Corrected to show that San Diego’s gentrification rate slightly outpaces Philadelphia’s.]

If you listen to enough old codgers complain about the rise of gentrification in our city, you’d think the names Templetown and Ori Feibush are two of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. We know that gentrification is a real phenomenon in Philadelphia and other cities, and that people are perturbed by it. But it’s also been a force for decades. The salient question is: how much has the rate of Philadelphia gentrification actually increased?

Well, a new quantitative analysis by Governing magazine attempts to measure the recent uptick. The study looked at low income census tracts in the nation’s 50 biggest cities since 1990, and found that, nationwide, the pace of gentrification of low income urban neighborhoods has more than doubled.

But here’s the real news. Over the same period, the pace of gentrification in Philadelphia’s low income census tracts increased by a staggering factor of 1,800 percent. That’s correct. According to this study, Philly’s gentrification rate is 18 times what it was in the 1990s. Just one city tops Philly’s rate: San Diego (with a 2,015 percent increase). 

Now, to be clear, other cities are obviously more gentrified than Philadelphia. A whopping 58 percent of Portland’s low income census tracts gentrified between 2000 and 2013, Governing’s study found, compared to just 29 percent in Philadelphia (by that metric, Philly ranks 12th nationwide).

But apart from San Diego, no city in the nation is seeing gentrification accelerate as much as Philadelphia. Between 1990 and 2000 only four low-income Philly census tracts were deemed to be gentrifying by the Governing study. Since 2000, though, 84 tracts have begun gentrifying. Put another way: between 1990 and 2000, just 1.5 percent of the city’s poor neighborhoods were gentrifying. Since 2000, 28.7 percent of those neighborhoods are gentrifying. Do the math: it’s an 1,813 percent jump.

What explains such an insane number? Mostly the fact that other cities weren’t quite as derelict and stagnant as Philadelphia was prior to 2000. Take Washington, D.C., which finished second to Portland on the most-gentrified-neighborhoods metric. Gentrification there accelerated at only half the rate it did in Philly.

If this continues, Philly may soon displace Brooklyn as the butt of SNL parodies for its yuppie bizarro culture.

But is the study’s methodology sound? It’s hard to say.

Ever since “gentrification” was coined in the early ‘60s, it’s been an infamously confusing term to qualify, despite its ubiquity. Last year, urban scholars released a study sizing up the New York Times’s loosey-goosey deployment of the word by comparing the paper’s usage with two quantitative definitions of gentrification—finding stark differences. One of those “classic studies” used as a barometer had defined gentrifying areas as “those that started with median income levels below those for the city as a whole but then where educational levels and housing prices rose to be greater than the city’s,” according to urban theorist Richard Florida.

Governing’s analysis resembles the same methodology, using a benchmark sample of neighborhoods that have 40 percent median household income below the city average and median home value in the bottom 40th percentile. Areas were determined to have gentrified during either 1990-2000 or 2000-2013 if the following conditions were met: home values increased, the increase in home values was in the top third of the metro overall, the increase in degree-holders was in the top third of the metro overall.

Backing up the new study further was a Philly map that shows the rise in construction permits over the past seven years, identifying many of the same hot spots that Governing saw as gentrifying, including Port Richmond, Kensington, Lower Moyamensing and University City.

It’s clear the study has some limitations. For example, it ignored whether incomes and poverty had risen or fallen in the “gentrifying” neighborhoods, only accounting for the rise in housing values and educational attainment. Secondly, it didn’t look at degentrification—that is, which neighborhoods lost home values and degree-holders—and only measured the winners.

Still. That’s one big ass number for Philadelphia.