Revitalizing our 'middle neighborhoods': One Bold idea I Opinion

December 4, 2017
In The News

Cities compete for people. Philadelphia is no different.  According to researchers at The Reinvestment Fund in Philadelphia, approximately 48 percent of city residents, across the country, live in “middle neighborhoods.” Middle neighborhoods are stable, working-class communities that generally lack outside investment, especially when compared with areas like Center City, Graduate Hospital or Northern Liberties.    


Middle neighborhoods are often saddled with blight, but have extraordinary potential for growth, when given the proper tools. They are typically affordable, safe and functional. In Philadelphia’s middle neighborhoods, schools are good but not good enough, crime is relatively low, housing is stable, but danger of decline lingers.   


Historically, as more jobs moved to the suburbs, the middle class shrunk, housing stock became older and many properties deteriorated and went vacant.  Attention to the needs of our middle neighborhoods was, and is, still lacking.


Middle neighborhoods in Pennsylvania’s Second Congressional District include parts of Mt. Airy, Germantown, West Oak Lane, Roxborough, and Wynnefield. These are incredibly viable and valuable neighborhoods in our City.  They provide a considerable portion of our City’s property tax revenue, yet we often do not give them the credit, attention, and support they deserve.


Let’s be clear, Philadelphians cannot take our City to the next level by just improving Center City and the “hot” neighborhoods surrounding Center City.  We must also lift up the middle neighborhoods and those that have not fully shared in the benefits of our city’s revitalization.


One example of a program that encourages private investment in middle neighborhoods is JumpStart Germantown.  Jumpstart trains, mentors, networks and lends money to local residents who want to improve their own community.  By stressing scattered site rehabilitation and a healthy mix of affordable and market rate housing, Jumpstart can play a crucial role in middle neighborhood revitalization. First devised, and successfully tested, in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, JumpStart helps local individuals build wealth locally, thereby keeping gentrification at bay while renovating blighted and deteriorated properties.  Jumpstart may not be the only way to work towards rebuilding these neighborhoods but it is a good start.


Here’s how Jumpstart Germantown works: Aspiring real estate developers enroll in a free nine-hour training and mentoring program that connects them with more experienced real estate professionals. These sessions provide participants with a working knowledge of real estate acquisition, financing, construction, leasing, and property management. At the conclusion of the program, graduates, and other real estate professionals, are provided with easy to access acquisition and construction loans that can be used to start, or expand, their careers as real estate developers. The focus on recruiting mentees from traditionally underrepresented communities helps ensure that the wealth generated from Jumpstart Germantown stays local.  The helpful tools that participants obtain can be useful in other fields, as well, offering the kind of invaluable workforce development often missing in urban improvement proposals.  Teach a person to build, and they can organize, develop, and render unto themselves.


Philadelphia, and its vibrant neighborhoods, possess the infrastructure necessary to remain viable and compete in the 21st century. Investing in targeted strategies, however, like Jumpstart, will help our middle neighborhoods improve, producing a positive impact on the quality of life of Philadelphians, and millions of Americans living in urban and suburban areas nationwide.


Our city, state and federal government must make a concerted effort to recognize the importance and value of our middle neighborhoods; in order to ensure historic American cities, like Philadelphia, remain viable and competitive in the 21st century economy.