At the Hubert Humphrey Building dedication, Nov. 1, 1977, in Washington, D.C., former Vice President Hubert Humphrey spoke about the treatment of the weakest members of society as a reflection of a government: “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”
Every time I see an urban development project in the works, I apply this quote to the project’s intentions by asking myself several questions: Whom does this benefit? Do those who benefit already have access to whatever proposed amenity the city seeks to implement? Is it further advantaging the already enfranchised? Whom does it harm? Do those whom it will harm already have access to the amenity the city seeks to implement? Is it disadvantaging the already disenfranchised?
When I look at the Erie Downtown Development Corp.’s real estate development project, Flagship City Living, I see an urban real estate project that seeks to “attract” people to Erie by pushing out those who are too poor to compete with the rising prices of rent. A studio apartment at Flagship City Living starts at $925. A one-bedroom starts at $1,125, and a two-bedroom starts at $1,500. According to the 2018 National Low-Income Housing Coalition report, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Pennsylvania is $1,015. To afford such a space without spending more than 30% of income on rent and utilities, a household must earn $3,385 a month, or $40,616 annually.
That translates to an hourly wage of $19.53 for a full-time worker.
The ZIP code where these apartment units were constructed, 16501, is the poorest ZIP code in the U.S. with a median income of $10,873. The data, sourced from the U.S. Census Bureau, suggest the mean income is $14,780. The population used to compile the data consisted of 1,418 households. For reference, the federal poverty level for a family of four is $25,100. Imagine a family living on $10,000 a year.
Under a website marquee titled “Live in the Center of It All,” the Flagship City website boasts of “high speed internet access,” “walk-in showers,” “a nearby 8.8-mile-long bike-friendly trail along the Erie bayfront,” and the “Flagship City Market,” which will apparently feature a “grocery store, butcher and distillery.” Take a deep breath. Hm, smells like gentrification to me.
Do you know who could really use access to high-speed internet, outdoor recreational spaces, healthy local grocery options, and handicap accessible walk-in showers? The poor, the disabled, those with limited means of transportation, the people trying to decide whether to pay off last month’s utility bill or this month’s medical bill. Those are the people, in my view, being forgotten in the rush to cater to populations that are not only already provided for but are also capable of sustaining and cultivating their assets given their own relative wealth.
Perhaps the people designing the city’s future housing resources should consider the populations already inadequately served in the 16501 ZIP code. An unaddressed problem does not disappear beneath the veneer of distilleries and lakeside views. Rather, under the banner of progress, it festers. Let’s hold our leaders to a higher and more inclusive standard.
Emma Giering is a resident of Meadville.