A Kensington redevelopment firm seeks to avoid displacing residents

In neighborhoods such as Spruce Hill, Fishtown, and Point Breeze, the effects of gentrification are glaringly obvious: crumbling family rowhomes stand next to towering new development, and trendy cafés replace decades-old corner stores.

Shift Capital, a Kensington-based redevelopment group, sees gentrification as a plus, yet is trying to minimize the displacement of long-time neighborhood residents.

While students and new families of the neighborhoods see the changes as improvements, many long-term residents see them as an invasion.

But a redevelopment group called Shift Capital is working to change that perception.

Based in Kensington, Shift Capital’s mission is to “provide the urban communities we invest in with employment” and to improve existing real estate. The company says it believes in “minimizing displacement of communities.”

Matthew Grande, principal of impact at Shift, insists the company will not push out longtime residents of Kensington.

“What we and a couple of other developers are trying to do is focus, first and foremost, on the existing housing stock, redeveloping and improving that housing stock, and renting it out at affordable rates,” he said.

That mission is underway with more than 100 residential units and more than 90 new businesses in spaces that were formerly vacant. The majority of those formerly vacant spaces make up MaKen Studios North and South, two matching industrial buildings. Of 100 available workspaces, 75 percent are occupied with businesses ranging from a woodworking studio to a recording studio.

According to a Shift report last year, these businesses have brought more than 1,000 temporary construction and maintenance jobs and permanent positions into the neighborhood. Shift hopes that more jobs will be created and employment rates will increase as these newly established businesses hire locally.

However, while many of the current businesses housed within MaKen Studios have taken the initiative to hire locally, there is no verbal or financial encouragement by Shift to motivate the businesses to continue to do so.

Grande said that outside of employment, commercial development also helps improve the safety of a neighborhood, because new storefronts are “typically well-lit [and] have a higher traffic of people.”

Some new storefronts have come to Kensington Avenue as part of the Kensington Avenue Storefront Challenge. Created by Shift and sponsored by the nonprofit Impact Services, the New Kensington Community Development Corp., and the Philadelphia Department of Commerce, the competition offered upward of $15,000 to 10 businesses in order to “reimagine” Kensington Avenue.

But while commercial development can result in higher employment and safety rates, residential development can result in widespread displacement of current residents.

Take for example Spruce Hill, a neighborhood in West Philadelphia that was formerly part of the neighborhood known as Black Bottom, a predominately black community. As part of the University of Pennsylvania’s “urban renewal” program in the mid-1900s, Black Bottom was bulldozed. Now Spruce Hill, at the heart of University City, is filled with student housing and new development.

To combat gentrification, the New Kensington Community Development Corp. works to keep residents in their homes and in their neighborhood by focusing on affordable housing, home repair programs, and first-time homebuyer programs, said Brian Green, the group’s commercial corridor manager.

“We try to help long-term residents purchase homes in their neighborhood, so they are not displaced as rent increases,” Green said.

The majority of Shift’s 120 residents were referred by community groups and were in need of affordable, safe housing.

But because Shift is renting its residential properties to the whole market, there is a chance of displacement with higher-income families moving into the neighborhood and taking away housing opportunities from those who already call Kensington home.

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