Good news! The exodus of people leaving Philadelphia has finally shifted into reverse. Well, maybe. The proof will be in official census figures that have yet to be released. But a new Pew Charitable Trusts survey reports that positive trend. If Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative proves correct, public officials and agencies will want to address areas where more needs to be done to sustain population growth. It almost goes without saying that reducing crime and improving public education will attract residents. But two other key areas are tax policy, which also might be self-evident, and immigration which might not be.
The Pew study, based on Internal Revenue Service data, said the number of people moving into Philadelphia increased steadily from 31,837 in 1993 to 42,250 in 2008. Meanwhile, the annual outflow of residents fell from 20,284 in 1995 to only 9,846 in 2008. Mayor Nutter and other city officials should use those numbers to bolster arguments to continue the successful tax-abatement program that draws new residents.
Critics say the abatements have mostly impacted Center City, but the program is available and has been used all over town. It is true, though, that the most dramatic results of the 10-year abatement program have been in Center City, where more than 12,000 new residential units have been completed since the program began in 1997. Many of these homes are condos costing in the millions in dollars.
The construction and renovation of these buildings has pumped billions of dollars into the city’s economy. And while the homeowners do get to forgo paying city property taxes for 10 years, they eventually must pay; and they are not exempt from paying other taxes and fees that impact the economy. If anything, the abatement program might need minor adjustments to benefit neighborhoods still struggling to attract new residents. More popular areas may do just as well with abatements of five or seven years.
Population growth can also be sustained by making the city more attractive to immigrants. A Brookings Institution report concluded that nearly 75 percent of the Philadelphia region’s labor-force growth between 2000 and 2008 was due to immigrants. Job creation is important not only to continue that trend but to reduce the high poverty rate among longtime city residents. But the city can also be more aggressive in letting immigrants know they are wanted. The city already has a Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians. It’s time to put it to even greater use.