At first glance, Lauren Vidas could be labeled a stereotypical gentrifier.
She’s a white lawyer and lobbyist who moved into the once predominantly black Graduate Hospital neighborhood a decade ago, and lives there with her partner and two dogs. But she’s running for City Council, she says, to prevent longtime district residents from being displaced and to ensure that neighborhoods like nearby Point Breeze develop fairly and transparently.
Her opponent in the Democratic primary, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who has represented the 2nd District for eight years, was born and raised in Point Breeze, and has made those roots a central part of his reelection campaign. His motto: “From Here. For Here.”
He’s expanded tax-relief programs for longtime residents and helped airport workers get a living wage. But he also has faced scrutiny over city land transactions that benefited friends. A jury two years ago found that Johnson had violated the rights of Ori Feibush, a developer and Johnson’s 2015 primary challenger, by using councilmanic prerogative to prevent Feibush from buying lots in the district. Feibush was awarded $34,000.
The 2nd District contest is among the races that have positioned the May 21 primary as a potentially groundbreaking election for the city, with more candidates vying for Council than in any year since 1979. (Michael Bradley, an Army veteran and head of the Grays Ferry Civic Association, is running uncontested for the 2nd District Republican nomination.)
The race highlights a citywide conversation about Council’s power over land deals and pits a party-backed incumbent with significant financial support against a first-time candidate touting government reform.
“People have seen scandal after scandal coming out of City Hall,” Vidas said. “What they don’t see is progress in their community, and by progress I mean clean streets, I mean making sure folks aren’t displaced by developers and gentrification.”
Johnson calls Vidas, who has lobbied for the soda industry, “a hired corporate gun,” and questions her support beyond Graduate Hospital, where she led the neighborhood association SOSNA.
“She was at the helm of an organization, SOSNA, that totally gentrified the entire neighborhood,” Johnson said. "Now all the sudden, you have a progressive cloak on, as though you’re advocating for affordable housing? There isn’t a track record that shows that’s been her agenda.”
The district includes 15 neighborhoods, including Point Breeze, Graduate Hospital, portions of South Philadelphia, the Navy Yard, Eastwick, and Grays Ferry. Since 2010, the district’s population has grown by 7,500.
In the most gentrified parts of Point Breeze, the median housing price soared from about $30,000 in 2000 to $234,000 in 2016, and the neighborhood changed from close to 80 percent black to 46 percent black. In the Graduate Hospital area, the median home prices are now among the city’s highest — $500,000, up from $300,000 just eight years ago.
Johnson defended his ability to represent such diverse neighborhoods and residents. He sponsored the law to expand the longtime owner-occupied property tax relief program (LOOP) from 10 years to the life of the owner. He also authored a law that expanded the senior tax-freeze program to reach more low or moderate-income residents in the district.
Johnson defends councilmanic prerogative — the effective veto power Council members have over land use in their districts — as a way to give the community a voice, like when he helped block an apartment complex from going up on city-owned land in Eastwick due to neighbor complaints in 2012. Councilmanic prerogative also played a role in securing votes to improve wages for at the airport despite intense lobbying by American Airlines.
“Low-wage black and immigrant workers working at the airport, ... their lives are totally transformed because of his leadership and willingness to take on some of the city’s largest employers," said Dermot Delude-Dix, a spokesman for Unite Here, the union representing food-service industry workers at the airport.