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The poor you will always have with you, but maybe not in Philly
We are in Holy Week in Circle of Hope and we are journeying with Christ toward his death. In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ final week, he spent time visiting with some of his closest friends in Bethany. He made stayed there after he triumphantly entered Jerusalem. Matthew and Mark don’t identify who the woman is, but John says it is Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ sister who anointed Jesus in reverence and worship with her prized possession. The disciples, in the synoptic accounts and Judas in John’s, claim it’s a “waste” to use precious perfume this way. It should be sold and given to the poor. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy when they make such an egregious claim, “For the poor you will always have with you.” He goes on to say, “But you will not always have me.”
Somehow, Jesus’ phrase, which is about worshipping Jesus when he is on earth, and not some sort of social or political statement, got twisted into justifying all sorts of American neglect to the poor. Proof-texting our way toward justifying greed and capitalism may have a judgment of its own. Jesus is talking about worshiping him and being with him on his march toward death. Perhaps the disciples, who in Matthew 20 already demonstrate their proclivity to become jealous and seek attention, are envious of Mary’s humility and Jesus’ subsequent affirmation and attention to her. In John’s account, the treasurer Judas, clamors to help the poor. For Christ’s disciples, this may not have been an uncommon practice; the disciples assume Judas went to help the poor when he leaves to betray Christ in John 13. But we know how to story goes, Judas, who tells Jesus that the perfume should be sold to help the poor, sells out his friend for just thirty pieces of silver (really, not very much at all).
Of course, the rest of Moses’ statement is indicative of Jesus’ own motives: “Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’” The poor are always with us and among us; there seems to be someone who is always taking more than their fair share, so subsequently, the poor are always present. Jesus may actually be telling us to be among the poor and care for them. It seems that clear in the Pentateuch.
Well, maybe not in Philadelphia. We don’t even have the public space to interact with the poor, let alone the neighborhoods to accommodate them. In fact, Uber and Lyft, make even the small public place of the subway and bus or even hailing a cab on a street corner obsolete!
Gentrification is a big reason why the poor are increasingly less among us, especially in “hot” neighborhoods. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, 41 percent of renters in Philly have extreme low incomes and the next third are very low- or low-income. Of the renters are who extremely low-income, more than 70 percent spend more than half of their income on housing.
According to the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities (of which I am a member with Circle of Hope’s Development Without Displacement team), people are increasingly housing cost-burdened over the last 10 years. And in North, South and West Philly Hosting sale prices have sky rocketed (50% citywide, but 200, 184, and 98 percent in North, South, and West Philly respectively), with income decreasing.
So as a small measure to help this problem, PCAC is proposing an increase to the Real Estate Transfer Tax of 1.5 percent on properties that are “fixed and flipped.” If a property is sold more less than two years after it is purchased, 1.5 percent of its sale price goes into the Housing Trust Fund. The purpose of this is not to curb development, but rather encourage diversity in neighborhoods. The Housing Trust Fund funds affordable housing development and can help keep residents where they are, even if jobs aren’t created and income doesn’t rise. We think this small tax increase will result in $12 million!
I want the poor to be among us. I want them to be loved and not just discarded from their own neighborhoods Truthfully, I’m not a policy expert and I don’t make it my business to legislate too much morality. Jesus will save us, not the law or anything else. But I think we have a good opportunity to help the poor here, and the situation in Philadelphia is egregious and reprehensible. It may not work, but we're facing a major displacement crisis with more and more families paying higher prices for their housing while income goes down. I think the families need a little relief with the people benefiting from this development need to take more responsibility.
I understand the argument that this might disincentivise developers, but I think it's in their interest to participate since diverse neighborhoods with affordable housing actually increase the value of homes. Moreover, Philly already had a 4 percent transfer tax (which detractors will tell you is the highest in the nation), but still developing is booming and the population is growing.
Developers are making money hand-over-fist. In fact, a brilliant 26-year-old MIT graduate argues that income inequality in the world is all about housing income.
Again, the law is not the Word of God and the state is not God. Only He will give us true justice and peace. But on this Holy Week, as Jesus marches toward death to change the whole world, part of what I can do is advocate for some common sense legislation. Jesus, in Matthew 25, says he is in the least of these. Truly, the poor will always be with us, and Jesus is among them. This time, I want to be on the side of the least of these.