Pennsylvania’s Delaware County is a crazy quilt of municipalities. Just to the west of Philadelphia, it is home to some of the oldest suburban communities in America. It is dense, with more than half a million people packed into townships and boroughs as small as a half square mile. Such tight confines can make governance difficult under any but the best conditions.
If a neighborhood starts to change in a way its middle-class residents don’t like, they can move a few miles to a newer house, a better school district, and lower property taxes. The communities they leave behind are faced with the impossible math of declining revenues, rising taxes, and an increasingly needy population.
That’s the position of Yeadon, a majority-black suburb right on the West Philly border. A stable middle-class community of long standing, the borough and its mayor, Rohan Hepkins, are nevertheless staring down a difficult future.
Hepkins was elected mayor of this two-square-mile borough in 2013, but he moved to Yeadon back in 1982. The 1980s saw a dramatic change in the neighborhood’s racial composition, shifting from 8 percent African-American in 1980 to 54 percent in 1990. Upwardly mobile black families were seeking an escape from the increasingly unstable city, and landing in Yeadon.
As Yeadon became a majority-black borough, median household incomes rose and poverty fell—the opposite trajectory from Philadelphia satellites like Camden and Chester that also became majority black at this time.
“One of the few predominantly black suburbs in the United States that has remained middle class is Yeadon, Pennsylvania,” wrote John R. Logan, now a professor of sociology at Brown University, in “Fiscal and Developmental Crises in Black Suburbs,” a 1988 paper on separate and unequal suburban development that profiles Yeadon, Chester, and Camden. “Yeadon seems to be proof that black suburbanization is not necessarily ghettoization.”
Logan’s optimism may now be out of date. Today Yeadon is 89 percent black, but since 2000, the borough’s median income has fallen by about $15,000, while the poverty rate increased from 3.5 to 10.5 percent.
“Black middle-class flight is what we are experiencing now,” says Hepkins, who was born in Jamaica, moved to the United States as a boy, and is now a naturalized citizen. “For many African Americans and African immigrants, this is a place of promise. They’ve finally moved into the suburbs—only to find that it’s not what it’s cracked up to be.”
The influx of working-class African Americans and African immigrants increases the strain on the William Penn School District, which serves Yeadon and five other adjacent boroughs. By the 2012-2013 school year, more than 78 percent of its students were economically disadvantaged. As more services are required in the schools, property taxes have increased dramatically. A 2012 study from Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative found that Yeadon had the second-highest local and state tax burden of Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania-side suburbs. Many residents with options are moving out.
Hepkins is also the pastor at the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, and says the congregation of his church and the five others in Yeadon have shrunk. He says that many of his upper-middle-class friends and neighbors have moved out of state to Delaware, or to further-flung suburbs like Exton, Springfield, and Radnor. Some have even moved back to Philadelphia’s revitalized neighborhoods around Center City.
Logan, the sociologist, doesn’t see a clear way out of this bind for Yeadon. “I don’t think there is anything that the individual community on the losing side of this game can do,” he says. “What could Yeadon do to come back? I just don’t believe they have the authority or the capacity without a very large amount of external support to do much on the local level.”
Hepkins is well aware that his community has its back to the wall. That’s why he’s been working with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf to craft a funding formula to reduce the importance of local property taxes in Pennsylvania’s education system.
As one of only three states that do not have a funding formula, Pennsylvania makes school districts heavily reliant on local sources of revenue—with predictably unequal results. A school district on the Main Line will receive more local funding than William Penn, despite having students with less intensive needs and a lower tax rate, simply because its properties are assessed at a higher value.
For Yeadon’s black families of means, a different school district with better test scores and lower property-tax rates is just a few miles away. Why wouldn’t they move? “Unless we find a way out through a fair funding formula, we’re kind of sunk,” Hepkins says.
A breakthrough in Harrisburg is unlikely anytime soon. Although Wolf campaigned on education, Republicans control both chambers of the legislature by large margins and are loath to work with the governor. The budget impasse in the state capital is currently stretching into its eighth month, with no end in sight.
Hepkins hasn’t pinned all his hopes on the state. He is a member of Building One America, a pro-integration group with a deep bench of expertise on the very issues he is grappling with. He’s also reached out to Jannie Blackwell, West Philadelphia’s powerful city council representative, about shared issues around gun violence, trash dumping, and better assimilating their growing African immigrant populations.
In October, Hepkins endorsed Philadelphia’s Democratic mayoral candidate Jim Kenney and told the city’s African-American newspaper that he hoped to form a “Yeadon and Philadelphia Alliance.” The two men have met and Hepkins wants to develop the relationship, with a vague idea of coordinating with his larger neighbor in the future.
But Hepkins’ most attainable plan is his ongoing effort to lash Yeadon together more tightly with its neighboring municipalities. He dreams of creating a non-profit 311 call center that could cover the six eastern Delaware County municipalities served by the William Penn School District. This centralized office could connect residents with immigration, veteran, and senior services.
Hepkins also hopes to bind together the welter of small fire and police departments into a larger regional force. The emergency services of the six municipalities already support each other informally, but he argues that an official merger would streamline costs and make service more efficient.
He has met with the mayors of Aldan, Colwyn, Darby, East Lansdowne, and Lansdowne. “We could be stronger with a regional approach, similar to Philadelphia, where there are legislators who can act as a voting bloc,” he notes.
For now, he is starting on a smaller scale, using the leverage he has. His “Adopt a School” program will connect public-school students with after-school services at his church and the Faith Emanuel Lutheran church in East Lansdowne. The program is meant to boost William Penn’s test scores by providing students with supportive services like computer labs and tutoring in a safe environment.
The mayors of Lansdowne and East Lansdowne have been receptive to Hepkins’ advances, but his other three counterparts are hesitant. Even if the local politicians do overcome their own parochial interests, it’s an open question how much resource-sharing between six struggling municipalities would accomplish. A system incorporating the region’s more prosperous communities would be far more advantageous, akin to the revenue-sharing policies utilized in the Twin Cities metro region. But nothing like that is being seriously discussed in the Philadelphia area.
“I’m trying to break up the Balkanization of the boroughs because no one is coming to our aid,” Hepkins says. “We can’t depend on the cavalry coming. We are our own best resource.”
For now, that’ll have to be enough.