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South of Penn Community meeting for Legacy Cities

On March 23, 2023, Barrio Alegria facilitated a community conversation with South of Penn neighbors at the Berks Latino Workforce Development Corporation. The conversation was part of the Legacy Cities project, a technical support project of the Lincoln Institute that was awarded to the city of Reading. You can download the notes here or read the full transcript below:

Community meeting notes
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Above: Jada Aviles, South of Penn Coordinator inviting neighbors to the community meeting.

Notes from the South of Penn Community Conversation- Legacy Cities

The conversation started at ~ 6:10pm

Daniel Egusquiza, Executive Director of Barrio Alegría, welcomed everyone to the space and introduced Mayor Eddie Moran.

Mayor Moran welcomed everyone to the community conversation and thanked those that were there. He spoke of the exciting Legacy opportunity given to Reading through this grant. Reading was one of five cities that were chosen for this opportunity. This opportunity brings light to the City of Reading and encourage philanthropist to connect and invest in Reading. Mayor Moran reminded those present that we need to continue to have synergy and collaborate with each other in order to be successful. Mayor Moran grew up in Brooklyn, NY and it isn’t much different from Reading, PA. Reading has a lot of potential and Mayor Moran is willing o work with each and every one of those present. Unfortunately, Mayor Moran has another commitment today and will be leaving the conversation early.


Jamal Abodalo, Director of Community Development Services for the City of Reading, also thanked those present. This conversation is meant as a listening opportunity for the Legacy initiative. The conversation is a change for the community to say what they want to improve in their community and for the City

Administration to listen. Mr. Abodalo introduced the rest of the Legacy team: Bethany Ayers-Fisher from the City of Reading and Raquel Capellan from Alvernia University. Mr. Abodalo also thanked Tech Centro (Berks Latino Workforce Development Corporation) for the space and Barrio Alegría for inviting everyone to the conversation. He also thanked Mr. Egusquiza for leading the conversation. The notes from this conversation will be complied and will lead the work that will be done in the next 18 months. Today is the first day of Ramadan and Mr. Abodalo is honored to be breaking his fast with those in the space.


Mr. Egusquiza asked everyone present to introduce themselves and say the person or value they are bringing to the space. This will allow us to transform the space so that we may see each other as human beings and not as our titles- facilitating fruitful conversations.


Present: Daniel, Jamal, Anthony, Arleny, Daniel, Jack, Ruby, Tony, Jada, Jose, Eddie, Angel, Douglas, Bethany, Raquel [note taker note: others joined after the introduction]


Mr. Egusquiza then explained what the Legacy Cities grant was and how it relates to the South of Penn area. The City of Reading was awarded this grant for equitable development in the city. We want to invite investment into the community but we want it to be neighbor led. Due to the requirements of the

grant, the Legacy team need to get input into the process.


Mr. Egusquiza then started the conversation by asking everyone to stand and be part of self-select lines. The moving conversations allow all attendees to participate and encourage conversations around different themes. Attendees moved based on how they would agree/disagree with a statement.


1. The first selection asked participants to stand to one side if they plan to live in Reading for the rest of their lives, stand in the middle if they see it as a possibility but aren’t sure, and stand on the other side of the room if they view Reading as a “pit stop” on the way or can’t wait to get out.


Most attendees stood to the one side of the room saying they saw themselves living in Reading for the rest of their lives. Mr. Egusquiza then asked different attendees to share why they stood where they stood.

Participant comments;

-I love Reading. I was born and raised in the Bronx but now that I have a house

here, I’m not going anywhere.

-I love Reading. My two sons live here.

-Reading is in my heart. I was born and raised here. You may not be able to

fix the whole world, but you can start in your own corner.

-I was born and raised here but my basic needs are not all being met.

Top three basic needs that need to be met: housing policy, accessible food,

community.

-I might not stay in Reading because although I’m here now, I have family in

other places that could pull me from here.

-Reading is facing the same issues that other cities are facing. I might move in

a few years because I might want to buy property.

-I wasn’t born here but I chose to raise my family here. I spent more than 20

years as an activist but now I’m looking to retire and I want a beach.


2. The second selection asked attendees the following. In 10 years, Reading is

leading the way. What does this look and feel like?

Participant comments;


-Right now, there is a lack of opportunities for highly developed skills. I’ve

thought about moving to Philadelphia for opportunities, but I stuck around

because I found groups or organizations that help fulfill my passions. I want to

see more opportunities for young people to stay in Reading.

-I want to see innovative use of blighted warehouses to solve the high-density

problem in the city. I can see attracting new technology that can grow here

and provide opportunities to others.



3. Mr. Egusquiza asked the attendees another question. If the city received

$100,000, where should the majority of the money go? The three options were

youth, basic needs, abandoned properties.


The distribution was pretty even across. With many people between two of the three. Participant comments;


-I’m between the two because the youth is important and need to get back to

family values but also we need to have our basic needs met. A financial

program helped me to be able to own my own home. People who rent don’t

care as much as the owner and we have a lot of abandoned places. These

types of programs are important because we have many abandoned places

and it’s better if it goes to community people than to investors from out-of-

state.

-Kids in the city deserve more. The Village has been doing amazing work

giving teens safe spaces and there’s a lot of value in that and in meeting the

basic needs of the community.


Mr. Egusquiza pushed the attendees to pick one of the three. Although we would want to address all the concerns, there is a pretend budget and we need to make decisions. We also have a real grant that we get to have a say in. Participant comments;


-Growing up in Reading, I wanted to get out right after high school. I left to

Philly, then went to Florida, then traveled around but nothing really felt like

home. Now I’m in Reading and it feels like I need to leave Reading to enjoy my

life. There’s nothing to do here unless it’s a bar and there’s nothing for families

to do.

-There are a lot of people suffering. It is hard to pick one of the three because

they are all important.

-I’m standing outside of the group because it is difficult to pick one. We need

to invest more in students and education and for them to learn, we need to

invest in security/housing/food (basic needs) so they can be successful. We

could be using blighted properties for community spaces/housing/investment.

It’s impossible to pick just one.



4. Someone brought up rent and landlords. Mr. Egusquiza asked everyone to

do a new self-select line. If you thought rent prices are a problem, you would

stand on one side. If you though rent prices weren’t a problem, you would

stand on the other side. And you could stand anywhere in the spectrum.


Most of the attendees except for two moved to the one side of rent prices being a problem. Participant comments;


-I don’t personally have an issue with rent, but my sibling is trying to move out

but can’t afford $1000-$1400 one bed apartment. This situation is made worse

because may of the apartments are owned by people outside of the city that

don’t take care of the property. I am currently renting.

-I’ve been living here since 2009 when a one-bedroom apartment was about

$400 and since then it has more than doubled. Currently $1000 is cheap for a

one-bedroom apartment. Currently, they are like $1500-$2000 a month. People

in Reading don’t make enough money to keep up. Landlords from out of state

are buying up properties and using New York City prices and residents can’t

but homes or afford rent.

-I own my own home. But there are not programs helping others to be able to

own their own home. In the program I was part of, I rented for four years and

then there was the option to buy it. I want others to be able to have access to

this program. Investors from NYC come, and they don’t clean or fix the

properties, so it’s left to the residents to clean up the property because it’s

still our community and it’s frustrating.

-Rent control is necessary. Owners from out of state are scooping up

properties and there needs to be some control.

-We need to control the property taxes because when taxes go up, that’s when

rent goes up.

-I’ve been both a homeowner and a renter. There is a misconception that we

need to get rid of out-of-state investors but Reading will also be a composed

on owners, renters, and investors. If investors didn’t come in, Reading’s

economy would be worse off. For a city of this size that needs to provide

services, the rent here isn’t that bad. I’m thankful that the city hasn’t increased

property taxes compared to other cities of its size.

-Taxes aren’t the problem. The problem is that investors are allowed to

increase rent however they want. The medium income of residents of Reading

is too low for what we’re asking them to pay in rent.


5. Mr. Egusquiza started a new poll. I make enough money to pay $1500/month

on a rental comfortably. If you agree you stand on one side. If you disagree,

you stand to the other. Participant comments;


-I do because I budget every month and it fits.

-I don’t make enough money. Renting and owning is abut the same amount so

I can’t save to own a home.

-Mortgage is about that amount. And we can’t get a home because we keep

getting outbid. So although I could pay that amount, I couldn’t do it

comfortably.

-There are two incomes in the household and $1500 is still not doable.

-Currently, I’m 31 years old and I don’t expect to ever be able to own a house.

There are systems that work against me and people like me. It’s not easy and

it’s disheartening that my basic needs are not met so we can’t afford anything

more.

-My rent has stayed the same since 2013 but I have seen friends having a tough

time. It’s not a rent problem, it’s a wage problem but wages aren’t changing.

-I looked at a house in the south of Penn area that was like $200,000 and it was

offensive to see that amount when the property wasn’t maintained at all but

someone else can take it on as an investment and flip it and make it that much

harder for someone else in the community to make it.


6. Mr. Egusquiza started a new poll. One of the attendees said that they budget

so they don’t have a problem affording rent. Do you feel like the

housing/rental situation is an individual’s problem or an everyone’s problem? If

you think it’s individual, you stand to one side and if you think it’s everyone’s

problem, you stand to the other side.


Almost everyone stood on the “everyone’s problem” side. Participant comments;


-I was able to afford rent on a three bedroom apartment as a part-timer before.

Now it is no longer affordable.

-I do a money map where I figure out where my money goes. When rents go

up- it destabilizes communities. Just because they can afford to live there now

doesn’t mean that they can sustain it. What happens if they lose their job? It

then creates things like not meeting basic needs.

-If I can’t afford housing, it might be everyone’s problem but I’m the one that

spends sleepless nights because it’s also an individual problem.

-It’s a national crisis. There are things from COVID that we should learn from

like how to handle our spending. Sometimes you just have to work more. We

have a lot of vacancies, how can we help to live there?

-We don’t only need services, we also need to empower people.

-We need to give people a hand up not a hand-out.


7. Mr. Egusquiza started a new poll. Are people in Reading poor because they

want to be poor? Is it their fault? If you think it is, you stand on one side, if you

think it’s not their fault, you stand on the other side.


Most people stood to the side of it not being their fault, a couple in the middle, representatives of either elected officials or city hall stood on the other side- it is their fault. Participant comments;


-Bad theology.

-We can’t work ourselves to death.

-Why work 2/3 of our days to put money in someone else’s pocket?

-Spending all that time working for what?

-Reading has a lot of resources but there are no opportunities to grow here.

We need better wages.

-I didn’t choose to be poor. There are many factors that predetermine things

but people can navigate in and our of the system. There are definitely outliers

but there are generations of poverty.

-I see both sides. In an idealistic world, we wouldn’t have to work all the time

but that’s not the system we live in. we need to restart society. For example,

time banking. Poverty is not a lot of people’s fault. I was born into it and I’m

working hard to get myself and my family out but others do make poor

choices.

-Everyone has a choice. People need to be held accountable to their choices.

-I was born and raised in the city. My family wasn’t rich and my dad worked

hard to provide. My parents put in the effort to make a better environment.

They didn’t make excuses; they worked hard. We have families in low-income

housing that have lived there for 30 years. The government is important but

others take advantage of system. It’s a problem for society-everyone is

important.

-My father never owned a home. When I started working with this other

person, he told me he helps Latinos “because that’s where my people were

two generations ago.” This mentality is contagious. We need to work for what

we have. I want to share everything I have learned. We need to have

accountability for ourselves and on society. I grew up poor and as an adult I

don’t blame my parents, but I broke the cycle.

-We are not looking at how things have evolved. We are looking at people.

How about people who are given information that then puts them in an even

worse economic situation? Like going to college to come out with student

loans and then you never get out of poverty. We need to look at the

environment too.

-I have a career and I paid off all my student loans and I still can’t make ends

meet. Because of the rising cost of living. Society as changed and the food

distribution has been extremely affected but the wages are stagnate.


Mr. Egusquiza thanked everyone for being part of the exercises. The issues that are affecting the South of Penn area are issues that are happening globally and often we are left to deal with them at the local level. This is an empowered group because it’s a team.


To finish the conversation, attendees were asked if they could solve one issue in their community, what would it be? Participant comments;


-Parking

-Parking

-Parking

-Parking- I don’t have a car but there are a lot of people in the community with

small businesses and they get tickets by parking in front of their businesses

and they can’t get a permit because they don’t live in the community.

-Parking- currently I walk but others can get more than one ticket in a day!

-I would like to see a program to offer housing for homeless individuals

-Bilingual support at local organizations. For example, the city does a great job

of translating documents and other agencies do too but we need to see more

bilingual personnel across the city. (the city website doesn’t translate well).

-I want to make it possible for children to bike to school

-Parking

-Blighted properties- using the spaces for more housing to lower rent prices or

as community centers.

-Housing- homes are being turned into apartments. apartments that use to be

for one family are not for multiple so it adds to the parking issue too.

-Bilingual support across the community

-Human development

-Respect for one another. Families having multiple cars is disrespectful to

others on the block. We need to think about our next door neighbor.

-Building Community- being neighbors again- relationship building between

police and the community. Stop gun violence

-Neighbors are penalized for not cleaning their spaces. I want to connect

residents with resources or support instead of penalizing them.


Mr. Egusquiza thanked everyone for being part of the conversation and the representatives from the city government for attending. Mr. Egusquiza thanked everyone for being honest and disagreeing with others in a positive manner. It’s great to see that the city is working for the residents and not for themselves. It should never be that the city government does anything without the support of the community. The notes will be made public.


The conversation concluded at 7:50pm

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