Mayor's Lecture Series | Dr. John Caskey

Mayor Stefan Roots kicked off his new monthly Mayor’s Lecture Series the evening of Tuesday, July 2. John P. Caskey – Joseph Wharton Professor of Economics at Swarthmore College – gave a lecture entitled “Housing and Chester’s Challenges,” based upon his research papers on the subject. Professor Caskey has a B.A. from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from Stanford University, and teaches courses in financial economics and urban economics. His research focuses on financial institutions serving low-income U.S. households and community economic development initiatives.

Mayor Roots established the Mayor’s Lecture Series to give residents an opportunity to hear from experts on relevant topics, learn together, and get an informed dialogue going. Chester’s housing situation is a major issue and topic of conversation across the City, so it was a fitting focus for the series’ first lecture.

Lecture Highlights

Why Do Low-Income People Choose Chester?

Professor Caskey started by reframing the original question from his paper – “Why is Chester, Pennsylvania, So Poor?” – to “Why is it that so many low-income people in Delaware County choose to live in Chester?” Caskey then dove into a brief history of housing dynamics in Chester and Delaware County. He painted a picture of a thriving City that experienced rapid population decline since the 1960s due to white flight, loss of industry and commercial firms, and the exit of upper- and middle-class residents. Chester’s current population sits around 34,000 residents – roughly half its peak population in the 1950s.

Caskey argued that so many Low- and Moderate-Income (LMI) households choose to live in Chester because the choice is already effectively made for them. Chester, trying to do the right thing for its residents as the population declined, welcomed site-specific federally subsidized housing for LMI households. The rest of Delaware County, however, did not. The net result is that Chester now has an estimated 2,110 public housing units, while the rest of Delaware County has only a combined 2,007 units. Delaware County’s low-income housing is concentrated in Chester, so Chester is where Delaware County’s low-income residents choose to live.

The Economic Implications of Chester’s Housing Stock

Affordable housing in Chester meets a need, but it also puts Chester at a fiscal disadvantage. Almost 20% of Chester’s households live in site-specific subsidized housing, compared with 1% in the rest of Delaware County. Professor Caskey concluded that attracting jobs to Chester will only have a moderate effect on Chester’s rate. Raising the incomes of Chester’s LMI residents is helpful for them, but then they need to move out of LMI housing and other LMI residents will move in. Chester’s housing infrastructure matters for its economic future.

What Can Chester Residents Do?

Professor Caskey ended with two suggestions for Chester residents:

1) Advocate for the development of more affordable housing outside of Chester in the rest of Delaware County so that LMI residents have a choice of where to live and to deconcentrate affordable housing in Chester

2) Welcome the development of more middle- and high-income housing in Chester.

Caskey finished on a high note, expressing optimism for Chester’s future because of its great assets, including committed residents, historic buildings, waterfront, and proximity to transportation hubs.

Community Response.

After Professor Caskey’s 35-minute lecture, Mayor Roots opened it up to the audience of 40 residents and property owners for questions, comments, and discussion. Many of the comments affirmed Professor Caskey’s analysis and agreed with his optimism for Chester’s future. Some residents, however, expressed concerns about gentrification. Caskey replied that, at least in the short-term, Chester is not at risk of gentrification given the current appetite of developers and the space available across the City. Other comments linked Chester’s housing and poverty challenges to the struggles of Chester’s school district, which Caskey has also written about. In his concluding remarks, Mayor Roots said that he would love to see new middle- and high-income housing built in the City to help keep residents who prefer to live in Chester with upscale housing choices that meet their needs, and to entice workers with long commutes into Chester to have attractive housing options to live in the City.

What’s Next in the Lecture Series?

The full video recording of the Professor Caskey lecture is available on YouTube, as are the slides from the lecture.

Mayor Roots intends to host his Lecture Series at least monthly, generally on first Tuesdays of the month. This would put the next lecture at 6pm on Tuesday, August 6 in the City Hall Council Chambers. Stay tuned for confirmation of the details, including the speaker and topic.