Will census show racial population shifts in Mt. Airy, Chestnut Hill?

by Patrick Cobbs
Posted 12/31/69

Release of 2020 Census data is lagging because of COVID 19, causing delays in Congress and forcing redistricting troubles all over the country that will impact state and federal elections. And it may …

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Will census show racial population shifts in Mt. Airy, Chestnut Hill?

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Release of 2020 Census data is lagging because of COVID 19, causing delays in Congress and forcing redistricting troubles all over the country that will impact state and federal elections. And it may also delay important local understandings, like whether booming real estate development in Mt. Airy is giving rise to significant changes such as displacement or gentrification.

In most years ending in “1,” the Census “apportionment” data is delivered to the House of Representatives in January, but these numbers have been delayed until sometime this month. These are the Constitutionally mandated raw population numbers that determine how many of the 435 seats go to each state in the U.S. House.

More detailed redistricting data is usually released by March 31, but the U.S. Census Bureau reported this will be delayed until at least August. These numbers help states draw up voting districts for elections, so it’s likely the delay will impact May voting, and may lead to a flurry of election-related lawsuits after the fact.

In communities, these hard numbers can also help give an accurate picture of change.

Take Northwest Philadelphia as an example. Real estate development has been booming in Mt. Airy for the first time in decades, and housing costs are rising fast. It would be good to know if the racial integration that Mt. Airy is famous for is also changing, and how.

In intervening years, the Census Bureau conducts the American Community Surveys (ACS), which are estimates of detailed community numbers based on small sample sizes. These are not hard numbers; they are educated guesses.

ACS data after 2010, the date of the last Census, up through 2019 show that Mt. Airy has gotten whiter, racially, while Chestnut Hill has grown less white, according to Larry Eichel, a senior advisor and researcher at The Pew Charitable Trust in Philadelphia. In Mt. Airy, the black population has decreased from 61.6 percent to 57. 4 percent, and the white population has increased from 30.6 percent to 32.8 percent. Both changes, though, are within the statistical margin of error.

This slight white-shift comes as high-priced new construction is taking hold on many traditionally black and racially mixed blocks in Mt. Airy. Could this be an early harbinger of larger scale displacement or gentrification to come?

“I would not call it gentrification,” Eichel said. “I would say generally the Northwest has been pretty stable.”

Eichel says that the low poverty rate of Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill compared to the rest of the city (9.4 percent compared to 23 percent), plus the relative distance from Center City and a less dense street design, probably contribute to that stability.

But he also said it’s too early to tell for sure if any of the changes since 2010 indicate a trend. Especially because these numbers are still just estimates until the real 2020 Census data comes in.

One possible exception is the statistically more significant drop in the white population in Chestnut Hill since 2010. Those numbers went from 74.8% to 67.2%, spurred by small increases in black, Hispanic, and Asian populations, he said. This shift was greater than the margin of error, suggesting that it will indeed prove true when the hard numbers come in later this year.

But as with so much since the pandemic began, clarity on any of these questions seems to require patience.

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