Civic Innovation Initiatives from the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia

The Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank, has pivoted in the last year to running more programs and shifting their emphasis to doing. We spoke with Jeff Hornstein, Ph.D., Executive Director for the league.


“I’ve been talking for years – long before I got here – about Bostonadelphia and Detroitadelphia. Parts of the city are booming but most of the city is not booming,” said Hornstein. “So how do we connect the growth in one part of the city to the lack of growth in other parts of the city? How do we leverage the growth to share the wealth and opportunity?”  


Hornstein helped to incubate a project in city government now called Philadelphia Anchors for Growth and Equity. It is an attempt to get our eds and meds institutions aligned around the local purchasing strategy that would drive more of their procurement dollars, their spend, toward local and diverse businesses in the city. The Economy League has gotten great buy-in from institutions.


“The institutions are funding this initiative to develop a strategy for localizing more of their purchasing power. There are about five and a half billion dollars a year in annual spend. Less than half of it gets spent locally. In certain categories, it’s well less than half,” said Hornstein. “So, we think there’s an opportunity to localize half a billion dollars of spend which would create a lot of jobs, a lot of new businesses.”


The Economy League is also working with the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations to put together a proposal to get foundation funding to do an inclusive growth strategy for the city. Hornstein said the mayor’s office is going to put out an inclusive growth report soon. “We hope to use that as a springboard to engage all sorts of stakeholders around the city in conversation and ultimately, an action plan on how we become a more inclusive growth kind of place,” said Hornstein.  


Hornstein spoke about an “amazing leadership program” — the Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange. “We go to a different city every even numbered year. Odd numbered years we do a deep dive into the regional economy. So last year the board decided that we should go to Seattle. We brought 150 super diverse leaders to Seattle. We are intentional with how we recruit for this cohort: one third public sector, one third private sector, one third non-profit; it is racially, gender diverse,” he said. “We structure an experience for these folks. We dig into the interesting challenges and opportunities faced by that city. We went to see how Seattle moves people around because they have serious transportation problems. They are an example of a city that grew very fast with no plan.”   


Seattle has very limited affordable housing options. “We have an income and jobs problem. Seattle’s median household income is like $100,000. People who earn $100,000 in Seattle can’t afford to buy a house because the median housing price there is now $700,000,” he noted. “In Philadelphia, we have plenty of affordable housing for people of median income. We just have a lot of people who are under median income. So, we really have an income and jobs problem more than we do an affordable housing problem.”            


Hornstein is not saying we don’t have challenges with housing. He praised City Council for their recent effort to float a 100-million-dollar bond to ensure that lower and moderate-income Philadelphians can afford to stay in their homes and gain equity.


The Economy League uses a measure called self-sufficiency which is $50,000 for a family of three. “Philadelphia has long been a city of homeowners. Now we have a lot of relatively poor people who own their homes. We have people who couldn’t afford to buy a home now but got one either through a transfer from their family or someone died and left it to them,” said Hornstein. “They haven’t had to pay a mortgage because their home has been paid off for a long time, but they may be behind in their property taxes; they may not be able to afford basic systems repair. So, the city has stepped in to try and help people like that by offering very low interest loans to people with not so good credit.”   


Philadelphia does not have as much civic innovation as we see in some other cities. The Economy League is trying to spur civic innovation. One way they are doing that is through a public policy competition called the Full City Challenge in partnership with Billy Penn. “We put out this call for proposals; 32 teams applied. We wanted to use the city’s burgeoning food economy to tackle problems of food insecurity and poverty. We narrowed 32 teams down to five semifinalists,” Hornstein told us. The league had a full day workshop where they brought in advisors to help each team to craft a business plan and a pitch. On February 19, the league had 150 people packed in Green Soul and they had a judged competition. Two teams won.


The winning teams got money from the league and a long-term commitment to advisory support. “We are helping those teams spin out their idea into a pilot project that will hopefully promise real funding and make change happen,” added Hornstein.   


Hornstein went from being an academic to being a union organizer. He worked for the Janitors Union for the better part of a decade. It was an “amazing working class, mostly black and brown women who were trying to keep families and communities together on a 15, 16, 17 dollar an hour union janitorial salary,” he said. “I called them life preservers because they were holding up whole communities on that one salary. It hit me very hard the inequities in this city. Working two or three jobs trying to make ends meet and still they are not getting ahead; they are not building family wealth.”


Philadelphia is Hornstein’s chosen home. His experiences and background have helped to push him to do this work. He said the mayor and city government care about poverty and the working class. We need to “close the gaps not by forcing out the poor but by providing pathways out of poverty,” he said.  


This city was built for almost two million people. “We have a housing stock that just needs to be fixed up. We have tremendous anchor eds and meds institutions. We have a lot of big companies here that are starting to grow,” he concluded.


The league is interested in apprenticeship programs to get people into real jobs and helping businesses form. “If you look around the city, the vast majority of properties have declined in value. If you look at where my janitors live in North Philly, West Philly, they bought their homes and they have declined in value,” he said. Hornstein is excited about the city’s new effort to help people upgrade their homes.