For many homeowners and landlords, big ticket repairs can leave gaping holes in the budget. For many low income homeowners, mending a leaky roof or weatherizing an older home can be prohibitively expensive. Vital repairs go unmade, damaging the structure and exposing residents to mold and weather extremes. Responding to this challenge, the Design Advocacy Group, a coalition of planners, architects, and activists, founded the Healthy Rowhouse Project (HRP) in 2014.
Rowhouse on Wallace Street in Mantua. (Courtesy Ian Freimuth/Flickr)
HRP is a nonprofit organization that helps Philadelphia’s low income homeowners and renters maintain their properties. The project’s goal is to spend up to $5o million each year to weatherize and de-mold 5,000 homes, at a cost of $10,ooo per home. The project will be supported and funded through grants from the Oak Foundation, an anti-homelessness organization based in Geneva.
In Philadelphia, 38 percent of homeowners have an annual income of less than $35,000. Often, residents choose between living in a deteriorating structure, or abandoning the property and moving elsewhere. Experts estimate that a vacant home can bring down the value of adjacent properties by as much as $8,000. Philadelphia has an astonishing 40,000 vacant houses. The Design Advocacy Group initially approached homeowners in Mantua, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, about how they could benefit from the area’s gentrification.
Overwhelmingly, residents requested financial and technical assistance to maintain their homes. Philadelphia spends between $9 million and $13 million per year on community development block grants that go to low-income homeowners. Demand outstrips supply: applicants face a four year long wait list.
What about building new housing? Traditionally, that is the role of the Community Development Corporation (CDC). HRP leader and fair housing advocate Karen Black noted in the Philadelphia Citizen that a typical CDC can only build around 30 units per year.
The HRP, Black emphasized, is not building new housing, it is helping residents stay in their current homes. To realize this goal, HRP is creating an a la carte menu of repair options—deferred home equity loans, block grants, or, for renters, landlord assistance—that help residents access money to pay local contractors for repairs. The plan could work without buy-in from the city, but the project would really fly with the Mayor’s and City Council’s support.