The border between poverty and potential can be spanned with the extension of one helping hand.
Habitat for Humanity has long been that outreach in North Philadelphia.
Habitat’s North Philadelphia headquarters boasts a 28-year stake in the neighborhood of North Central, a region that spans the Schuylkill River to Front Street and Girard to Lehigh avenues.
Over this short period, Habitat has built and sold 75 homes to families aspiring to break the cycle of poverty. These families, often first-time homeowners, dedicate 250 hours of “sweat equity” in order to earn their new homes. Habitat’s services provide them with invaluable knowledge and resources to prosper.
Despite these efforts to bring vitality back to North Central, the overwhelming number of abandoned homes – relics of the once-booming industrial age – remains a drain on both the local economy and residents’ morale.
Eric Coleman, one of Habitat’s newest homeowners, explained his personal experience with North Central’s vacancy before his move to a Habitat home.
“We all currently live in a three-bedroom [Philadelphia Housing Authority] home,” Coleman said during an interview with Habitat for Humanity. “It’s overcrowded, and the house has ventilation issues, plumbing and electrical problems, and is infested with insects because of fire damage to a vacant house next door. After the fire next door, the property was sealed up and left alone for years, creating a serious black mold issue that landed Christopher, [my son], in the hospital on several occasions.”
In hopes of combating the vacant housing issue, Habitat for Humanity, in conjunction with Project H.O.M.E., a nonprofit organization devoted to helping the homeless, conducted a one-year vacant land study on the impoverished blocks of Lower North Central. The organizations prefaced the study with two objectives: analyzing and mapping the vacant land and formulating a plan to repurpose these abandoned grounds.
Financed by a grant from the Women’s Community Revitalization Project via the Oak Foundation the study focused on a 112-block portion of North Central, spanning from 17th Street and Ridge Avenue, capping at 25th Street and running north from Master Street to Diamond Street.
The vacant land analysis, performed by Interface Studio, found that 24 percent of this area stood vacant, including 388 vacant buildings and 1,344 vacant lots – the equivalency of 47 football fields, Troy Hannigan, project director at Habitat for Humanity, said.
With this information, Habitat, along with Project H.O.M.E., calculated the potentiality of creating a community land trust in Lower North Central.
A community land trust would enable residents and business owners to collectively manage the vacant land of Lower North Central.
“In this scenario, the community land trust would maintain ownership of the land and sell the houses, which would be leased for 99 years to the homeowner to make sure that the land would always be in the community’s control,” Hannigan said.
Keeping the land in the hands of the trust would ensure the integrity of the system.
To assess whether a community land trust would mesh with the North Central community, Habitat spoke with various members of the neighborhood.
“[Habitat] worked with a number of neighborhood stakeholders, residents and churches who made the recommendation that if it was right for our organization, it would be a good fit for the neighborhood,” Hannigan said. “Habitat thinks it fits well with our mission.”
Despite Habitat’s support, there are still a few kinks to be smoothed before it can formulate a plan for Lower North Central’s vacant land and infrastructure.
Project H.O.M.E. has withdrawn support for the land trust, instead deciding to shift its focus from homeownership toward the prevention of homelessness, Hannigan said.
Although Habitat cannot guarantee the feasibility of the project, Hannigan said the organization is dedicated to the North Central community.
“Whether we create a land trust or not, Habitat is really committed to this neighborhood,” he said. “We’ve been building for 28 years and we’re committed to building more homeownership opportunities. We’re in it for the long haul.”
Suzannah Cavanaugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.