Urban development buoyed by vacancies

Part Two of an Ongoing Series Located on the 1800 block of Diamond Street, there is no longer a pane of glass remaining in any of the second- and third-floor windows of the house. Each

Part Two of an Ongoing Series

Located on the 1800 block of Diamond Street, there is no longer a pane of glass remaining in any of the second- and third-floor windows of the house.

Each floor of the three-story row home had been vacated by its former residents and sealed up by the city. The house is among the 6,066 vacant properties that have been cleaned and sealed in many of the neighborhoods surrounding main campus.

Since the early 1960s, the increasing number of dilapidated and abandoned properties has drawn the concern of city officials and longtime residents. James Dickerson, an adjunct professor in the African-American studies department and a North Philadelphia native, witnessed the decline of surrounding communities near 18th and Master streets, the 1500 block of Dauphin Street and the 2300 block of North Colorado Street.

“People were moving into better homes and then with the influx of drugs in the mid-late 1960s, you saw a greater number of people leaving,” Dickerson said. “A lot of speculators brought those houses in North Philadelphia and broke those single family homes into multiple family units. In breaking single family homes into multiple family units, that would necessitate to paying close attention to the maintenance of the property and a concern of the structural integrity of the property, which in fact did not happen in many cases.”

In 2006, the number of properties considered vacant with suspended mail delivery by the U.S. Postal Service totaled to be 2,340 and 361 in the 19121 and 19122 zip codes respectively.

“Many of the properties, due to inordinate wear, became structurally unsound and had to be demolished,” Dickerson said.

In the most recent data on the number of demolished properties, it showed zip code 19121 to have the highest amount of properties that have been demolished by Philadelphia Licenses and Inspections, with a total of 2,687 in 2005.

For 40 years, the Union Church Non-Profit Housing and Development Corporation has been renovating urban housing for low-income residents to provide safe, decent, sanitary housing where residents are taught skills in community development and maintaining their neighborhoods. Dr. Sydney Beckett, a 1993 Temple alumna and president of the corporation, oversees the distribution of low-income Philadelphians displaced by the redevelopment or the dilapidation of existing neighborhoods.

Following in the footsteps of her father, Charles Campbell Beckett, a former Housing and Urban Development official, Beckett is responsible for operation and maintenance of Beckett Gardens, a 132-apartment complex founded by her father.

Beckett Gardens is located in the Empowerment Zone, which was created as a community-based planning process which seeks to improve the vitality of declining inner-city neighborhoods.

“North Philadelphia was considered to be a predominately low-income African-American community when I was a student,” Beckett said. “There were high-rise apartment buildings that have been demolished and created into individually owned homes. This transformation was good because you have home owners rather than renters and these give people equity and the opportunity for them to establish independence in their lives.

“The tragic thing about high-rise apartments moving out of the area is the number of people who had to be redistributed from the communities where they lived, worked, or worshiped,” she said.

While attending Temple as an undergraduate and graduate student, Beckett witnessed the beginning of developmental patterns and trends that were typical in the new planning and zoning standards of residential and non-residential land uses.

According to the North Philadelphia Plan, which came out of the 1986 Philadelphia City Planning Commission, areas south of Lehigh Avenue in the 1920s lower North Philadelphia modeled the urban trends of a black “ghetto,” as defined by the commission. To a large extent, this was the byproduct of racial discrimination as blacks were excluded from the new more spacious neighborhoods to the north.

Eva Gladstein, director of the Neighborhood in Transformation Initiative for Philadelphia, oversees the city’s multi-faceted approach to neighborhood development for all residents. Gladstein said she is aware of the housing discrimination that has plagued the city.

“Certainly racism has played a role in how neighborhoods have

developed over time, and one historical example has been redlining,” Gladstein said.

Also known as mortgage disinvestment, redlining slowly erodes neighborhood stability. Local homeowners cannot obtain mortgage loans for home improvements, which often result in the deterioration of their homes. When prospective home buyers can’t obtain home purchase loans for houses in a certain neighborhood, the area become less attractive and housing values decrease.

Dickerson experienced the effects of redlining in the 2400 block of North 17th Street.

“At one point in time, my wife and I wanted to borrow money to repair a property we bought in North Philadelphia, and the bank told us we couldn’t get any money,” Dickerson said. “We didn’t understand fully the notion of redlining as a concept, but we did understand racism. What they were telling us is [the bank was] not loaning money to people in North Philadelphia to improve their properties, and what we didn’t understand is urban planning and how it is based on 10- to 25-year planning models.”

Gladstein said time remains NTI’s biggest obstacle in creating communities that provide residents with the proper goods and services for a suitable living environment.

“The kind of decline that many residents experienced has occurred over 50 years. To reverse that kind of decline and to upscale the vitality that these neighborhoods are capable of in a year to three years, we have to work with the communities to make sure everybody has a vision that is shared, including long-term residents, because it’s not going to turn around in six months or two years,” she said.

In partnership with the NTI, Temple is offering new financial support and access to programs aimed at encouraging faculty and staff to live in the communities where they work. The university’s new Employee Home Ownership Program is the most recent community investment that will provide qualified full-time, permanent employees with forgivable loans of $4,000 or $5,000 toward the purchase of a single-family home that will be their primary residence in select North Philadelphia zip codes.

The program will also stimulate the development of vacant city properties while providing additional financial incentive for employees who purchase homes subject to the city’s 10-year tax abatement program.

The expansion of Temple’s Main Campus has posed minor interrelated problems of community and university development. Benjamin Carson, a 1963 Temple alumnus, has found the growth of Temple to cause a change in the age demographic of residents. Carson has managed Beckett Gardens for 15 years.

“One thing I’ve noticed is that younger people are moving into the area, and that puts us in an awkward position because we do try to keep some of the elderly people in the area if we possibly can. But our facility really doesn’t have enough housing for them, but we do try to find places within the immediate area,” Carson said.

Carson said he believes residents of Beckett Gardens have found the university’s expansion to have positive and negative outcomes.

“I think there are two factions. Those that like to stick to the status quo, they’re not as enthusiastic about the change, they kind of feel like they’re being pushed out and that they’re being ignored,” he said. “Then you have that group that welcomes the change because they realize there are more advantages because Temple has begun to expand.”

The Empowerment Zone, along with the partnership of NTI, has invested in housing preservation near Temple due to the increase attraction of more students attending the university and living off campus.

“We’ve seen that Temple is obviously attracting more students and more students living near campus,” Gladstein said. “In doing so, it has helped bring additional resources to that community, and that, along with the number of public sections investments, has helped stimulate growth in that part of North Philadelphia.”

The gentrification of neighborhoods surrounding Main Campus is a major concern for Dickerson. “Now what we see in North Philadelphia are a lot of dilapidated houses, which were sitting and not being properly maintained. Now, [we see the housing of] Temple University students who are paying $1,200-a-month rent in properties that black families were living in and paying much less for rent,” he said.

Beckett says the planned expansion of communities surrounding Main Campus should be welcomed with the residents and investors that have negotiated renovations.

“I would like for Temple University to been seen as a positive in the North Philadelphia community, rather than a threat or an invader,” Beckett said.

Brittany Diggs can be reached at bdiggs@temple.edu.

1 Comment

  1. Mt Airy dug up a contaminated brownfield for a townhouse project. Pollutants and toxic hazards put the adjacent neighbor in the hospital 3x. Her house bent and cracked from demolition (NTI) with no permits. Political ties and political cover up. Environmental Injustice for East Sydney Street and violations against Clean Stream Law.
    See blog for copies of violations and photos, etc.

    It’s my house. I’m sick. I need help.
    Margaret Motheral

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