An Idea for Saving Blighted Homes in Philly

After yesterday’s post, I read this article about the problem with blighted homes in Philly. After living here for seven-plus years, blighted real estate is nothing new but it still breaks my heart every time I see a downtrodden block. A block that certainly didn’t start out being shabby. Blocks with row homes that once meant a promise of a good life to people.

Those who know me, know I love row houses. I think you can make a pretty darn awesome city by utilizing their very efficient urban layout characteristics. They don’t even have to look the same but living attached, while still having an actual house and a stoop and a block, but not being squished in a building with 500 other people, is not a bad deal. Maybe it’s not for everyone but quite a few people are very content in their row houses.

Philly never really got huge the way other cities did so it’s row house heaven here. Unfortunately, it’s one of the poorest large cities in America, also another article I read this week, sigh. I understand that keeping up your house isn’t easy and some houses here are quite large. Nothing is worse for a big house than a recession.

There is all this talk about making Philly a really great city but how great can a city be if its homes are falling apart? So I got to thinking. What we need here is a Homes Department; an office that only takes care of residential homes.

How the heck are we going to pay for that? Well, get rid of tax abatement going forward. Everyone pays fair and square. With the additional revenue the Homes Department can be funded.

The Homes Dept would work with the Dept of Licenses and Inspections but be able to really focus on existing residential homes, instead of sharing resources for all buildings and new construction. With the help of the Dept of L&I, the Homes Dept would really step up collecting fees for people who don’t file for licensing properly or who break building regulations, focusing on residential homes.

The Homes Dept would work on bringing in manufacturing businesses, or leveraging local businesses, who can create products that are affordable (really affordable) to help homeowners stabilize their homes’ structures. Maybe a more attractive alternative to boarding up the windows, for starters? Keeping things local would create jobs and additional tax revenue. And, someone will need to fix the homes, creating local jobs, perhaps developing apprenticeship programs. For more enterprising homeowners, there could be regular workshops on how to fix things.

The Homes Dept would create a program to get people out of homes they can no longer take care of and into smaller homes that are easier to manage. Perhaps leveraging foreclosures. Working with local banks, maybe? For neighborhoods with room for new development, zoning to ensure that multiple types of homes in a variety of price-ranges are available. For example, in our neighborhood since we’ve been here, we’ve seen a few larger homes built, most going for over $500K. But there was also a development of small homes like ours offered in the $250K range, which is reasonable for this neighborhood.

The Homes Dept would promote community activities that get people out of their homes and foster positive relationships between each other. One such project could be utilizing former row house plots, where the homes had to be demolished, as community gardens. Get the high school students off the streets and channeled into something productive. Clean the graffiti. Clean the litter. Repair walls and fences. Anything to improve even the smallest thing and accept that it may take years for people to get in the habit of taking care of their homes. Apathy for one’s surroundings takes generations of hardship to develop and will take generations to reduce.

The Homes Dept would also require all landlords to disclose annually, full contact information and proof of homeowners insurance that covers tenants. If you do not provide a decent home for your tenants, the rent goes into an escrow account and until you fix your house, you don’t get revenue. Landlords would get graded so that tenants can be connected to decent homes and landlords. Landlords are going to throw a fit about this so likewise, tenants would need to sign an agreement saying they will keep the house in good condition while they live there. I’m pretty sure something like this exists but maybe enforcement could be stepped up a bit.

Finally, the Homes Dept would publicly report on success stories, one block at a time, while being transparent with its budget and accountable.

Basically, it’s row house advocacy on a huge scale. And, even if some of these ideas wouldn’t work, I bet some could. If I could make enough money to cover my own mortgage and somehow secure benefits for the family, I would take this on in a heartbeat. I’d get yelled at, I’m sure. And, I’m sure people will resist the idea of more work when they’re already tired and working very hard just to make ends meet (hence getting the kids involved). And, they’d have no reason to believe me about things getting better. I’d probably be ignored by most, dismissed, possibly threatened. But, all it takes is one house, then one block, then one neighborhood and word will get around.

Deep down, I really believe everyone just wants a place to call home that they’re happy to come home to. The emotional benefits of living in a happy community are worth working for. And the first thing people notice about a community are the houses, so a great way to lift the spirits is to get the homes looking homey or at the very least, not falling apart around the people.

Of course, the elephants in the room are these:

  • How do you get people to care about their homes when the city has shown such disregard as to previously blown them up? Even though it’s been many years, I feel like the emotions are carried on. I think about my own row house and would be absolutely devastated if that happened today.
  • How to do this when everyone is legitimately broke? Like really broke. Like below the poverty line broke, broke. I think for many people food trumps home, justifiably so.
  • What about safety? No sense fixing your house up if someone’s going to break into it.
  • How does gentrification play into it? The idea is to keep people in their homes; not to fix things up only to have them be forced away from their communities.

And, probably most important, how do you accomplish things while being ethical, honest, and fair? Is that even possible in this city?

I certainly hope so because unless someone starts honestly prioritizing the conditions in which people live, people are not going to want to live here any more.

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