Preserving Philadelphia’s Historic Rowhouses

By Special Contributor posted 06-09-2017 16:18


By Kiki Bolender

Displacement of low-income people, especially people of color, is alive and well in Philadelphia, where 54 percent of the population is African American or Latina/o. Modern-day redlining is keeping many people of color from getting the home improvement loans they need to maintain their 100-plus-year-old rowhouses. In 2012 38 percent of occupied homes in Philadelphia were owned by households earning less than $35,000. The Healthy Rowhouse Project has found that, in this most impoverished big city in the country, 62 percent of applicants with credit scores typical of low- to moderate-income households have been denied home repair loans, compared to a national average of 37 percent. But since its founding in 2015, the Project has been working toward a new model for connecting people with the capital and contractors they need to save their homes.


Homes like these in North Philadelphia offer a sense of community and history and provide affordable housing, but their owners are being denied the loans they need to keep them in good repair. | Credit: Rachel S. Schade

Before we get into what this means for the city and its old buildings, let's be clear about the meaning of low to moderate income. In Philadelphia, if a family of four makes $48,500—that is, if two adults work full time  making $11.65 per hour in personal care or food service jobs—they are making 200 percent of the federally defined poverty level. These families make too much to qualify for city home repair grants, but they are also being denied loans to keep their homes intact. 

Whatever deep cultural complexities surround displacement, any individual household is almost always facing it due to economic factors—low income, loss of a job, medical expenses, changes in the makeup of the family. And repairing a home almost always comes down to money, though finding a reliable contractor is another significant factor. So how can thousands of individual families afford home repairs that would not only make them healthier and their lives more stable but also save the buildings they live in as affordable housing for generations to come? 

Financing Healthy Homes

The Oak Foundation--which, along with the Barra Foundation is a major funder for the Healthy Rowhouse Project—has a goal of reducing homelessness. The Project started work with this goal and quickly realized that poor health is an important factor leading to homelessness, which is why the Project aims to reduce the health hazards in the homes of low-income residents.

Social determinants of health are in the news every day, and many in the medical community wish that they could "write a prescription for a healthy home." Community health workers visit patients and see mold or lack of heating exacerbating chronic illness, but for the most part, no help is readily available to alleviate the conditions that are making people sick. As a result of being sick, they are missing work and school. When a parent becomes ill or misses work to take care of a sick child and a job is lost, the loss of a home can follow.


Finding a reliable contractor can be difficult for low-income homeowners, and scam artists are ready to take advantage of them. | Credit: Kiki Bolender

New buildings with new roofs and better windows and furnaces are an important piece of the solution, especially when providing housing for people with disabilities who cannot use the stairs in a typical small Philadelphia rowhouse. But new building construction alone cannot begin to deal with the enormous goal of ensuring affordable, healthy housing. As Jane Jacobs famously said in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a diverse and vibrant city "must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close-grained." 

If you drive through Philadelphia neighborhoods or look out the window as you pass through on the train, you will see block after block of late 19th– and early 20th–century rowhouses. Many are small—two stories with three bedrooms and one bath, standing on 16' x 40' lots—and built of brick. Many have porches, and the rest are built right up to the sidewalk. No developer will build houses like these again, and if by chance they did, those houses would be far too expensive for the people who now face displacement.


The house on the right lost its attached neighbor and is now too deteriorated to save, thus posing a threat to the home on the left. | Credit: Rachel S. Schade

This stock of historic rowhouses is a huge asset for Philadelphia—they give the city its character every bit as much as Independence Hall or Strickland's Second Bank of the United States. And the character of the city depends on valuing the people who live in those houses. That is what would be lost if those houses were just left to deteriorate.

The Project aims to keep residents from becoming homeless, displaced, or sick in order to revive Philadelphia's struggling neighborhoods, one house at a time. It is working toward a new model for connecting  people with the capital and contractors they need to save their homes. The city council and administration have made an unprecedented commitment by establishing a $100 million bond fund for grant and loan programs to repair and preserve homes. The Project, led by Executive Director Jill Roberts, is actively aligned with those initiatives, creating financial mechanisms and service delivery models for home repair with a goal of implementation by 2018. 

Kiki Bolender is principal at Bolender Architects and co-founder, with Karen Black, of the Healthy Rowhouse Project.

#health #ReUrbanism

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