Tonnetta Graham loves Strawberry Mansion’s big historic houses, but sees residents struggling to maintain and stay in their homes.
As a lifelong resident and President of Strawberry Mansion CDC (SMCDC), Tonnetta has helped address the issue in multiple ways: by getting residents to sign up for utility assistance and property tax reductions, organizing tangled title workshops with her Councilman’s office, and hosting block pride contests which award residents for the upkeep of their properties.
A unique opportunity presented itself when the Councilman introduced Tonnetta to Proud Neighbor, a community life magazine based in Philadelphia. In 2014, SMCDC participated in Proud Neighbor’s annual Help A Neighbor Day for the first time by organizing an event where neighbors volunteer to do small exterior repairs on the houses of three longtime Strawberry Mansion residents. This could mean fixing a loose railing, painting a porch or cleaning up the yard.
SMCDC raised about $1,000 in funds for materials, sought donations of labor and paint from local contractors and City departments, and pulled together a team of volunteers. While Proud Neighbor didn’t finance the event, if featured SMCDC in a large spread in its quarterly magazine. Being featured in a high-quality publication has helped SMCDC promote themselves to potential funders.
To find the homeowners with the greatest need, SMCDC reached out to area Block Captains to nominate residents. Tonnetta also did some neighborhood walks, looking for homes that might be good candidates.
She focused on blocks close to commercial corridors where redevelopment was already underway in Strawberry Mansion. This was a strategic step Tonnetta said, to “attend to the needs of long-time homeowners and show that money doesn’t just go to new developments in the neighborhood.”
Her deep knowledge of the neighborhood helped her know how to involve her neighbors, telling them, for example. “look at how just two gallons of paint can help you.” She recounted:
Some neighbors weren’t interested, believe it or not, but others said, ‘You sure this is free?!?'
Six homes have been completed in the two years SMCDC has sponsored Help Your Neighbor Day. For Tonnetta, the repairs are just one measure of success. The other is when Strawberry Mansion residents came outside, saw the work being done by their neighbors, and joined in. Tonnetta described how:
Many neighbors came out and started cleaning up their own house as a result. We left the paint and materials behind, which helped other neighbors hit some extra homes.
Finally, it’s informal policy of SMCDC is to encourage residents to invest some of the savings they get by signing up for property tax reduction programs into the maintenance of their homes.
This policy works its way into workshops and bi-monthly community meetings where Tonnetta and staff host City of Philadelphia staffers to explain how residents can take advantage of tax discount programs available to residents like the Long Time Owner Occupant Program, the Homestead Exemption, or the Low Income Senior Citizen Real Estate Tax Freeze.
SMCDC reinforces the suggestion to take the savings from these programs and put them towards home repairs by referring residents to the Philadelphia Rowhouse Manual by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. The Rowhouse Manual provides information on maintenance and improvements owners can make to their rowhome.
“Since there are no classes offered on how to maintain a house when you get a mortgage - such as the basics like repairing a faucet - the Rowhouse Manual is a great go-to guide” says Tonnetta.
Give people a reason to help out: organize an event that makes it easy (and fun!) to pitch in.
Get to know your neighbors and earn their trust
Reach out to your Block Captain to reach more neighbors and receive guidance
Work with partners: find out who can help you and has strengths in areas you don’t. Proud Neighbor provided free publicity for SMCDC's event.
Contact your elected officials when appropriate and have a clear idea of what you’re asking for--they may share opportunities with you as they encounter them. Tonnetta’s Councilperson knew home repair was a need, so he connected her with Proud Neighbor and Help a Neighbor Day.
Don’t be afraid to start with small steps.
Ask local businesses to support your cause by donating supplies or labor.
Document your accomplishments: show funders and partners you can get work done.