Joyce Smith saw a connection between home maintenance and blight from abandoned houses in her neighborhood of East Parkside. “For me, my main concern has always been our housing stock,” Joyce said. Sometimes the owner doesn’t have the money or skills to maintain an older home.
This can be especially true on historic blocks, where it is more expensive to make specialty repairs to the exterior. Abandonment and demolition can result when the home’s condition deteriorates significantly and the homeowner can’t afford to pay for repairs. Joyce saw many historic homes in her neighborhood lost for this reason.
Joyce is a member and co-founder of the Viola Street Residents Association (VSRA), which has done work on her block for years. VSRA established an ongoing collaboration with the Department of Licenses and Inspection, got the UC Green tree tender group to expand their boundaries to include East Parkside, developed a neighborhood plan through the Community Design Collaborative, and successfully lobbied their Councilwoman to induct Viola Street’s community garden into the Neighborhood Gardens Trust.
Needless to say, VSRA has established a reputation as a civic that had the capacity to accomplish projects and reach out to residents. This came in handy when Joyce discovered a way to prevent abandonment: help residents to repair their homes so they can stay in their homes.
Joyce and VSRA initially reached out to Regional Housing Legal Services about legal tools they could use to fight vacancy. VSRA walked the neighborhood inventorying vacant properties, and Joyce did research using City websites to find property information, deeds and tax balances. It was through these conversations that VSRA was referred to Philadelphia’s local chapter of Habitat for Humanity.
Habitat’s home repair program was seeking a well-organized neighborhood in need of repairs. In East Parkside they found just that. Through their partnership, VSRA did the neighbor-to-neighbor outreach and assisted residents with the necessary paperwork and Habitat volunteers did the repairs.
Joyce, her husband, and another VSRA volunteer took the lead on the outreach and sign-ups. They started on weekends in early spring, which helped increase their chance of striking up conversations with neighbors who were outside on their porches. It took several months, many conversations, and much paperwork to sign up neighbors. “We just kept coming back,” Joyce said.
I know some people send emails, but you really have to get out and talk to people. Walk the block, knock on doors, meet people where they’re at.
Some neighbors needed more convincing than others. Joyce knew from her neighborhood property research that tangled titles were a problem for many of her neighbors. This meant that a neighbor might be hesitant to participate in the project for fear of having to prove legal ownership of their home. Because some folks would be afraid of signing agreements for fear of losing their homes, Joyce approached these conversations with a lot of sensitivity.
Because I was a trusted neighbor, it was easier for me to coax folks past their fears than it would have been for Habitat
says Joyce. Residents weren’t asked to show papers proving they owned the house. Instead, Habitat agreed to do the repairs as long as residents provided proof that they’d lived in the house for a long time.
Habitat volunteers repaired 15 homes during the summer of 2014. They focused on repairs to the exterior of the home like windows, banisters, porches, and painting. Smaller projects were free and larger repairs were offered at steeply discounted rates and a payment plan with no interest or liens. Larger repairs took a month and minor ones were completed in a day.
Houses designated as historic by the Philadelphia Historical Commission tended to be more complex projects. For these, Joyce and Habitat sought the assistance of local experts: the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia and East Parkside neighbor Sean Solomon, an experienced historical preservationist and president of the VSRA board at the time. Working together, Sean and the Preservation Alliance guided the repairs to meet Historical Commission rules.
“Helping folks repair their homes is good for the whole neighborhood” says Joyce. Repairs stop the deterioration of houses that might lead to safety problems and high heating costs, all factors that can drive fixed-income residents from their homes. Residents who can stay in their homes continue to be a part of the community, supporting its stability and character and increasing pride among neighbors.
Plus, well-maintained homes reinforce property values for the entire block. Joyce hopes to bring Habitat for Humanity back to East Parkside in the near future to address the interior repair needs of neighbors.
Work with partners: find out who can help you and has strengths in areas you don’t. Habitat for Humanity provided skilled volunteers, materials and know-how. Reaching out to a potential partner (Regional Housing Legal Services) is what eventually led VRSA to their partnership with Habitat.
Reach out to experts for help. Preservation Alliance provided guidance on how to repair historically designated homes.
Repeat communication leads to greater success. It took Joyce many visits with some neighbors to get them signed up for home repairs they needed.
Know your audience: focus on what’s important to them, not what’s important to you.
To become a community resource, ask questions and do research.
Get to know your neighbors and earn their trust over time.
Use face-to-face communication to reach out to neighbors.
Be sensitive that not everyone’s situation is the same. Several owners on Joyce’s block had tangled titles and were afraid of losing their homes if they had to share that information.