One of the most substantial things we do in Philly is turn abandoned houses into homes for families who need one. This year, we celebrated 25 years of life on the north side of Philly, in a neighborhood called Kensington. And one of the highlights of 2023 has been seeing three families I love dearly become homeowners!
When we moved in back in 1998, about half the houses here on our block were abandoned. I often say, “If you believe in resurrection, Kensington is the perfect place to live.” We practice resurrection all the time! Over the years we’ve been fixing these “abandominiums” up, one at a time – as we like to say: “We’re building a better world one house at a time.”
As a Christian, I believe in restoration. I know “all things can be made new.” There is a biblical precedent for renovating abandoned spaces, and many of the prophets like Ezra and Nehemiah did exactly that after they returned from exile in Babylon. Entire passages speak of bringing abandoned buildings back to life, “Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings” (Isaiah 58:12).
But there are challenges that come with restoring abandoned houses, like gentrification – the displacement of people because of irresponsible development. It’s when the neighborhood doesn’t just “improve” but changes, and people who used to live there cannot afford to continue to live there. They are often priced out by increasing rent or real estate taxes. So, it’s one of those things where we need to be, as Jesus said, “as wise as serpents but as innocent as doves.”
I’ve written a lot of articles on big issues like immigration, war, racism, mass incarceration… but I thought it’s time to write a little something on this really gritty, grassroots issue of gentrification… in part because I haven’t seen much written on it lately that offers concrete ideas and suggestions. Also, in part because we have just renovated three abandoned houses this year and have three more abandoned to go… so I’ll end this piece with an opportunity to join in the fun and help finance our next house! More on that in a sec.
You know when you are in a “hip” neighborhood. There are old, abandoned factories turned into lofts and studios. There are coffee shops, dog parks, and places to park your bike.
There is something cool about an old building being brought back to life. But it can be done well and not-so-well. Philadelphia has examples of both. In fact, I sometimes take people on a one-mile walk starting from our block, where houses still sell for $30,000 or so. And every block we walk, the exact same 2 story rowhouse goes up about $10,000. About half a mile away, what looks like the same house as where we began… now sells for over $300,000!
There are lots of people talking about gentrification… the displacement of people by economic development done badly. But not many people are offering concrete ideas of what to do about it. We’ve got a broad coalition in Philadelphia committed to doing “development without displacement.” And here are a few things we’ve seen work.
- Lock in real estate taxes. We have a law called the Homestead Exemption Act. It locks in the value of your house and your real estate taxes so homeowners do not get taxed out of their neighborhood.
- Mixed income housing laws. Resist the pattern of creating ghettos of poverty and ghettos of wealth. To avoid the segregation of wealth and poverty, requiring that large development projects include affordable, low-income housing is a good move. This mean all new housing projects cannot be all low-income, nor can they be all expensive condos – there must be a percentage of mixed income in all housing developments.
- Implement a profit tax. This has been most effective when for-profit developers with a conscience lead the way. Designed solely for developers who flip houses for a profit, this places a set percentage (say 2%) on the profits made from flipping a renovated property. But this is clutch, 100% of these taxes should go towards affordable housing. Last I checked, in Philly that meant about 15 million dollars a year. But we still have work to do… right now only the huge nonprofits with over $1 million a year budgets can access these funds, not the small, grassroots nonprofits.
- Hold absentee landlords accountable. There are documented cases of landlords in Philly who were making money keeping houses abandoned… while folks are living on the street. One landlord had over 300 properties in our neighborhood. There are many ways to keep absentee landlords accountable, but one of them is a bulk housing law that requires a different level of investment, taxes, and accountability from anyone who owns more than 10 properties in the city. To whom much is entrusted, much is expected. We need to incentivize owner-occupied housing rather than absentee landlords who profit, often at the expense of the neighbors in areas that have been under-resourced.
- Finally, to support us at Simple Homes – or consider creating a local chapter of Fuller Center for Housing (founded by Millard Fuller who also started Habitat for Humanity). We’ve been renovating abandoned houses for over 20 years but decided we didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. About 7 years ago, we joined Fuller Center for Housing, and Simple Homes is a local chapter of this national network. Millard Fuller’s model for creating dignified, affordable housing has proved effective, measurable, and scalable in 60 cities across the country and in 16 countries around the world. Here’s how it works. We purchase houses, usually for less than around $30,000… but some we have purchased for as little as $1 here in Philly! Then we spend between $20-30,000 on each house to restore them with local contractors, volunteers, and the sweat equity of the new homeowner. Each homeowner volunteers at least 300 hours, working on their own home (with exceptions for elderly or disabled). Our motto has become, “We won’t build a home FOR you, but we’ll build a home WITH you! Each house sells for $35,000. We hold the no-interest mortgage on the house, so no banks are involved – and we customize the monthly house payment so that homeowners pay 1/3 of their household income (often $500 or less) – with 0% interest – so they can pay off their home in 10 years, for less than they currently pay for rent. One of the key principles is that we finance the homes as a non-profit (we raise the money upfront from donors) – and hold a second “vanishing” lien (of $20,000) on the property that disappears at 5% per year which honors the value of the house and prevents predatorial lenders or anyone who might try to flip the house for a profit – again trying to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. It is an amazing project, which is why I’ve put lots of money and energy into it over the past decade. And I want to invite you to join me. I mentioned earlier that I would end this article with an opportunity to give – so here’s the link to help us fund these next three houses – www.SimpleHomes.org
Take a quick look at a recent renovation:
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We are learning all the time, and gentrification is a force to be reckoned with. But it takes community organizing and intentionality to counter the massive forces of capitalism and corporate greed that can destroy a neighborhood and devastate families. It is not enough to complain about gentrification or to publish studies on it… we have to get organized and take action to ensure that there is such a thing as “development without displacement.” When we began doing this work 25 years ago, there were over 30,000 abandoned houses in Philly (more abandoned houses than there are folks living on the street). And yet, there were over 3000 families on the waiting list for affordable housing. The waiting period was over 10 years to get a house. None of that makes sense. It doesn’t have to be this way. But the world won’t change itself. That’s why we need people who live with passion and conviction and take on the principalities and powers that keep people from flourishing. We are building a better world, one house at a time… and I’d love for you to join us – www.SimpleHomes.org
Let’s bring abandoned stuff back to life. But let’s do it in a way that makes sure everyone gets to experience the resurrection.