Saturday, December 29, 2012

Renewing Kensington

A Philadelphia filmmaker sets his sights on helping revitalize an urban community. 

Market-Frankford el train.
Riding the elevated Market-Frankford train en route to Philadelphia's Northeast can sometimes seem like a journey across ancient Rome. Much of the Kensington neighborhood, once the brick and mortar of our nation's industrial economy, still lies in ruins from the great exodus of manufacturing jobs. It's a stirring sight: abandoned factory buildings mottle the landscape, serving as profound monuments to the city's industrial legacy.

And while some residents have fled the area, perhaps moving further northeast or to the suburbs, others have stayed to nurture and rebuild. They have found beauty amid the ruins.

Kensington filmmaker and community advocate Jamie Moffett is one such believer. His Kensington Renewal Initiative works to turn blighted houses into owner occupied homes, which in turn leads to a better neighborhood. He is also in the running for a $250,000 Philly DoGooder Award for community organization with the best video presentation. Designer in Exile spoke with him last month to learn more about his commendable efforts:

Could you tell us about your background? You've worked on some very prominent feature films.

Sure. In college I started out as a music composition major and moved over to communications, with an emphasis on theater sound design. I did my internship Off-Broadway and then moved back to Philadelphia and began to realize that, although I love theater, it wasn't something that I could do to keep the bills paid. I started to look into other ways to tell stories. At that point and time I came across [2012] Green Party vice-presidential candidate Cheri Honkala. They were working on a march from DC to New York City in 1999. It was a 400 mile march; I walked with Cheri Honkala and thousands of other folks to bring about awareness of human rights violations that were happening here in the US mostly to poor people.

English: Jamie Moffett in Florence
Jamie Moffett (Photo: Wikipedia)
At that point I came to an understanding of the camera being mightier than the sword. I started to work on motion picture with the intent to tell stories that could help people.

My first feature film was called The Ordinary Radicals. It was a 2008 film which covered peace and politics during that election cycle. We took an 11,000 mile trip around the US and Canada and followed a very successful author named Shane Claiborne, who is in a sort of evangelical left wing category.

The next film was called Return to El Salvador, narrated by the Emmy award winning actor Martin Sheen. It was endorsed by the Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It followed the lives of three families, in both the US and El Salvador, one of which had come to the US to escape Salvadoran death squads. Currently I'm working on a grant funding campaign for a feature film with the help of some people from the Sundance Institute and some folks from Hollywood on the topic of the Fair Trade Movement - what is fair trade, how does it work, and why is it so important.

What essentially is the Kensington Renewal Initiative? And what sort of resources have you harnessed to get it going?

Kensington Renewal was an initiative from neighborhood needs. I've been an advocate for this little section of Kensington near the Kensington-Allegheny stop on the el for 15 years. When I first moved here I co-founded a nonprofit organization called the Simple Way whose goal was to do community development and homelessness advocacy.

Abandoned factory, Kensington neighborhood.

It was a non profit. I didn't own any property at the time. I learned a lot about the neighborhood and fell in love with the folks who are still my neighbors now. When I went away to work on the picture and came back, I bought an old property. As a property owner I began to notice that there was a small number of owner occupants in our area, a disproportionate amount of abandoned and derelict homes, and a high rate of "outside investors" that we've come to know as slumlords. The question was, 'why is it happening here?' I started to do some research, and I found out that home ownership correlates directly to crime.

I wanted to find a way to get more homeowners into our neighborhood. We were number one in murders for many years, we're number five on the top drug corners of 2011. So with my neighbors, we started the Kensington Renewal Initiative. The idea was that we wanted to take these abandoned row houses, which we called "abandominiums", and acquire them, rehab them, and sell them to owner occupied families so that we could go parlay the funds into the next house.

We did this on a very micro scale. The neighborhood is only 3 blocks around, but the idea was that if we can focus on one little specific area and address it, not only can we change our neighborhood for ourselves but perhaps showcase the idea as a model and provide those best practices for other neighborhoods. We already have begun doing that. I've gotten together with people from the Somerset neighborhood and they're starting to use some of the best practices. And I've gotten together with the folks at the New Kensington Community Development Corporation and put together a white paper to share best practices and show how we were able to take the 5th worst drug corner in Philadelphia and turn it into a peaceful, quiet neighborhood. There was a change for me as I became a property owner.

How do you change a neighborhood like Kensington without causing a wide-scale displacement of people? Does regeneration necessarily lead to gentrification and is there a way to strike a balance?
The dictionary definition of gentrification is inherently neutral. That term has been co-opted into a negative meaning. But to answer your question, I met with some people from the horticultural society who had the same questions. We're all trying to find out how to do gentrification with justice. If we look at the section of Kensington that I mentioned, the neighbors themselves are saying 'we need something different.'

New home construction.
What's important is that it has to occur from within. That the neighborhood can have the long term renters, those great neighbors, become homeowners. And then as that external investor tie rises, we can all rise together. The important thing about turning long term renters into homeowners is that eventually, once they've paid off the mortgage on their home, they can use the equity on it to do things like put their kids through college.

Do you feel there are any zoning issues or related complications that make the transition to ownership in these areas difficult?

The big issue is the one that Senator Bob Casey came here for recently. National banks are across-the-board declining mortgages for properties that are valued less $50,000. So again, as we've mentioned before, if home ownership correlates to crime, then the action of a bank guarantees that more people will be murdered in neighborhoods like mine for refusing to allow home ownership to occur here - especially based of a study of 900 MLS listings of properties which found the median value of a home in my neighborhood to be $37,500. You could actually be Warren Buffet, and apply for a $45,000 mortgage for a house on my block, and Warren Buffet would be declined. Not because of inability to pay, or his debt to income ratio, or his credit score, but because of the value of the home. And that guarantees a high rate of crime. It guarantees that I'm more likely to be a victim of violent crime.

Essentially, I don't want to be shot. I want these rules to be adjusted in a way that banks level the playing field, that they offer fair and reasonable mortgages for all families regardless of the neighborhood.

Community Garden.
What about the presence of green spaces in these communities, how does that impact on the well-being of people and how does that effect property values?

It's critical. The horticultural society has two studies that we're following as a guidepost. Green spaces increase property values in a neighborhood by about 4-8 percent. A tree-lined street increases it by about 10 percent. So while we're waiting for banks to change their policies and do the right thing, we're also engaging in policies that clean and green our neighborhood from the inside out.

We're not asking for money, we're not asking the Mayor to take care of us: we're doing it ourselves. We're sweeping our own streets, we're planting or own trees, we're digging our own gardens. What's great is that other groups are coming by now and saying they want to help. One of the gardens in our neighborhood got voted best urban garden in Philadelphia.

Which one is that?

It's the garden at 3230 Potter Street.

Are these on vacant lots? Are they guerrilla gardens?

They're on vacant lots.

So essentially they could be bought up at any time and replaced with housing, right?

Well they could, except we're in the process of acquiring them ourselves. We're either putting them into a nonprofit that's acquiring them, or I'm also looking into buying a couple myself - the idea being that if I'm taking care of them anyway, I might as well own them with the intention of utilizing them. These real big parcels I'd like to get in as side yards for the neighborhood, so that as an owner occupant, [one would] not only take over the house but also take over the side yard.

That's the idea. I have no intention nor interest in being a real estate mogul of this community. My intention is to acquire properties, fix them up and dust them off, and then get them to good families and folks that will invest in the neighborhood.

It sounds like you have your hands full. You're also working on a picture book as well. Tell us about that.

That's correct. I'm working on my third book. It's called Abandominiums, Vacant Spaces and the Kensington Renewal. I've started a small grant campaign for that book, and the proceeds from that will go to the Kensington Renewal. As you can understand, there are quite a few abandoned houses in the area. So one of the ways we want to fund-raise for the next house is by showcasing the photo book and using the proceeds towards getting to the next one. All of these things - fair wages, having faith, and healthy neighborhoods, they differ to a varying degree, but they sort of go hand in hand.

It's great work you're doing. Thank you for spending time with us.

You're welcome.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. All photos by D.A. DeMers via Designer in Exile.

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