Flying Kite: Inventing the Future: Fighting Blight in West Philly, One House at a Time

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

By Dana Henry

For ten years, the house at 716 South 49th street was little more than a front wall. Fire and rain water had gutted the structure. Neighbors complained constantly. Unable to find the owner, the city's easiest option was to knock down the remains -- a process that would cost taxpayers up to $20,000 and leave a gaping hole in the neighborhood.

But now, 18 months after University City District's (UCD) Project Rehab got involved, the property has a new owner and reconstruction has started.

Project Rehab is a partnership between UCD and the City's Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) that helps identify owners of vacant or distressed properties and guide them to rehabilitation. They are stepping into the logistical gap left by a city without the resources or ability to track down every delinquent owner. According to the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) of Philadelphia, there are up to 25,000 abandoned properties in Philadelphia -- the average blighted site sits untouched for 13 years. Project Rehab changes the fate of these properties in six to 18 months. Since launching in February 2010, the project has tackled 99 properties, helped bring 15 to market, and created over $4 million in real estate value.

The project's uncanny success rate has made waves locally and beyond. Ryan Spak, the program's mastermind and sole employee, has been teaching his methods to Old City District and the Philadelphia Association for Community Development Corporations, and was invited to speak at this year's National Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference. Not only is the method effective, it's practically free -- UCD's only expense is Spak's part-time salary.

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