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December 2015

Healthy Rowhouse Project Reaches New Heights for Home Repair

Increasing Philadelphia’s low-income home repairs

Center for Architecture

What’s it like to feel unsafe in your own home? To go to bed worrying that a cracked window won’t weather a storm? To hurry through a shower, scared that the buckling bathroom floor will collapse from the weight of the water? Mary Johnson, 61, lives it every day in a badly deteriorated home in West Philadelphia, once her mother’s home, on a block where other family members live, too.

Karen Black estimates that hundreds of thousands of people live in the same dire circumstances in rowhouses across Philadelphia. But help only trickles in. For instance, there are 4,150 homeowners on the waiting list for the city’s Basic System Repair Program. That means a four-year wait while a house slips into ruin—a small roof leak becomes saturated walls, buckling floors, ruined wiring. And costs escalate.

“There are fantastic organizations devoted to helping low-income families repair their homes, but due to limited funding and a model that relies upon volunteers, only a small number can be helped.”

That bottleneck is why Black, a lawyer, and Kiki Bolender, an architect, cofounded the Healthy Rowhouse Project. With multi-sector partners weighing in on the design, they have begun to devise a new, citywide infrastructure that will repair thousands rather than hundreds of damaged rowhouses each year.

“We have this incredible affordable housing stock of iconic rowhomes in Philadelphia and as they deteriorate they’re literally making their occupants sick,” Black said. “And then they’re lost forever and we can’t afford to build all new houses. It costs $190,000 to build a new rowhouse; we can save them for $10,000 to $15,000.”

The plan to increase Philadelphia’s low-income home repairs from approximately 150 to 5,000 is very ambitious, but the problem is urgent, evidence is mounting, and the solution is long overdue. When the nonprofit Rebuilding Together Philadelphia inspected the Mantua home of Jennifer Harris they discovered a slow carbon monoxide leak—right beneath the room where her daughter sleeps. Contractors fixed it immediately. “If they hadn’t come—I can’t imagine what could have happened,” Harris said.

Stories like Harris’ combined with recent research help propel the project’s many stakeholders to keep driving towards a solution. For instance, the link between health, education and home repair has been dramatically illustrated in recent research, including a 2014 pilot between the City of Philadelphia and St. Christopher’s Hospital. Homes were remediated to remove conditions such as mold and mildew that aggravate asthma—leading to a 70 percent drop in emergency room visits and more than 50 percent drop in missed school days.

“Philadelphia has lost over 60,000 units of housing in the past five decades and this is affordable housing we’ll never get back. We can’t build our way out of this. We need to preserve what we have.”

Karen Black, cofounder of Healthy Rowhouse Project

Philadelphia is not alone in this struggle. While some lessons can be culled from peers, the Philadelphia model will be unlike anything in the country. With support from the Oak Foundation and The Barra Foundation, Healthy Rowhouse Project will work with partners to create and implement a collaborative, multi-sector service delivery model. They will determine which types of repairs will provide the greatest financial returns and positive health outcomes and weave that research into the program design. They will also need a creative financing structure, one that will engage an array of investors such as property owners, foundations and healthcare organizations.

“This is the moment in time we think we can have huge results,” Black said. “The research is there—healthcare organizations are beginning to care about these underlying causes and the funding community is looking to invest in things that bring measurable results,” Black said.

The Healthy Rowhouse team will work quickly, but in the meantime, Rebuilding Together Philadelphia will make necessary repairs to Mary Johnson’s house so she doesn’t have to abandon her family home like others on the block have. Despite the fear she lives with, she finds the notion of leaving the house unthinkable. “I’ve lived here all of my life,” she said.

Healthy Rowhouse Project, a collaborative hosted by the Center for Architecture, aims to tackle the barriers preventing Philadelphia from repairing rowhouses at scale in order to improve the health of residents and preserve critical affordable housing. They aim to improve 5,000 houses per year—thousands more homes than any other U.S. city has been able to repair—at an average cost of $10,000 per home. Building from their preliminary research and with the support of their multi-disciplinary coalition, in the next two years Healthy Rowhouse Project will develop a new home repair infrastructure, including an organized network of service delivery partners, new program designs and creative financing for property owners and investors. This grant was originally made to the Center for Architecture, the initial fiscal sponsor of Healthy Rowhouse Project, but was transferred to Clarifi, Inc. when the project relocated.