By Ben Griffiths and Kate Hartman [Philadelphia Neighborhoods]
Hammers were swinging up and down the street as volunteers, organizers and residents joined forces to do a number of critical repairs on 10 different homes on the 800 block of North Holly Street. Some houses received major upgrades like new roofs, kitchens or bathrooms, while others simply got a new coat of paint or some much needed cleaning and organization.
Rebuilding Together Philadelphia, in collaboration with Philadelphia’s chapter of the Local Initiatives Support Corp., the Partnership Community Development Corp. and SCI-West, yesterday descended upon the block to help the residents remodel their homes and perhaps even remake their lives.
We are doing a Block Build in partnership with the Green Block Build Coalition,” Carrie Rathmann, RTP executive director, said. “Rebuilding Together’s part of this is we do critical repairs including energy efficiency upgrades and home modifications. We also do exterior work that ties all the home repairs together and helps maximize the benefit to the community.”
This was not the first block project RTP worked on in West Philadelphia. Last spring the organization worked with 20 homeowners on Aspen Street, and it will be back over there in March. In July, RTP began some repairs here on Holly Street, and now it is wrapping up and doing some more projects for the residents.
“Last year, we did about 90 projects over the course of a year, and they are all over the city,” Jen Wootten, RTP administrator and program coordinator, said. “We mostly work in Block Build formats so we’ll do 10 or 12 houses in a concentrated area. We also do select projects. That’s usually an emergency repair where we have a volunteer willing to go out on their own to do something or we have a limited budget, like maybe someone needs a hot water heater. That’s a simple fix we can do.”
Helping homeowners has been RTP’s goal since this local affiliate of the national nonprofit Rebuilding Together Inc. was created in 1998. Robert Bellinger and several graduate students at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania started RTP to make a difference. In their first year of operation, the organization was able to help 10 homeowners. RTP’s vision has always been to create, “a safe and healthy home for every person.” They have been able to do that in increasing numbers every year since the organization was founded.
RTP estimates that 29,057 volunteers have donated 437,376 work hours to make 1,127 home repairs worth an estimated $24.5 million.
One of the ways the group is able to maximize its influence is by taking on repair projects on a block-by-block basis.
“The Block Build really helps us stretch our money further,” Wooten said. “We have one dumpster, one porta potty, maybe one electrician who works in several houses, so it really helps us help more people.”
Not only does the concentrated effort help with the physical repairs, it creates a strong sense of responsibility within the community that lasts long after the RTP team leaves. When a whole block is affected by the upgrades, the residents are more likely to maintain the appearance of the neighborhood.
“The impacts, they amplify each other when we’re clustered like that,” Rathmann said. “The community galvanizes around it. People see themselves as an asset to the community. People start keeping up with the Joneses. People learn skills to start helping each other after we’ve left.”
The community RTP helped on Aspen Street has made many great improvements since the team repaired houses on the block in the spring. The residents set up their own community association, continued building planters and they have indicated that criminal activity as decreased since the RTP team came through.
The critical repairs RTP makes help beautify the block and they also give residents a happier and healthier life. Theresa King, of 4023 Ogden St., was one of the repair recipients back in July, and got some more updates today.
“I have to say thank you very very much because I had a roof that was leaking and electrical work that really needed done, and it’s the first time that you write down a wish list and it comes true,” King said. “I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s really a good thing because a lot of people want to fix up and they want to do things. They just don’t have the money. I think the program is fantastic.”
RTP is constantly looking ahead to the next area they can lend a helping hand.
“We really work with community centers and block captains to develop relationships,” Wootten said. “We do that really months in advance. We try to come back to a neighborhood a few times to really make an impact over the course of a year or two, and then we kind of move on.”
After the New Year they will have Block Builds in the Wharton and Logan neighborhoods. RTP aims to help communities revitalize their block and inspire individuals to make the repairs to their own homes that can really improve their lives.
“Any house can be improved with light cleaning and painting,” Wootten said. “Just making those simple changes can really help somebody.”
This fall Ben Griffiths and Kate Hartman are bringing Eyes on the Street and PlanPhilly dispatches from Belmont, Mantua, Powelton, and Mill Creek as part of their work for Philadelphia Neighborhoods, a publication of Temple’s Multimedia Reporting Lab. PlanPhilly is a Philadelphia Neighborhoods partner.