Critics question value of NTI

    Philadelphia’s former Mayor John Street made his Neighborhood Transformation Initiative the hallmark of his administration. But, a separate audit by the City Controller, released this week, alleged mismanagement and a lack of oversight.

    Philadelphia’s former Mayor John Street made his Neighborhood Transformation Initiative the hallmark of his administration. But when Mayor Nutter took office in 2008, he suspended the anti-blight program pending an investigation of how it had spent its money. A separate audit by the City Controller, released this week, alleged mismanagement and a lack of oversight.

    Listen:
    [audio: 091015spnti.mp3]

    The $300-million dollar program, know as NTI, was meant to rid city streets of crumbling, abandoned buildings and prepare tracts for redevelopment. Using money raised through bond issues, NTI demolished more than 4,000 buildings.

    It was a windfall for the demolition companies. And residents of some blocks were glad to see the eyesores and crack-houses go. But the demolitions also generated a backlash from some residents who felt the city was not properly compensating them for their homes, or using eminent domain to evict them unfairly. Willie Colon was active with a group called The Citywide Coalition to Save Our Homes.

    Colon: And some of these blocks didn’t look very good, but they were still some habitable homes and folks wanted to work on those areas but the city was saying no, this is not gonna work we want you out.

    Several years after the eviction and demolition, Colon says many of those parcels remain undeveloped.

    John Kromer served for about a year and a half as the Director of the Office of Housing and Community Development under Street. He’s written about the NTI. Kromer says the program began as a simple idea, but morphed into a larger project that lost focus, and promised more than it could deliver.

    Kromer: Three hundred million dollars doesn’t go very far in a city with the needs that Philadelphia has and so creating a program that gave people an expectation that every area of the city would be served in some way way was bound to disappoint and it would be much better to do some targeting.

    Kromer says the project also lacked clear leadership, and instead divided responsibilities among an alphabet soup of agencies, including the NTI office and the city’s Redevelopment Authority.

    Kromer: What had been recommended early in the Street Administration, by the transition team and accepted by the mayor, was the need for housing reorganization and the appointment of a person that would be in charge of everything really never happened and so I’m sure that dispersion of authority was a contributing factor to the problem.

    Terry Gillen is the current head of the Redevelopment Authority. She wants to improve fiscal controls and devise a plan for what to with the rest of the land that was cleared and acquired.

    Gillen: The overwhelming majority of the properties acquired with NTI bond proceeds are still sitting around. We have to figure out whether that’s because the real estate market has collapsed or whether that’s because they’re in bad locations with no clear reuse possibility.

    It may be too early to calculate whether the program was worth its cost. But John Kromer says there were some positive results.

    Kromer: The brewery town plaza north of Girard Avenue by a private developer by the Westrum Company was a very successful market rate development and was a good illustration of one of the NTI goals of doling off strong markets in this case the Art Museum market and extending the reach of a strong market into dis-invested communities.

    Kromer says the Philadelphia Housing Authority made use of parcels that the program prepared for development. On one West Philadelphia site, the Authority built 300 units of affordable rental and owner-occupied housing.

    Carl Greene is the executive director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

    Greene: Whether you received NTI funding or not, it was pretty clear to all of the other public and private organizations in town that neighborhood redevelopment was a major major strategic initiative and if you were doing anything related to neighborhood development, you could depend on support.

    Currently, about $47 million dollars in bond money remain available, divided among the ten council districts. But the money has strings attached, making it hard to put to use in this poor real estate market.

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