Hunting Park is a neighborhood of diversity and change. It is one of the few working poor communities in the city, which means many residents are living on the edge of their means.
A drive down the residential streets of Hunting Park will show long blocks of row homes with identical porches, roofs and patched chimneys. Many of the streets have at least one vacant property, with plywood boards covering the entryways or broken windows.
City-Data.com reported that more than 45 percent of the houses in the neighborhood were built before 1939. The regular maintenance needed to keep these 70-year-old structures inhabitable is a constant and expensive task, despite the low housing prices compared to the rest of the city.
At a median price of $574, rent is over $92 cheaper a month than the city average of $666, but the fact that over 45 percent of the population of Hunting Park lives below the poverty line means most residents live paycheck to paycheck.
The struggle to make ends meet is hampered even further when the ancient water heater finally dies or the mortar on the chimney caves in.
Maria Bonilla is a certified credit and housing counselor with the non-profit Consumer Credit Counseling Service, which has been offering communities across the country financial help since 1966 and has an office in Hunting Park.
Residents come to her for free financial advice for everything from pre-purchasing counseling to diversion court hearings about mortgages.
The majority of the people she sees just need help with budgeting.
“Our first objective is your shelter,” Bonilla said. “First your shelter, your utilities and food on the table. Everything else takes a back seat. Budgeting 101 is what I like to call it. You can’t keep giving money to your mom, you might have to do your own nails, honey.”
Despite Bonilla’s no-nonsense approach to helping residents with their money problems or helping many families resolve their debt issues, she sees a lot of frustration among residents with housing.
“A lot of the time with debt, it’s not their fault. Something in their house breaks so they get on waiting lists, but that can take years to get fixed. I had one lady whose heater broke and she waited three years to get a new one. She had this one space heater she would move around the rooms with her because her house had no heat.”
Bonilla said that there are many city and state funds available for poorer neighborhoods, but it requires great diligence on the part of residents to keep applying, and reapplying, to waiting lists.
Many community members want new housing in the vacant lots around Hunting Park. The old industrial area has empty space that could be turned into new condos or houses.
Initiatives to improve housing in Hunting Park have been successful in the past. A new 40-property complex, Evelyn Sanders Townhouses, was opened in the summer of 2009, giving dozens of families an affordable home of their own and a safe block to raise their kids.
The complex is a haven for those who moved in, but it is surrounded on all sides by the same cramped, six-bedroom town houses that entire extended families inhabit.
Councilwoman Maria D. Quiñones-Sánchez grew up in one of the original three-bedroom row homes on North Reece Street with her Aunt Nell, a block that has remained largely unchanged since it was built in the early 1900s.
“We were the third family to move in,” said Sánchez. “My next door neighbor was first generation. He remembered when Hunting Park had horse stables.”
For Sánchez, the problem with starting affordable housing projects in Hunting Park is logistics.
“The challenge for Hunting Park is that it’s split between two city districts down Ninth Street and is split between three state representatives. It’s really hard from a government perspective to manage the neighborhood,” said Sánchez. “For the residents, there’s no one person held accountable for their neighborhood.”
An even larger problem for the councilwoman and other city and community leaders is the absence of the Hunting Park Community Development Corp., which closed down due to funding issues.
“Because of the closure of the Hunting Park CDC, we don’t have anybody doing block-to-block housing renovations anymore,” said Sánchez. “An active CDC is the missing link between the community and the city government.”
For now, Hunting Park must rely on a mish-mash of neighborhood initiatives and limited government funding.
Despite the difficulties in governing the area, Councilwoman Sánchez is optimistic about the projects that have been created by dedicated community members.
Sánchez is especially enthusiastic about plans to create more green spaces in the neighborhood.
“A big problem is that the students that graduate don’t come back to Hunting Park,” said Sánchez. “Some of the blocks have a majority of elderly residents so young people aren’t moving in. Between Wyoming Avenue and Erie Avenue there are no green spaces that will draw in new residents.”
There’s already a Hunting Park community garden that produces flowers and vegetables in the spring and summer.
Sánchez is also involved in the three-phase park renovation for Hunting Park.
Hunting Park United, a community group dedicated to the improvement of the 87-acre park, is working with city officials and Fairmount Park to restore Hunting Park into the recreational destination it was at the turn of the 20th century.
“The first phase of the renovation starts in the spring,” Sánchez said. “There’s already $2 million in funds, $400,000 of which came from the city.”
Hopefully, the community housing initiatives and new focus on green areas will add a new luster to neighborhood that will draw new residents.