North Central: Tearing Down to Build Up

Gregory Trainor, the director of the Philadelphia Community Corps, wants to demolish blighted houses in Philadelphia.]

Gregory Trainor has not had an alcoholic beverage in three months. Though he still frequents bars, he’s content with just ordering a glass of water.

Gregory Trainor, the director of the Philadelphia Community Corps, wants to demolish blighted houses in Philadelphia.

“I took a pledge,” said Trainor, 23. “I will not drink until we launch our demolition program.”

The “we” Trainor references is the Philadelphia Community Corps, a non-profit he started and directs. The PCC aims to improve the quality of life for people living in impoverished neighborhoods through neighborhood cleanups and demolition and salvage of blighted homes–first in North Central and then throughout the city of Philadelphia. The demolition and salvage program of the PCC, which Trainor hopes to have launched by fall of this year, will model closely after Hands On, a home construction and restoration service formed in the Gulf Coast region during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

As a member of Hands On, Trainor learned the Ins-&-Outs of disaster response building houses in Biloxi, Mississippi. With Hands On, unskilled volunteers tear down homes or gut them and then rebuild them completely by hand. Materials from the old houses are utilized to build the new ones. Trainor finds the methods of Hands On both sustainable and cost-effective.

“The Gulf Coast, when I left there I thought demolishing and gutting all these houses was a really good thing to do but I’m never going to use these skills again. And then I came to Philadelphia and I find out all my skills [acquired] from a disaster zone are perfectly suited for the housing crisis in Philadelphia,” Trainor said.

By “housing crisis,” Trainor meant the extensive amount of abandoned residences across the city. A report done by the Pew Charitable Trusts, “Philadelphia 2007,” estimated the number of vacant homes at 30,000. Though vacancy is a city-wide plague, Trainor and the PCC think North Central is at the heart of the issue. And they might be right. On just a single block in North Central–from 17th Street and Lehigh Avenue to 17th Street and Huntingdon Street–there are three abandoned storefronts and 14 vacant residences. With plenty of houses ready for demolishing and within close proximity to Temple University, Trainor chose to create the PCC in North Central.

A boarded up home sits vacant in North Central on the 1500 block of North Willington Street.

“I see Temple University to be in the perfect position for philanthropism and humanitarianism. In Philadelphia, there’s no other school that I can think of that has the resources, the size and also is surrounded by so much poverty and so much need. And so I thought right where I was [in North Central] was the perfect place to be,” Trainor said. “I think we’re going to setup our base of operations as near to Temple as we can because this is where I see the most potential.”

Though Trainor has his mind set on location, Jim Stephens, the founder of Elite Rescue Recovery and Rebuilding who has worked in housing construction for almost 10 years, said knocking down homes in the city of Philadelphia doesn’t come without red tape.

Demolishing houses “is needed. It’ll be very difficult. But it’s definitely needed. It’s an attainable goal but I don’t know how long it’ll take just knowing the city politics and the way things work. It’ll take a lot. I think when it happens, it’s going to be huge. And I think it can set a precedent for other cities to allow organizations to [tear down houses]. It’s more cost effective for the city,” Stephens said.

In a report prepared for Philadelphia’s Redevelopment Authority, the director of Econsult Corporation predicted that maintenance of abandoned homes and vacant lots costs the City about $20 million a year. Therefore, demolishing these homes would cost less than keeping them. Consequently, Stephens acknowledged the value in what the PCC hopes to do and he currently acts as one of the PCC’s community partners–along with his organization. And though Stephens foreshadowed the difficulties ahead for Trainor and the PCC when it comes to demolition, he is still on board with the project.

But not everyone in the construction field has as much faith that the demolition mission can prevail.

David Feldman, the director of Habitat for Humanity in 2008 and the current president of Right-Sized Homes, said, “You rehabilitate a house that’s there or you build a new house [on a vacant lot]. But to tear down a 120-year-old worker’s row house that was built at medium standards to begin with and use those materials [is not a good plan]. The labor is a lot more expensive, so to speak, than the materials are. You’re not going to reuse the plaster, you’re not going to reuse the glass [and] you’re not going to reuse the wiring. They moreso want to rehabilitate [homes already] in place.”

Trainor attends a meeting to help get the word out about the mission of the PCC.

Feldman went on to argue that Philadelphia is leading the nation in house rehabilitation–as opposed to demolition–in a lot of ways. Therefore, Trainor and the PCC would learn more from looking into what’s already being done.

Ironically, Trainor said he wants to model his plans for the volunteer-built homes after the “sweat equity” program operated by Habitat. According to Habitat protocol, families in need of homes go through an application process. Once approved by the Family Selection Committee, families help build their home and other homes alongside Habitat. They must contribute at least 350 hours toward house building before earning a home. After construction, they move into the home they helped build paying a mortgage at zero percent interest.

Trainor said he really likes the sound of Habitat’s “a hand up not a hand out” policy because he often stresses the importance of teaching and serving the community at the same time.

“Everything we’re doing as the Philadelphia Community Corps is great, but [it’s] all short-term fixes to permanent problems. We all kind of talked about it and agreed that our philosophy, our belief was that the only true solution to permanent problems was education. So everything we do, if we’re really going to change things in Philadelphia, has to have an education component. [We can’t just] knock down people’s houses but teach them to knock down houses. [We can’t just] build houses but teach people in these neighborhoods how to build  houses,” Trainor said.

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