Kensington: A Community Unites to Combat Blight

Students from LaSalle Academy helped as part of the clean up effect.]

Nearly a quarter of the land in Kensington is vacant.  No buildings, no structures, just grass, weeds or concrete.  This land, if left untended, becomes a magnet for trash, illegal dumping and crime.

South Kensington—the portion of Kensington that runs from West Girard Avenue north to Berks Street and from Front Street west to Sixth Street, has dozens of vacant, unkempt lots.

“The vacant lots in the neighborhood are one of the biggest quality of life liabilities– period!” said Erika Tapp, director of the Kensington South Neighborhood Advisory Council.

The KSNAC services the southern portion of Kensington by organizing the community and acting as liaison between community residents and municipal services.  Neighborhood residents kept complaining about blight, so Tapp said this year KSNAC devised a strategy for tackling the vacant lot problem.

“There are a number of organizations that deal with vacant lots,” she said.  “Our first cause of action was to figure out who does what.”

Raymond Gant works with ex-offenders to clean out vacant lots.

The KSNAC created a list of all of the clean up organizations in the city.  Then they inventoried all of the vacant land and determined which lots needed care.  They next contacted the appropriate City authorities and followed up as many times as required to get the job done.

So far, the strategy appears to be working.  Since KSNAC started the process in April 2011, they have held at least a half dozen clean up sessions and more are scheduled to take place throughout the summer.  In June alone, the neighborhood has coordinated with numerous agencies to facilitate its lot clean up effort, including the Ray of Hope Project, local churches and school groups.  Neighborhood residents also help.

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“It takes coordination, focus and follow through,” Tapp said.  “It also takes the kind of local knowledge that a neighborhood association has.  We’re a small organization, but we have a small service area.”

“Community leaders are nagging constituents—but in a good way,” said attorney Sherman Toppin. Toppin is founder of Sherman Toppin Real Estate, a Philadelphia-based law firm specializing in real estate management and development.  His firm has represented a number of developers throughout North Philadelphia.

“They are the people that force municipal leaders to invest public dollars and resources in the problems in their district.,” Toppin said. “It’s the squeaky wheel that gets the oil.”

Mercedes Soto lives near the corner of Randolph and Jefferson Streets in South Kensington next to an abandoned lot. She has lived there with her family for nearly 50 years. Soto said she is thankful that her block is now clean because of effort by the KSNAC and neighbor residents.

Mercedes Soto lives next to a lot that is an example of the clean up effort.

“People dumped trash over there,” Soto said, pointing to the large lot adjacent to her home. “Tires, cars….trash. I would call the police and they wouldn’t do nothing.”

Soto said she had been frustrated by the city’s lack of attention to her complaints.

“You can get help, you just need someone to make the phone calls,” Raymond Gant said. Gant works with several service agencies within the city. He has cleaned out nearly 1,000 vacant lots around Philadelphia over the past nine years. This month, He helped with KSNAC’s lot clean out in South Kensington.

“In this neighborhood, they have an association that does all the work of making calls,” Gant said. “So we get the word and come on out to help.”

“The more skilled your leaders are, your members are, the better able they will be able to represent your community,” said Marcus Presley, a community organizer with the Women’s Community Revitalization Project.  WCRP is an organization that serves the Ludlow and South Kensington communities.

“The vacant land problem costs people in this city billions,” Presley said.  “And our neighborhood has some of the highest concentration of vacant land of any place in the city.”

Soto says her block is much nicer since the vacant lot clean up.

According to a 1995 Philadelphia City Planning Commission Report on vacant land, the presence of vacant property has a direct impact on the City’s fiscal health.  The most direct result is less tax revenue.  Neighborhoods take an even bigger blow since vacant land negatively affects property values.  In fact, a report published by the National Vacant Properties Campaign states that homes within 150 feet of a vacant or abandoned property experience a net loss of $7,629 in value.  And since Philadelphia has nearly 40,000 vacant lots it means thousands of residents are affected.

“There are banks that won’t even give a mortgage if there is a vacant or boarded property within three or four homes of where the mortgage is sought,” Toppin said.  “They do this because they know the impact of vacant, blighted property- including crime and fewer businesses.”

Another big problem with the vacant land in Kensington and Philadelphia as a whole, is the fact that a significant percentage of that property is City-owned. The property is owned by one of a number of entities, such as the Redevelopment Authority and the Pennsylvania Industrial Development Corporation.

“The process of purchasing City property is very cumbersome,” says Toppin, who has helped a number of his clients navigate the maze of purchasing such property.

KSNAC Director, Erika Tapp, laid out the organizations strategy for tackling blight.

“You can’t just buy a vacant lot, you have to have a team.  You have to have a plan.  You have to have a lawyer.  You have to have a builder. You have to have access to financing.”

This means it could take time to develop Kensington—a lot of time. In the meantime, residents want a safe, clean neighborhood and are rolling up their sleeves make it happen.

“It takes a lot of work and a lot of time,” Tapp said.  “But I drove around the neighborhood the other day with my co-worker and I must say, it looks much better than it did a few months ago.”

With a lot of hard work and persistence, maybe it will keep getting better.

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