Finding a really helpful neighbor can at times be difficult in some urban areas, particularly on blocks where one-third of the properties are abandoned and vacant.
However, if you live on the 900 block of East Westmoreland Street, Jamie Moffett is the best neighbor to have because of his work addressing abandoned properties.
Through Moffet’s day-to-day experiences of working out of his studio in the neighborhood he said he understands why Kensington has the reputation of being the poorest and roughest section of Philadelphia.
Moffett said he plans on changing it.
“A few neighbors and I really got to the point of where we knew that we needed to make some changes here. So what we did was form a town watch and other community organizations and then Kensington Renewal,” Moffett said.
Moffett took the lead to start the Kensington Renewal initiative, which is a five-year plan to acquire abandoned properties, rehab them and sell them at market value, which currently in Kensington is $37,000. The purchasers Moffett said he ideally wants for the rehabilitated properties are families who are long-term renters in the neighborhood.
Additionally, Moffett, an independent motion picture director and producer, has taken it upon himself to clean up vacant lots and install fences and lighting where they are most needed in various parts of the neighborhood. Moffett said he sees these efforts as a way to change Kensington’s bad reputation while also making the neighborhood a safer and better place to live.
“Through the time I’ve lived here it’s become really clear to me [the connection between] important statistics like home ownership and how they correlate to crime statistics. We have a low rate of home ownership in our area and it certainly correlates to crime,” Moffett said.
Vacant properties are hot spots for illegal activity. Such properties are frequently used for illegal drug deals, sites for addicts to inject drugs and violent crime. While not all illegal activity in Kensington happens in vacant properties, those structures play a huge factor into Kensington’s high crime rates.
The 24th Police District has been supportive of Moffett’s initiative because the police recognize the problems that vacant houses bring to the neighborhood. Capt. Charles Vogt of the 24th Police District explained that the first problem with abandoned houses are people who strip the houses of plumbing and wiring to sell for money. The other problems are what Moffett is trying to address.
Vogt, like Moffett, is concerned about the connections between vacant properties, crime and other detrimental activities.
“Another issue we have of course is the transient population, which plays a large factor. Not only do they go and shoot [drugs inside] these houses, but they also may camp out there, which is another problem from a public safety standpoint because on the chilly days they might start fires inside to keep warm, so we have the threat of row houses catching fire,” Vogt said. “Then, of course, the whole idea of looking at the ‘broken window theory.’ They are [more than] just a visual eye sore. [It] sort of looks like not only have the residents resigned, but the government has resigned too. They have given up.”
That broken window theory applies to the many vacant lots around Philadelphia. A 10-year study released in 2011 from The University of Pennsylvania reveals there is a significant decrease in gun assaults and other criminal activities in parts of the city where vacant lots have been transformed into green spaces. The researchers used the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s vacant lot greening project as its main focus for the study because PHS has revitalized 4,500 lots between the years of 1999-2008.
To back his observations, Moffett also uses research and statistical data to gain support for his mission. Studies such as the UNC Center for Community Capital released in March shows that home ownership is directly linked with low-income neighborhoods and perceptions of crime. Moffett also refers to a 2009 study from the Economics and Business Journal that reported that “home ownership significantly reduces criminal activity. Indeed, our results suggest that not only do higher home ownership rates lead to lower crime rates in a given time period, but also the rate of increase in criminal activity is significantly slower in areas with higher home ownership rates.”
Moffett has led a fundraising campaign through the Internet and social media. By partnering with Helpers Unite, Moffett said he hopes to raise $10,000 for offsetting costs needed for the closing on his first property that is located on the 900 block of East Westmoreland Street. So far, the Helpers Unite campaign has raised $1,345 through donations. Moffett has been advertising the project and is selling T-shirts through Facebook and Twitter as well.
With such big aspirations, Moffett, who has personally invested his money into the project and through private funding, can’t do it all alone. Various community organizations that have the same ultimate goals as Moffett have been helping him out as well. Both Impact Services and New Kensington Community Development Corp. have been helping the project, especially since it complements their programs, Moffett said.
“Obviously, what [Moffett] is doing is the same thing we are doing. He is re-building the community that has a number of problems and a lot of those problems deal with the vacant houses,” NKCDC Executive Director Sandy Salzman said. “People have either walked away from or have lost through landlords or just have not been able to keep up their mortgage because of the economy. Anybody that does that has to be commended because it is not easy.”
Phyllis Martino, director of community development for Impact Services, has a personal interest in everything that Moffett is doing.
“I’m personally happy to see him doing it. It’s a little different from the way Impact would typically do a project so I hope we are going to be able to learn something from his effort. We are connecting him to many resources that we know are relevant. We have tried to get him business loans and have directed him to people who may be willing to finance small markets when its done,” Martino said.
“So anything we can do to help make a project that takes a vacant property in the neighborhood and revitalize it were happy to do. I would like to see him succeed very much.”