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Talking Headways Podcast: Building Community in North Philly

This week on the podcast we’re joined by Nilda Ruiz, president and chief executive officer; and Rose Gray, senior vice president, community and economic development, both at APM (The Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha or Association of Puerto Ricans on the March). We chat about their LEED Platinum transit-oriented development and the community health benefits it confers on North Philadelphia as well as the community work and organizing they do for neighborhood residents. We also chat about the importance of transportation and the impacts of the current pandemic.

If you prefer to read than listen, an edited version of our conversation follows the audio player. For an unedited full transcript (with some typos), click here.

Jeff Wood (30m 29s): You mentioned community outreach. And one of the things that I was interested in is something that’s happening in Atlanta too. And I think it’s happening where you are, is that there’s a community just outside of downtown where people who have owned their houses for a really long time are getting kind of preyed upon in terms of, you know, people try to buy their houses for cheap, the folks that are living there, they don’t know the actual value of their house. The person might come and say, "Hey, I can give you a $100,000 straight away" and their house, like you said, it is actually worth $300,000. But they don’t know that because they are not plugged into Zillow or whatever else. And I’m wondering how the community outreach is working for you all in that realm, in terms of helping people realize what the value of their property is or the value of where they live?

Nilda Ruiz (31m 10s): That has been a huge challenge for us. We're in an area — I kid around that we don’t have a Starbucks yet — that is getting gentrified quickly. And every piece of land that we look at, a developer has been approaching the city and you’ll go by one week, and next week some things going up and, yeah, they go around and they say, "Oh, well we’ll give you $40,000." And for them that’s a lot of money. They probably bought it for $5,000 or $10,000. We’ve lost a few homes to that. But I think the community now is wising up because we’ve been, the community connectors have actually been out there educating the community.

So now they’re like, "Oh no, I’m not letting go of my house. I understand it’s worth something." And we’ve been letting them know this is your future. At some point you’re going to retire. This house will be what’s going to take you through that. So we try to get them to connect the value of their home and where we are right now. We've been doing these caravans like a parade, "Our neighborhood is not for sale." We’ll sell your house. People come out and then they give them fliers. They educate them on what their homes are worth.

So, you know, people are realizing the value. The sad thing is that at some point, you know, the people that are there that have taken a stake in this community for a really long time, how do we keep it affordable for them? New money is coming in and they just can’t afford those resources so we’re trying to see how we can continue. But I think what we end up doing is slowing it down and maybe getting the newcomers with the old ones to start working together. But at some point, I don’t know how long you can hold that back. And you know, studies have shown that if you’re more than seven miles from your job, it becomes really difficult. And people are just getting pushed further out into the suburbs.

Rose Gray (33m 19s): We worked with the community legal services and there is a new anti-displacement bill — 200455 — for predatory homebuyers. So it’s very timely because we have to encourage the residents not to sell. Remember with Paseo Verde. When the first word came out that it was going to be built a speculator, and I won’t say his name, but came around on a Saturday, handing out $50,000 cash to five homeowners in a row who took it and signed a quick deed. It breaks my heart to this day.

Now the good news is because of Paseo Verde, the public housing around us that was taken down is being rebuilt to replace public housing, beautiful public housing. So that guy wasn’t able to stop affordable housing, but he did take advantage of those residents. And that is so sad. Let's talk about wealth-building.

Nilda Ruiz (34m 44s): Following the developer across the street where we did Paseo Verde, there were a lot of vacant homes and shame on us because number one rule of developing is that you have to own the property. And many times, we will go to the city. We have them hold it for us because there’s a holding cost. You have to pay insurance. You have to have the upkeep. If anybody gets hurt, you got to keep insurance and we’re not, you know, we're a non-profit, so we don’t have any excess revenue. So we try to hold off on that. And on these, we were thinking of maybe doing market rate, home ownership, and we had this whole linear park that was going to go through the whole neighborhood. And this developer came by and just picked them all up.

And I mean, our project has been transformative. We see that the change in the community, but that was a missed opportunity for our neighborhood. But in wealth-building, you know, we have families that we’ve taken from homelessness to home ownership. We’ve been around for 50 years, so we have enough time to see the transformation in a family. We used to have a shelter. [A woman] came to our shelter with her children running away from an abusive husband. And we gave her a little part-time job. Then she got a full-time job. And the social services working with her, the whole behavioral health on how to deal with this abuse and how not to take it and what to do with her children.

So we helped her out that way. She rented one of our first apartments. And she says, "You know, I want to own one of those houses." So she started going to the housing counseling and started saving up as we started building and she was working and saving, working, and saving. And she bought her first house for $55,000. And she moved in there with her three girls. Today, she is working full-time for the council president. Her daughter is now a homeowner, the other one is in college. And so that whole cycle has just been broken. And now she’s got a family that are also homeowners, that are going to college and we have several like that.

So it’s not just the bricks and mortar on what you see, but the impact that you make on these families and the wealth building that comes from that. Now you have a generation that will pass assets to the next generation. And so on.

Rose Gray (37m 6s): The 150 homes we sold for $55,000 created a market to $90,000, then created a market for $160,000. That was a sweet spot that was ended. We stopped developing home ownership in 2010. The houses today are worth $300,000. Now, they had to keep it affordable for 15 years. Only two out of 150 have sold. We have to help create a generation of people that will be able to send their children to college. And so we’re very joyous in that as we manage economic change in the community, so that there is no displacement, we are trying now to do another 100 plus homes, and we’ll do some market that will help subsidize down to 80% the other half.

So we’re trying to today that mixed income theory. We’re going to try to do that because we think homeownership is as important as rental. We need both. We need people to have their own wealth Building ability through homeownership and renters, to be able to let another renter come in.

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