Kensington Renewal: How it all began
Kensington Renewal started with a simple thought – what if we could take the vacant, dilapidated houses in this area and turn them into clean, safe homes that long-term renters from the area could purchase as first-time home buyers? In order to fully understand the goal of Kensington Renewal, you need to understand how it began in the first place.
The Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia is one of the poorest, with one of the highest criminal activity rates. The total risk of crime is almost double what the national average is. To coincide with that, almost half of all housing units in this area are either rented or vacant. Studies have shown that the rate of criminal activity in an area directly relates to the rate of home ownership. The higher the number of home owners, the lower the rate of violent and non-violent crime.
So how did the Kensington neighborhood get in this position? They got here through the behavior of investment property owners that can only be described as “slumlords.” The property owners buy up the run-down houses that are common in this area and rent them out to those in the neighborhood. They forge inspection documents, default on loans on their properties, and let the houses fall into complete and total disrepair. One such example of an area slumlord is Robert Coyle, of Landvest LLC. His behavior has been well documented in local papers and is well worth a read. Try the City Paper article by Isaiah Thompson entitled “Default Lines. A landlord dropped a bomb on Kensington. It could happen again.”
You may be wondering why the people who live here allow this to go on. Many of the houses in this area are valued around $80,000 and sell for around $50,000. In order for residents of this area to purchase a home, they need to put out the full sales price plus all additional fees. Not many people have that sort of money laying around. To make things harder on those potential home owners, many major banks won’t provide loans that are less than $50,000. And so, the houses get sold to shady investment owners who then rent them to those who want to buy but can’t and the cycle goes on and on.
Kensington Renewal is looking to break that cycle. By working with investors and non-profit organizations, Kensington Renewal will purchase one of those run-down houses, refurbish it, and sell it to a family. Ideally, these houses will get sold to those long-term renters in the neighborhood who have never been able to own their own home.
Kensington wasn’t arbitrarily picked as the starting point for this project. With its high rate of violent and non-violent criminal activity coupled with its low home ownership rate, it is a prime candidate for an area that needs help. However, there is also a personal side to this story. The start of Kensington Renewal goes back to 2007 with the purchase of a house on E Westmoreland Street in the Kensington section of Philadelphia.
The property on E Westmoreland Street became the studio for Jamie Moffett Media Design & Production, owned and operated by independent filmmaker and producer Jamie Moffett. His past work includes “Return to El Salvador,” and “The Ordinary Radicals.” Check out his website, www.jamiemoffett.com, to learn more about these and other works produced by him. Jamie Moffett Media Design & Production isn’t your typical production company. It aims to tell the stories that matter. Kensington Renewal is one such story.
Behind the studio location is an empty house, frequently filled with squatters, drug dealers, and drug addicts. An eyesore and prime location for criminal activity to occur, Moffett tried to purchase the vacant property to prevent such things from happening. However, he was told by the owner, Robert Coyle, that it was being sold in its run-down, dilapidated state for around $40,000. Realizing how ridiculous that was and that it was due to injustices like this that the long-term renters couldn’t buy the properties, Moffett decided to take action.
He partnered with several non-profit organizations to finance Kensington Renewal and set out with the intention of purchasing every run-down, “Abandominium” he could. With every house that is transformed into an owner occupied property, Kensington gets a little better and safer. Moffett plans to document this entire experience, not only to show the world what needs to be done but also to show that change is possible. Crime can be fought by the average person. Neighborhoods don’t have to be held hostage by crime anymore.
Through the success of Kensington Renewal, Moffett hopes the model created will be applied to other ailing cities, both in Philadelphia and throughout the country. To have the knowledge that violent and non-violent criminal activity can decrease simply by increasing the number of owner occupied properties in an area is powerful. One house at a time, we can work together to help fight crime in Philadelphia and across America. Kensington Renewal may start off small, but this is one story that cannot be ignored any longer.
In addition to this personal aspect, there are cold, hard facts that cannot be denied. The Philadelphia Inquirer released an article showing how the homicide rate in Philadelphia is exceptionally high. This article also confirms that Kensington is the deadliest section of Philadelphia.
Published in February 2011, the article displays how the murder rate in Philadelphia is just under the mortality rate of the war in Iraq and three times what the mortality rate is in the war in Afghanistan. Here are the indisputable numbers: Between 2001-2011, 3,419 people were killed in the city of Philadelphia. The number of people killed in Philadelphia is compared to the 1,124 U.S combat deaths in Afghanistan since 2001 and the 3,483 U.S combat deaths in Iraq since 2003. The article also pinpoints the deadliest section of Philadelphia. The honor of that distinction goes to Kensington, near Kensington Ave and Allegheny Ave. The homicide rate is more than 230 per square mile.
With the personal knowledge of what was going on in Kensington and what changes needed to occur and armed with the deadly facts on Kensington, Moffett will put Kensington Renewal into place and begin to change one of the deadliest sections of Philadelphia. Kensington doesn’t need to be the deadly neighborhood it has become.
Fighting Crime…One House at a Time
Kensington Renewal set out with one goal: To fight crime while increasing home ownership and creating a model that will be used in different local neighborhoods and in cities across the country. Kensington isn’t the only neighborhood in this city, let alone this country, that needs this help. Too often, neighborhoods like Kensington become stuck in a tragic cycle that continues on until someone steps in to help break it.
When investment owners become slumlords, they actively invite crime into the neighborhood. The properties they own fall into disrepair, tenants are evicted, and the vacant lots become a haven for drug dealers and users. When almost half of the properties in an area are either rented or vacant, it is guaranteed that the crime rate will be higher than normal.
Two articles demonstrate the effect of home ownership on criminal activity in a neighborhood. The first example was published in 2009 by Jinlan Ni and Christopher Decker in the Economics & business Journal: Inquiries and Perspectives. This article, entitled “The Impact of Home Ownership on Criminal Activity: Empirical Evidence from United States’ County Level Data,” looks at “county-level census data and Uniform Crime Reports for the United States to isolate the impact of homeownership on crime rates.” To summarize this article, Ni and Decker found “that homeownership significantly reduces criminal activity. Indeed, our results suggest that not only do higher homeownership 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 homeownership rates.” Essentially, Ni and Decker have proven that the rate of criminal activity drops as the rate of home ownership increases. This finding directly supports the mission of Kensington Renewal. This project will fight crime by putting rehabilitated properties into the hands of owner-occupied families. With the increase to home ownership, the crime rates here will decrease – and according to the research, the rate at which it returns will slow dramatically.
The second article that supports what Kensington Renewal is trying to do is by Charis E. Kubrin and Gregory D. Squires, of George Washington University. This article, entitled “The Impact of Capital on Crime: Does Access to Home Mortgage Money Reduce Crime Rates?,” looks at another aspect that Kensington Renewal is fixing. Since it’s so hard to get approval for a home mortgage in areas like Kensington, the home ownership rate has no way of increasing. Kubrin and Squires discuss the impact of the Federal Community Reinvestment Act, also known as CRA, “which bans redlining in mortgage lending.” Redlining is defined as “a discriminatory practice bywhich banks, insurance companies, etc., refuse or limit loans, mortgages, insurance, etc., within specific geographic areas, especially inner-city neighborhoods.” Kubris and Squire found “that where availability of mortgage money is greater, crime rates are lower. Equally important is the finding that loans covered by the CRA have an even stronger relationship with crime.” Their findings show that predatory lending policies have a direct relation to the crime rates in an area. When major banks and lenders refuse to write loans for less than $50,000, though it may not seem like predatory lending policies to them, it discriminates against those who cannot afford houses with lower property values.
These two nation-wide studies aren’t the only two examples of how rehabilitating a community can help to deter crime. While the above mentioned studies focus on home ownership versus crime rates, a third study looked at how rehabilitating the area affected crime rates. The Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a decade-long study of the effect of “greening” an area, or turning vacant lots into small parks and community green spaces. The study found that distressed areas that were greened had reduced crime rates compared to those areas with vacant lots that were not greened. More significantly, “Vacant lot greening was associated with significant reductions in gun assaults across all four sections of Philadelphia in the study and with significant reductions in vandalism in one section.” The Perelman School of Medicine found the same success that Kensington Renewal is looking to achieve. By turning vacant lots and houses into viable properties, crime rates will drop.
One theory this study looked at was the “broken windows” theory and the effect greening had on it. The “‘broken windows’ theory suggests that vacant lots offer refuge to criminal and other illegal activity and visibly symbolize that a neighborhood has deteriorated, that no one is in control, and that unsafe or criminal behavior is welcome to proceed with little if any supervision.” A related theory that this study looked at is the “incivilities” theory. This theory “suggests that physical incivilities, such as abandoned vacant lots, promote weak social ties among residents and encourage crimes, ranging from harassment to homicide.” These theories show how vacant lots, and in turn, vacant properties harbor criminals and provide the perfect space for criminal activity to occur.
Kensington Renewal hopes to stop this sort of activity and turn Kensington into a safer, cleaner place. Since the “broken windows” theory holds that vacant lots offer refuge to criminals, Kensington Renewal will turn the vacant properties that are also a refuge for criminals into owner-occupied homes. The “broken windows” theory shows that vacant lots and properties symbolize that no one is in control of the area. Kensington Renewal will change that by putting the area in the hands of the owner occupied families, thus the criminals will no longer control the area. Related to this, the “incivilities” theory maintains that social bonds cannot be formed in areas with high criminal activity rates. Kensington Renewal will change that by creating an environment that encourages social bonds. This project will fight to change the perception of the area and teach the residents that it’s ok to want to keep your neighborhood safe and clean.
These articles shed light on how to fix high criminal activities rates found in cities across the country. With all of this proof that home ownership lowers crime rates, it is imperative that Kensington Renewal has success. We can turn one of the worst neighborhoods in Philadelphia into one of the safest. Once we accomplish that, Kensington Renewal can be used in neighborhoods across the city of Philadelphia, and even throughout the country.
In order to combat these numbers, home ownership needs to increase. Kensington Renewal aims to help with that. This project actively fights crime in the area by buying the run-down, vacant lots that are prevalent and turning them into owner-occupied properties. When a vacant lot is transformed into a livable home, that eliminates one more space where violent and non-violent crime can take place. Those who are part of the criminal activity have no choice but to move out and find somewhere new to commit their crimes. When the model designed by Kensington Renewal goes national as planned, then those crime lords will eventually have nowhere to live their lifestyle. Potentially, Kensington Renewal could have the widespread effect of lowering criminal activity across the entire nation.
Fighting crime in this way is something anyone, anywhere can do. Imagine helping to eradicate crime and turning one of the statistically worst cities for violent and non-violent criminal activity into one of the safest cities. All it takes is turning those run-down properties into owner-occupied homes. Kensington Renewal is fighting crime, one house at a time.
The Rehabilitation Process
There are tens of thousands of run-down, dilapidated homes in this area. While that may seem daunting to some, Kensington Renewal sees it as a major opportunity. Tens of thousands of dilapidated homes means tens of thousands of lives that can be changed. All it takes is a little hard work. Rehabilitating the vacant properties in this area will lead to a better Kensington.
Rehabilitating a run-down, dilapidated house is no easy task. Many of the properties in this area have been vacant for years and have become hot-spots for the violent and non-violent crimes taking place here. They are suffering from general decay, criminal activity, and lack of care. The vacant properties in this area all share some characteristics: holes in the ceilings, broken windows, graffiti covered walls and litter strewn everywhere#. They are home to both squatters and wild animals. The litter strewn about the floors is not your standard trash – dirty needles and condom wrappers are mixed in with the assorted trash items and human and animal waste.
These properties need to be completely rehabilitated – cosmetic changes will not be enough. The dilapidated state some of these homes are in currently makes them unfit for occupation. Kensington Renewal will do everything necessary to make the properties livable again. The properties will be fixed up with new floors, new windows, new doors, and new paint jobs. The first step is to remove all of the trash and filth from the properties. Once the house has been emptied out, everything that needs fixing and rehabilitating will be removed from the house – which in this case is most of the property. After everything is removed, the true junk will be discarded while the parts that can be fixed will be set aside. Through the donations from our supporters, the replacement items will be bought and then the rehabilitation will begin. The walls will be repainted, the damages will be repaired and the properties will end up looking like brand new homes.
The effects, both economically and socially, are far-reaching. It all links together – a high rate of renters plus a high number of vacant properties equals a high crime rate. By rehabilitating just one property a chain reaction begins. One rehabilitated home improves one family’s economic and social status. The profits from the sale of that house are put toward the purchase of the next house. The sale of the second house then improves the economic and social standings of that family. The cycle continues on until the entire area is economically and socially prosperous. As rehabilitated houses begin to outnumber vacant, dilapidated properties, a significant drop in criminal activity will occur. Kensington Renewal, just by rehabilitating houses, will change the lives of many of the residents of this area.
Knowing the chain reaction that occurs through the rehabilitation of just one house, Kensington Renewal is determined to see it all the way through till the end. And it doesn’t have to stop here in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. The lessons and practices applied to Kensington can be applied to various areas through the city and country. All it takes is improving one house into an owner occupied property and the effects will be far reaching. Lives can be improved – one rehabilitation at a time.
Welcome to your new home
Many people who live in this area were forced into long-term renting and have never had the opportunity to own the houses in which they have resided for years. These renters, generally, have the capability to own but cannot get past the numerous obstacles blocking their path. Kensington Renewal will work with renters to fight those obstacles.
One major obstacle many face in this area is the inability to obtain a mortgage. Most major banks do not offer loans less than $50,000. It does not make financial sense for a bank to lend that amount and since making a profit is everything these days, major lenders don’t want to waste time and money on something with such a small return. As many properties in this area are valued around $80,000# and would be sold for $50,000 or less, long-term renters who want to own are in a difficult position. They can either put out all of the money upfront, continue to rent long-term, or move out and find somewhere else to live.
Since the median household salary in this area is less than $30,000#, many people cannot afford to buy a house without getting a mortgage. Kensington Renewal works with residents to change that. By offering home owners private mortgages, Kensington Renewal helps those long-term renters finally own a home. These private mortgages are obtained through respectable sources, not the loan sharks that typically prey on residents of areas like Kensington. Additionally, through the support of investors and donations, Kensington Renewal is able to help home buyers with paying closing costs as well since the amount can be in the thousands of dollars. When those two major obstacles are eliminated, more long-term renters are able to own the homes that they had been renting for years.
Not only do the long-term renters in this area not have the financial capabilities to buy but also they lack the training necessary to go into the home buying market. Shopping for a home is a daunting, difficult task. By offering home ownership education classes, Kensington Renewal teaches the long-term renters how to navigate the housing market in order to avoid predatory lenders and save money. Too often people who are new to the housing market and shut out by the major banks turn to less than trustworthy sources for mortgages. These predatory lenders approve mortgages of less than $50,000 but they also charge exorbitant closing costs, as well as astronomical interest rates. The renters may be home owners, but they become so at the expense of their income and savings. Kensington Renewal works with area real estate companies to educate the long-term renters in the area about how to shop for the perfect house, how to negotiate the best price, and how to ensure a smooth closing and move-in.
Owning a home is the American Dream and Kensington Renewal is committed to making that happen in some of the most blighted, crime-laden neighborhoods across the country. The goal is to eliminate the obstacles that have blocked long-term renters from owning for years. Through private mortgages and ownership education, long-term renters can finally achieve the one goal that all Americans pursue – the goal of home ownership.
Getting Word Out
When Kensington Renewal ends, that won’t be the last you hear of this groundbreaking work. Just because the movie is over doesn’t mean the need for change also ends. Kensington Renewal is about more than just helping the Kensington section of Philadelphia. It is about creating a model of change and getting the message out to the masses. The message will live on in the form of photobooks, a Reality Show Pilot, and of course through the betterment of Kensington in Philadelphia.
The small scale goal of Kensington Renewal is to aid the people of the Kensington neighborhood. Large scale, Kensington Renewal is aiming for the model developed here to be used in other ailing cities throughout the nation. Through the methods previously discussed, Kensington Renewal will change the status of this neighborhood. The best way for this to have large scale success is to generate interest and get the message out to America. The movie was just the start of this movement.
Throughout the entire process of shooting “Kensington Renewal,” a photographer will be on hand. His photographs portraying the rehabilitation process and the progress that is made in this neighborhood will be compiled into photobooks, of both print and electronic varieties, as well as displayed in galleries. Between the photobooks and the gallery showings, Kensington Renewal will be able to reach an audience who may not have been aware of the project.
The more people Kensington Renewal attracts to the story being told, the better the chance this project has at achieving its large scale goals. Kensington Renewal isn’t looking to just change Kensington into a primarily crime-free, owner-occupied neighborhood. Kensington Renewal wants neighborhoods that are like Kensington in every city to become primarily crime-free, owner-occupied neighborhoods. This project wants to wipe out crime – nationally.
The large scale goal involves turning this local project into a national one – in the form of a reality show. Emmy award winning reality show producer Chris Pack has already attached his name to this project and will help to get the message out to thousands, if not millions, of people. If Kensington Renewal becomes a reality show, the power of change will be in the hands of everyone across America. Kensington Renewal will impart the knowledge of how to lower crime rates while also helping out those in need. It will be up to America to decide what it wants to do with that knowledge.
In order for this project to be used in cities across America, it has to first succeed in Kensington. For Kensington Renewal to succeed in Kensington, it needs the support of the community and those who have the power to make the necessary changes. Kensington Renewal wants to change America, one house at a time, one city at a time. By educating people about the situations these cities face, change can happen.
How You Can Help
Kensington Renewal cannot be successfully completed without your help – both monetarily and physically. While having the necessary financial support is important, having donations and volunteer help is equally important. With your help, we are turning a crime-laden neighborhood into a safer environment.
Investing is the first step to achieve success for any project. An investment in Kensington Renewal helps us purchase one of the future home sites, known as the “Abandominiums.” As little as $10,000 provides enough financial support to obtain one of those “Abandominiums.” The rate of return for an investment in Kensington Renewal may be modest, but it is also very meaningful. Kensington Renewal has investors to support the physical purchase, the rehabilitation of the properties, and the important aspect of documenting this process. An investment made in Kensington Renewal will play a large part in changing the environment of this neighborhood and in fighting crime.
In addition to investing, Kensington Renewal also accepts donations. The tax deductible contribution is put toward paying for closing costs, purchasing supplies, and documenting these important stories. Each of these is a vital part of Kensington Renewal. One of our goals is to help the first time home buyers save money. This is done by aiding with the closing costs. As much as this is about helping the community, it is also about documenting the process and experience so that others can learn from it. By donating to Kensington Renewal, your contribution helps preserve this process. Kensington Renewal is published in various forms of media – short video clips, photobooks and eBooks, and gallery showings. Without donations, this project is not possible. Regardless of how big or small the donation is, any help given is appreciated!
Monetary contributions are not the only contributions this project needs. Kensington Renewal relies on the kindness of volunteers to help us complete this task. Volunteers meet the neighbors and help foster a sense of community. They sweep the streets and help this neighborhood get clean. Volunteers of Kensington Renewal also help paint the home of a future home owner. Though they may seem trivial in the scheme of things, it is these small acts of kindness that has the greatest effect on the neighborhood. Fostering a sense of community leads to stronger bonds between neighbors, which in turn helps to deter crime. Keeping the streets clean helps the residents feel proud of their neighborhood and makes them want to maintain that appearance. Even just helping to paint the rehabilitated home has a lasting effect. Many of the long-term renters have lived in houses that have not been maintained by the landlords. These renters deserve to live in clean, nice houses and by helping to paint that wall, you ensure they get that chance.
All three forms of assistance can help propel this project from local to national in the future. Please show your support for this project and follow us on Twitter at https://twitter.com/#!/kenzorenewal. Together, we can apply the lessons learned in Kensington Renewal to the entire country. Together, we can make a difference.
Hanso Group LLC. “19134 Data (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania).” Very Local Data . http://verylocaldata.com/19134 (accessed December 7, 2011).
Agent. “Philadelphia PA 19134 Homes for Sale & 19134 Real Estate – Zillow.” Zillow – Real Estate, Homes for Sale, Recent Sales, Apartment Rentals. http://www.zillow.com/homes/19134_rb/ (accessed December 7, 2011).
Benfield, Kain. “How Small Community Parks May Make Cities Safer, More Healthy.” Atlantic Journal, November 27, 2011. http://www.theatlantic.com/life/archive/2011/11/how-small-community-parks-may-make-cities-safer-more-healthy/249017/ (accessed December 8, 2011).
Branas, Charles, Rose Cheney, John MacDonald, Vicky Tam, Tara Jackson, and Thomas Ten Have. “A Difference-in-Difference Analysis of Health, Safety, and Greening Vacant Urban Space.” American Journal of Epidemiology 1 (2011). http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2011/11/11/aje.kwr273.full (accessed December 8, 2011).
“Kensington Renewal | Turning blighted houses into owner-occupied homes in Philadelphia.” Kensington Renewal | Turning blighted houses into owner-occupied homes in Philadelphia. http://kensingtonrenewal.com (accessed December 7, 2011).
Kubrin, Charis, and Gregory Squires. “The Impact of Capital on Crime: Does Access to Home Mortgage Money Reduce Crime Rates?.” The Real Cost of Prisons Project 1 (2011). http://realcostofprisons.org/pdfs/TTT_paper3.pdf (accessed December 8, 2011).
Ni, Jinlan, and Christopher Decker. “The Impact of Homeownership on Criminal Activity: Empirical Evidence from United States’ County Level Data.” Economic & Business Journal: Inquieries & Perspectives 2, no. 1 (2009). http://ecedweb.unomaha.edu/neba/journal/EBJIP2009NiDecker.pdf (accessed December 8, 2011).
“Philadelphia, PA 19134 Demographics Summary – CLRSearch.” Real Estate Search Engine – CLRSearch. http://www.clrsearch.com/Philadelphia_Demographics/PA/19134/Crime-Rat (accessed December 7, 2011).