Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Project Rehab, University City District, Philadelphia: Best Practice Neighborhood Stabilization Program

In 2020/2021, I wrote a five part series on creating a model framework for systematic neighborhood stabilization, suggesting the creation of a national program comparable to the Main Street commercial district revitalization program, but for neighborhoods/residential property, modeled after a program created in Pennsylvania, called Elm Street.

-- "The need for a "national" neighborhood stabilization program comparable to the Main Street program for commercial districts: Part I (Overall)"
-- "To be successful, local neighborhood stabilization programs need a packaged set of robust remedies: Part 2"
-- "Creating 'community safety partnership neighborhood management programs as a management and mitigation strategy for public nuisance programs: Part 3 (like homeless shelters)"
-- "A case in Gloucester, Massachusetts as an illustration of the need for systematic neighborhood monitoring and stabilization initiatives: Part 4 (the Curcuru Family)"
-- "Local neighborhood stabilization programs: Part 5 | Adding energy conservation programs, with the PUSH Buffalo Green Development Zone as a model," 2021 

The major point is the framework and ability to implement, but that programs need complementary remedies to be able to act, and organized initiative so that they are able to implement and effect change.

Photo from the first Project Rehab project, in 2012.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has an article, "A ‘Mr. Fixit’ helps West Philly residents and businesses cut through red tape," about the Project Rehab initiative of the University City District business improvement district.  It focuses on addressing problem properties--distressed, vacant, etc.--as a way to "cure nuisances" by assisting the property owner, rather than seizing or demolishing buildings.

It's not a huge program, they've addressed about 5 properties per year since the program's creation in 2011.  That demonstrates not failure, but how time consuming the process can be.

From the website:

While Project Rehab responds to the unique needs of each property owner, the core steps of every project are the same. 

 1. Property Monitoring and Identification UCD uses a variety of methods to monitor problem properties in the district. Staff conduct physical surveys to identify distressed real estate, and seek input from community and civic associations as well as concerned community members. Staff also work closely with the City, making use of information and investigations gathered by the Department of Licenses and Inspections. 

2. Owner Identification Project Rehab then uses a variety of resources to clarify property ownership, which can be challenging to unravel. Staff conducts online research and interviews community organizations, neighbors, and owners’ family members. Project Rehab also partners with government offices such as the Philadelphia Revenue Department, the Records and Deeds Office, the Register of Wills, and Licenses and Inspections to obtain information on owners and their properties. 

3. Defining the Course of Action Once we establish contact with an owner, Project Rehab and the owner develop a course of action for the property, which often entails renovation for eventual personal use, sale, or rental/leasing. Whatever the desired outcome, UCD provides a range of free supports and services to help the owner achieve their goals: 

Financing: Working in partnership with local banking institutions, UCD drafts and develops financing packages for owners who want to finance the rehabilitation of the property. 

Rehabilitation: UCD has developed a list of licensed contractors who are experienced with the rehabilitation of distressed properties. Staff provide support and knowledge to owners throughout the process, helping to obtain all required permits, licenses and inspections. '

Sale: UCD has built a network of realtors who support those owners who decide to sell their property. Zoning: UCD connects owners with local attorneys and community organizations to work through the zoning process. 

Conservatorship: Project Rehab works with 501-4C not-for-profits to utilize Pennsylvania legislation known as the Act 135 Conservatorship Act to redevelop distressed properties with no known owners. 

Along the way, the Project Rehab team is able to deploy outside the box strategies to help each owner achieve their rehabilitation goals, regardless of the issue surrounding the real estate. From helping a family open an estate to untangling title issues to ensuring that owners are well represented while seeking equity development partners, Project Rehab is a guide and support for property owners.


The UCD is an association so to speak, not a typical business improvement district where property owners in the district are taxed a small amount on the assessed value of the property. Instead property owners in the district pay voluntary amounts.

-- "In University City, a model for a [neighborhood improvement district]," Philadelphia Daily News, 2012

It was pointed out to me that this wasn't altruistic, but a strategy by the nonprofit property owners--University of Philadelphia, Drexel University, Amtrak, etc.--to ward off the idea of taxing nonprofit property owners as a way to generate tax revenues for cities.  Some institutions pay what are called PILOTs, or payments in lieu of taxes.  

--"Proposal to eliminate nonprofit property tax exclusion in Maine," 2015

But some cities, which have significant swathes of property off the tax rolls because of the concentration of nonprofit institutions within their borders, look to tax nonprofits too.  (Note that Ontario doesn't have the kind of tax exemption system we do in the US.  Even the provincial government and nonprofits pay property taxes.)

Separately, Pittsburgh is looking for PILOTs as a way to fund infrastructure improvements ("Pittsburgh City Council proposal would turn to nonprofits for infrastructure funding," Pittsburgh Tribune-Review).  

PILOTs are an alternative to an earlier proposal to impose a 1% tax on tuition and medical bills--the city has two major hospital systems and at least two large universities, Carnegie-Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh ("Pittsburgh Councilman Ricky Burgess proposes 1% tax on higher-ed students, medical patients," PTR).

That built on similar proposals, at least for a capitation tax on students, in Providence, Rhode Island.  Providence College was disfavorable ("Student Fee Would Break Bond of Trust").

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At 4:57 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

"Ricky Burgess: It's time for Pittsburgh nonprofits to pay their fair share"


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