Tonetta Graham is doing everything she can to share a very specific message to her fellow neighbors in Strawberry Mansion:
Hold your house — do not sell it!
“We’re right between two neighborhoods that are being gentrified,” said Graham, citing Brewerytown to the south and East Falls to the northwest. “We are feeling that rapid change coming”
A former teacher at Strawberry Mansion High School who’s lived in the area since she was a little girl, Graham is now executive director of the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation. She’s kept close eyes on changes in the neighborhood next to East Fairmount Park since helping found the CDC in 2006.
For the past 50 years, the story of development in Strawberry Mansion, which is now 94 percent African American, has been mostly one of decline. Once a rich Jewish enclave, the neighborhood fell into disrepair after white flight in the 1950s and ’60s, and median income plummeted. Over the past decade, city-funded affordable housing built by PHA has been considered the bright spot.
But recently, Strawberry Mansion has landed squarely in private developers’ sights. The “We Buy Houses” bandit signs that litter Brewerytown telephone poles like roosting vultures haven’t yet become ubiquitous, but they’re popping up with increasing frequency.
“Developers will show up and say, ‘Look, the city has your house assessed at $25,000, but we’ll give you $60,000,” Graham said. “And then they turn around and six months later sell it for $250,000.”
Longtime residents are acutely aware of the encroachment.
“I see people from New York coming,” said a man who goes by Big Dino. “I’ve lived here since I was 10 years old. Never seen anything like it.”
Dino was sitting with a friend by the name of Big Spider near 32nd and Norris streets, where residents had turned a vacant lot into a community garden, complete with benches, a flowering trellis and a charcoal grill. It was clean and full of greenery — in contrast to the lot full of short-dumped trash down the street.
Across the way was a long-vacant corner storefront with rusted sign hanging below boarded up windows. But a few doors down were several smartly renovated facades.
“It’s like this on every street,” Graham said. “A checkerboard.”
Throughout Strawberry Mansion, homes with disintegrating roofs and porches sit interspersed between refabbed structures that almost gleam by comparison. Some of these have been targeted for low- or middle-income families, like the brownstones that have been flipped into apartments by Pennrose Development, a for-profit company whose tagline is “Bricks & Mortar, Heart & Soul.”
Or the buildings renovated by the Quaker-related nonprofit Friends Rehabilitation Program, which entices buyers for its Strawberry Mansion Townhomes development by noting: “Now is your chance to buy a well-built, affordable and energy efficient home with lots of amenities — before getting priced out of this up and coming neighborhood.”
But many individuals who already own homes nearby feel left out.
Especially because there are also now plenty of properties in Strawberry Mansion being offered at market rate. “For Sale” signs strewn across the neighborhood bear the logos of high-end realtors like Berkshire Hathaway and Fox & Roach. Zillow rates the area as “warm,” with a “home value index” of $163k as of October 2017 (an 88 percent increase compared to 2007).
“Why are they getting money [to renovate] when we can’t?” Big Spider asked. “Ain’t that the plan, to make your house fall down? Then of course you’re gonna sell.”
Many residents struggle to unlock equity in their homes because of “tangled titles,” said longtime community activist Judith Robinson. President of the Strawberry Mansion Civic Association, Robinson is also a real estate professional.
“It’s often an estate issue,” she said, noting that many houses have been passed from generation to generation without official transfer of deed. If money is short after a loved one dies, she explained, the additional cost of paying the real estate taxes — a requirement for deed conveyance — is not going to take precedence.
And without a proper deed, it’s impossible to get a home improvement loan with a low interest rate, either from the bank or from the city. So homes that have been in a family for generations end up being at high risk of selling.
Robinson is hoping to use her expertise to host a series of free sessions in the neighborhood where she helps residents navigate the several municipal departments and fill out the paperwork required to untangle their titles, so they can take full advantage of the impending boom.
“We would like to see the economic development spill over into our own community,” she said. “The Civic Association is working to say hey, how can we fit into this? How can we be prepared for it?”
All of that is great, but won’t make a difference if the community ends up splintered and displaced, Graham pointed out.
“We can’t stop you from selling,” Graham said she often tells her neighbors. “But I can tell you this: If you do, you probably won’t be able to come back.”