April 13, 2018

A Philadelphia nonprofit’s very direct way of tackling urban blight

Get inspired by these three stories of innovation and ingenuity across America

A Philadelphia nonprofit is investing in its community by buying derelict properties. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On Fridays, The Renewal Project shares three stories from around the country that highlight the innovative solutions individuals and organizations are creating in their communities. Want to share a story from your hometown? Email us at info@therenewalproject.com.

The Liberty Motel in Philadelphia had long been an obstacle to the surrounding neighborhood’s revitalization. With more than 100 prostitution arrests and 20 deaths on the motel’s premises in the span of a decade, local leaders knew something had to change. But instead of City Hall, it was the Lenfest Center, a local nonprofit, who took matters into its own hands: It bought the decrepit motel and surrounding properties for $1.5 million earlier this year. It’s true that most local nonprofits can’t afford to single-handedly buy up problem properties in their communities, Andy Frishkoff of the Local Initiatives Support Corp told Philly.com. But doing so is often the fastest way to effect positive community change—especially when municipal agencies are slow to respond. “It’s a fascinating and a great model if you’re able to do it,” he said.

The Lenfest Center isn’t the only local nonprofit dabbling in real estate. A nonprofit in North Carolina has goals of buying up dilapidated but historically significant homes in the area, and refashioning them as safe living spaces for female veterans suffering from substance abuse. The Pamlico Rose Institute for Sustainable Communities, founded in 2016 to promote community growth, is addressing a troubling national trend: Female veterans experience PTSD at higher rates than their male counterparts, which is often closely associated with substance abuse. The organization’s first project is called Rose Haven, a renovated home originally constructed by a woman of mixed race heritage named Martha Cogswell toward the end of the 19th century. The Pamlico Rose Institute’s efforts are helping preserve the local architecture while providing a sober and safe living space for returning veterans.

With a growing number of Americans leaving organized religion—Pew notes that almost 25 percent of people who grew up Christian or Muslim leave their religions—is there still a space for faith-based community organizations to make a big impact? A new nonprofit in Chicago believes that answer is a resounding yes. “We understand what it means to be genuinely relevant and resonate at a local level in people’s lives,” the Inner-City Muslim Action Network’s founder, Rami Nashashibi, told NPR. “We’re trying to celebrate the legacy of the spirit of a transformational, empowering, inspirational Islam that is not just constantly apologizing or having to explain itself.” The organization, among other things, advocates for criminal justice reform, treats uninsured patients in a clinic, and sells fresh produce for Chicago residents living in food deserts—basing it all on traditional Islamic principles of social justice.