As hundreds of Eastwick homes sink and become unsafe, residents look for help

Milton Dunham in front of a house next to his in the 6900 block of Grosbeak Place, which is unoccupied and collapsing into his home, causing structural damage.

When rain pounds down and the wind picks up on Grosbeak Place, a quiet cul-de-sac in Southwest Philadelphia, residents can only pray that their homes remain standing.

The cracking of interior and exterior walls and the shifting of the ground has worsened in recent years.

"I hear squeaks and I don't know if this is it or not," Milton Dunham said. His home on the 6900 block of Grosbeak Place is one of 285 in Eastwick built on unstable silt dredged from the Schuylkill.

The homes on Grosbeak have become increasingly unsafe and unstable over time. Last year, the Redevelopment Authority purchased the house next to Dunham's for $115,000, its market value, to demolish it. The reason given was subsidence, the gradual sinking of land.

The houses have slowly been sinking since they were built in the 1960s as part of the Redevelopment Authority's Eastwick urban renewal project.

"To fix those houses would be a monumental effort. Many are not fixable," said David Perri, commissioner for the city Department of Licenses and Inspections. "It's really tragic what's happened."

Grosbeak residents are now asking that the city buy them out, too, something that the Kenney administration is not yet considering.

Perri surveyed some of the homes earlier this year and is seeking a more extensive engineering study to be performed of the area. City officials will meet with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers this month to discuss the problem on Grosbeak and surrounding streets, Deputy Managing Director Brian Abernathy said.

"Right now, we're gathering information and working to understand the issue and then will develop a plan to address it," Abernathy said.

This is not the first time the city has confronted the issue. In the 1980s, hundreds of homes in the Logan Triangle in North Philadelphia were found to be sinking due to unsteady foundations of ash and cinder fill. Then there were sinking homes in Wissinoming, Roxborough, and Feltonville. Nearly 1,000 homes were demolished and tens of millions in public money was paid to compensate residents.

Perri said the homes in the Grosbeak area are experiencing a similar situation to the Logan Triangle homes.

"It's the same fineness of soil. . . . Same kind of phenomenon where, over time, that soil is washed away," he said, leaving a gap between the first floor of the home and the land below, Perri said. Some of the homes on Grosbeak have sunk 12 inches.

Urban renewal

In the late 1950s and early '60s, the Redevelopment Authority acquired more than 2,000 acres in Eastwick and hired Reynolds Metal Company and Korman Corp. to develop the area. The controversial project displaced thousands of residents. It was considered the largest urban renewal project in the country.

Norma Santos moved to a corner home at the end of Grosbeak in 1976. She recalled that when she moved to the neighborhood, the homes were being advertised as having a garage and rec room.

Dunham, his wife, and two young daughters moved to their Grosbeak home in 1974. Shortly afterward, Dunham had to hire a plumber to fix pipes underneath the house. Only now does he think that was an early warning.

Cracks appeared in the back wall in the 1990s. Neighbors started noticing the same fractures.

In 2001, Tyrone Beverly, who lives two streets down on the 6800 block of Lindbergh Boulevard, had L&I come out to address what the residents had realized was a subsidence problem. One of those inspectors was Perri.

"The floors had settled six inches or so," Perri recalled. "They had started noticing cracks."

Two of the homes on Beverly's block were demolished and four thick cement pillars were placed on the end home on that block as a stabilizer.

'Significant settlement'

The homes on Lindbergh Boulevard have continued to deteriorate with cracks on many of the facades. So have the ones on Grosbeak.

"The conditions have gotten noticeably worse since 2000," Perri said.

Most of the homes would be defined as "unsafe," one level below imminently dangerous, because of the broken first floor slabs and "significant settlement," Perri said. L&I's database shows only one home as being "unsafe." The rest have no violations, despite the serious conditions of many of the homes.

Perri said it's a "delicate situation" to label a home as imminently dangerous because if they do, the homeowner would most likely be evacuated.

"It's almost damned if you do, damned if you don't."

Meanwhile, residents just want to feel safe in their homes. Most of the residents are seniors, many of whom care for their grandchildren.

Dunham's 13-year-old granddaughter will be spending the summer at his home. He worries about the house next door - the one bought by the Redevelopment Authority - caving into his.

"At night, you can hear the house cracking. . . . You wonder, 'Should I get up and get out before it falls?,' " said Dunham, 75, a former baker and cook. "It's just a bad way to live. You can't really feel safe."

On the other side of Dunham lives Ann Rush.

Shortly after moving into what seemed like an ideal home on a quiet street in 2009, Rush found raw sewage underneath the carpet of her basement - an effect of the subsidence. A year later, she started noticing cracks in the walls.

"These have been the worst seven years of my life," said Rush, 56.

Rush, who works at a local ShopRite and is on government assistance, said she just doesn't have the money to move elsewhere.

Some of her neighbors have simply abandoned their homes. Others, such as Tony McCloud, who lives in one of the three single homes on the 6900 block of Grosbeak, are hoping that the government offers them a buyout.

McCloud points to the one-inch gap between the wall and floor near the entrance of his home. His two youngest of five children ages 7 through 20 were playing on the other side of the separated wall.

"What are they waiting for? For someone to die?," McCloud said of elected officials taking action.

"We go to bed and say a prayer, 'Lord help us,' " he said.

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