A half million dollar makeover for a Philly block

Elander Liles (left) and her mother Glander Liles (in the window) and Stefanie Seldin (second from right), executive director of Rebuilding Together Philadelphia and Tess Donie (right), associate community engagement director of New Kensington Community Development Corporation, chat outside the Liles’ Kensington home.

Every other week someone knocks on Elander Liles’ door, asking if she wants to sell.

The 1900 block of East Somerset Street in Kensington isn’t gentrifying like the blocks farther south, but developers are already looking with a hungry eye at the old housing stock. And Liles’ house is not aging well.

Until recently, the upstairs bathroom leaked through her dining-room ceiling, creating a gaping hole. Her kitchen was falling apart; ancient cabinets hung off hinges, and the 30-year-old oven finally burned out. Her mother, who has breathing problems, was coughing more and Liles guessed it was due to the moldy carpets that blanketed the home.

“It was like everything was falling apart at once,” Liles, 42, said. “Every time I walked past the hole, I was looking up at it like, ‘I’ve gotta fix this. It’s just gonna get bigger. It’s gonna be more money, it’s going to cost so much money that I don’t have.’ ”

Liles is one of 33 homeowners on East Somerset Street who will each receive about $15,000 worth of home repairs through Rebuilding Together Philadelphia, a nonprofit focused on preserving aging homes and keeping their owners safe and healthy.

Contractors will work through the winter and on Oct. 13 and 14 a fleet of neighbors and volunteers, including those whose homes are being repaired, will strip moldy carpets, replace failing appliances and install railings and grab-bars for elderly residents.

At Liles’ house, the kitchen already has a new counter and oven, and a portion of the roof is being repaired. The bathroom shower, faucet, and floor have been redone, and the hole in the dining-room ceiling is patched.

Camera icon Julia Terruso/Staff Writer
Kevin Phillips, construction coordinator; and Matt Treat, program coordinator, suit up before removing lead paint from the dining room.

“The best way to preserve affordable housing is to keep homeowners in their homes and help them with the repairs they need,” said Stefanie Fleischer Seldin, executive director of Rebuilding Together Philadelphia.

Liles,  a medical assistant, is supporting herself and her 67-year-old mother, Glander, while putting her 21-year-old son, Tyrone, through college. By the time tuition, utilities, and the mortgage are paid, she has about $200 left each month. She tries to stay ahead of repairs, but sketchy contractors and well-intended friends have botched jobs and wasted money.

Mounds of illegally dumped trash spread across overgrown and grassy lots. Drug dealers and drug users do their business and get their fixes in plain sight. But it’s also a block with longtime homeowners, who sweep their sidewalks and look out for their neighbors.

In Philadelphia, where 90 percent of homes were built before 1980 and the poverty rate is at 26 percent, thousands of homeowners are looking for help on repairs. As the city faces a shortage of affordable housing, Seldin said, the need to keep low-income residents in their homes becomes even more critical.

A leak or crack often foreshadows a homeowner walking away from their property. The American Housing Survey found that 14 percent of homes with homeowners reporting holes in the roof were abandoned or demolished within five years. Twenty-three percent of homeowners reporting cracks in the walls and 19 percent with peeling paint also left their homes within five years.

“If you have repair issues piling up and someone knocks and asks you if you want to sell, it’s a much harder decision,” said Tess Donie, associate community engagement director for the New Kensington CDC, which partnered with Rebuilding Philadelphia and selected the block for the repairs.

Rebuilding Together does three “block builds” per year in North and West Philadelphia and now Kensington. The group seeks neighborhoods undergoing gentrification or that are distressed and then works with civic associations to pick a block to tackle. Of homeowners they have helped since their founding in 1988, nearly half earn less than $24,000 a year.

Camera icon Tom Gralish
Elander Liles poses in her Kensington kitchen with her new stove and renovated cabinets and countertops, and her cat Princess on October 2, 2017.

“It was a really hard decision for us because as we’ve been doing work in this neighborhood almost everywhere we go people say they need home repairs and there weren’t really many resources available,” Donie said.

The city’s home-repair program has a waiting list of more than 6,000 names dating back to June 2015. City Council recently approved $100 million to boost the program, but it’s still backlogged for between nine months and three years.

A primary mission of Rebuilding Together, which is funded by corporate and individual donations, is identifying unsafe living spaces.

In Liles’ home, staffers from Rebuilding Together discovered lead paint in the dining room and a carbon monoxide leak coming from an improperly installed hot water heater in the basement. Both are being fixed.

Liles says buying the home was one of her proudest achievements and she has no plans to leave. After all, the rowhouse holds two decades of memories. It’s where she raised her son, who will graduate from Cabrini College this year. His pictures from a babe in arms to cap and gown hang on the walls. A dean’s list certificate sits prominently on the mantel.

“We always rented when I was growing up,” Liles said.  “I wanted something that was mine. I didn’t want to give someone my hard-earned money to rent, because there’s no equity in that. And any day they could say, ‘You’re out, I want to sell the place.’ Here, I know I can stay.”