In the months after Christine Soder's husband died in 2004, her two-story, two-bedroom house in Frankford suddenly became a home for five.
Not that the 1,160-square-foot space could really accommodate them all. But Soder's son was worried: His mother was grieving and suffering from a debilitating back injury that left her unable to work. So, he decided to move in, bringing his wife and two young kids with him.
Soder wanted her guests to be comfortable, she said, so she moved some walls to create bedrooms and spruced up. For her granddaughter, then 5, she painted a tiny room hot pink.
But slowly, holes and cracks began appearing on the rose-colored walls. Soder patched and spackled them one at a time, but the holes kept coming. Before long, the closet-sized room became an unintentional pink-and-white polka-dot display.
Eventually, the deterioration of Soder's walls spread to halls and bedrooms. Her roof began to leak. Her bathroom did, too. And over the winter, she feared, the uninsulated pipes in her basement crawl space were at risk of freezing.
Soder's home, built around 1940, she estimates, is similar to tens of thousands of aging homes across Philadelphia. Some are in better shape, others worse. But amid a period of stagnant wages, many homeowners — some suffering from bad credit — cannot afford the repairs they desperately need.
For a housing stock that contains more than 350,000 housing units built before 1950 — 54 percent of Philadelphia's housing supply — aging is a problem. If properties in need of repair are ignored, they can slip further into disrepair, worsening to the point of being declared "unsafe" by the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections (4,484 properties have such a designation), or, even worse, as "imminently dangerous" (169 properties). In many neighborhoods, such beat-up properties become attractive to developers, who raze them and build new.
Lucky for Soder, her house will not face such a fate.
After the Inquirer and Daily News documented Soder's plight in a January story about a new Philadelphia home-repair loan program aimed at helping low-income homeowners, Rachel Street, owner of Hestia Construction and founder of the realty firm Street Group, stepped forward to help. Her plan: Repair the most imminently hazardous parts of Soder's home — at no cost.
Throughout January and February, Street — along with Frank Masterson of Bucks County-based Ivey Air; Thomas Goodyear of Bridesburg-based Philadelphia Quality Roofing; and other members of her team — worked on the problems plaguing Soder's home. They insulated her basement crawl space and pipes, and added a new vent to better heat the back of Soder's home. They restored a long-water-damaged wall in Soder's living room and removed a stained curtain that hung to hide the mess. They patched and repaired holes that crept along walls and gave much of the house a fresh coat of gray paint. Philadelphia Quality Roofing, meanwhile, provided an entirely new rubber roof after discovering that her current one was "beyond repair."
The cost of repairs, if the trio had charged Soder: Close to $6,000.
"When they told me at first what they were going to do, I said, 'Oh, my God, thank you!' " said Soder, 66. "But after we finished talking, when I came upstairs and sat down on my bed and started thinking about it, I was pleased, I was overwhelmed, I was crying."
"Living paycheck to paycheck" and making an estimated $1,145 a month, mostly from Social Security, precluded Soder from making the needed repairs, she said. "I didn't think they had people like that anymore, that would do something like this."
Renovations such as the one Street did for Soder are crucial, housing advocates say — and for reasons beyond habitability. Philadelphia has one of the most affordable urban housing stocks in the nation, but it will not stay that way, those advocates say, if neglected homes continue to be demolished and replaced.
To be sure, removing blight is important for a neighborhood's growth, and some private developers and the Philadelphia Housing Authority are doing so to build affordable housing in its place. But, data show, building new housing — even affordable units — is more expensive and less efficient than simply preserving what is there.
The Philadelphia Housing Authority, for example, estimates that it cost nearly $4 million to build 12 affordable units at the Oakdale Apartments in Strawberry Mansion — equating to more than $330,000 per unit for homes ranging from 720 to 1,264 square feet.
In contrast, the Healthy Rowhouse Project, an initiative launched to raise better awareness about Philadelphia rowhouse conditions, estimates that nearly half of Philadelphia's deteriorating rowhouses could be repaired for $10,000 or less.
According to a spokeswoman for PHA, the agency's expenditures come, in part, from federal guidelines, which dictate, for example, construction wage rates. Other costs include environmental and historical review, design work, bond purchase, insurance, and permits.
"These issues are not unique to PHA but are systemic to any organization that receives federal funding," said Nichole Tillman, the PHA spokeswoman."There is an affordable housing crisis in Philadelphia and across this country. PHA is unable to solve this problem alone."
Thanks to developers such as Street, plus citywide and nonprofit programs, PHA does not have to.
To better assist homeowners in situations similar to Soder's, Philadelphia this summer is launching a low-interest loan program to give homeowners as much as $25,000 to fix their aging homes. The initiative, born out of legislation proposed by City Council President Darrell Clarke and Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, aims to give residents who have historically struggled to get loans due to poor credit a new chance at borrowing. Funds for the program come from an increase in Philadelphia's real estate transfer tax.
Two similar programs — called Mini-PHIL and PHIL-Plus, a collaboration between the Urban Affairs Coalition, the city, and local banks — were administered for more than a decade, providing more than $8.8 million in loans to nearly 500 households, according to a recent report. Those two programs were phased out last year.
The city also provides assistance through other home-repair programs, such as its Basic Systems Repair Program.
In January, Soder told the Inquirer and Daily News that she planned to apply for the city's new low-interest loan program to fix her property. Then, one day, her phone rang. Street was on the other end.
For Street, the pro bono work she offered was not entirely out of the ordinary. The 34-year-old Realtor and developer said she tries to complete at least one free renovation for a homeowner in need each month. Why? She was inspired last year when she filmed a pilot for a show called Philly Street Flippin', which premiered on HGTV and the DIY Network, chronicling her renovation of an East Passyunk property. (The show, now titled Philly Revival, was recently picked up by the DIY Network for six more episodes.)
Because of that exposure, Street said, she has met many construction professionals who have offered to work with her on projects. Why not use some of those, she thought, for a better cause?
"If everybody had a little time to donate, if we started a network and coordinated with other companies willing to help out, I think we can get a lot more done for cheaper," Street said. "For a contractor, there are economies of scale, and if we're buying materials for a bunch of jobs, it's no big deal to add an extra can of paint. … If [Soder] were paying someone to do all of that, though, she might not be able to."
"I don't think some [people] are aware of how [others] in our city are living," Street continued. "It can be pretty shocking — we are experiencing a lot of development … but we still have a lot of our housing stock that is very old and in very poor condition. There are people living in buildings that are not habitable, people without heat, without electric, with very dangerous wiring."
Fortunately for Soder, Street said, that is no longer the case.