COMM-ORG Papers 2004

Research for Democracy:

Linking Community Organizing and Research to Leverage Blight Policy


Anne B. Shlay and Gordon Whitman

Temple University


The Blight Problem
Philadelphia Blight Politics
Research for Democracy
The Research:  Blight-Free Philadelphia
          Measuring Abandonment
          The Distribution of Abandonment
          Causes of Abandonment
          The Influence of Abandonment on Residential Sales Prices
Policy Making
          1999 Mayoral Campaign
          A New City Administration
          The Neighborhood Transformation Initiative
          Blight Free Philadelphia
About the Authors


The premise of urban political economy is that urban patterns are not inevitable but can be altered with change in institutional and power arrangements.  Yet actually shifting power from one group to another is easier said than done.  Urban political economy is better at theorizing and documenting the structure of political dominance than showing how it can be modified.  How may community organizations acquire leverage that permits them to alter political decision making around space and urban development? This paper describes a collaboration between a city-wide faith based coalition and a university public policy research center designed to begin to alter the politics around policy decisions on blight in Philadelphia.  Called “Research for Democracy,” this collaboration represents the coupling of research and organizing sophistication that permitted the structuring of research as part of community organizing and vice versa.  Research showing the distribution, causes and influences of abandonment was used to show the pervasiveness of blight and its pernicious effects on all Philadelphia neighborhoods, not solely neighborhoods with concentrated abandonment.  As a consequence, Philadelphia’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative was broadened to include money for neighborhood stabilization, acquisition and improvements, not solely demolition as originally defined.  This paper shows how a regularized process of research tied symbiotically to organizing can be a successful tool for shifting power relationships.


Throughout the last two decades of the twentieth century, the most dominant discussion in urban scholarship has focused on the role of power, politics and institutions in shaping urban development, and in particular, fostering uneven development (Molotch, 1976; Logan and Moloch, 1987; Feagin, 1998; Dreier, Mollenkopf and Swanstrom, 2001; Squires, 1994; Judd and Swanstrom, 1998).  Are neighborhood decline, gentrification and suburban sprawl the unavoidable outcome of the workings of market forces?  Or are those market forces the product of political maneuvering and institutional decision making within powerful organizations?  The premise of urban political economy is that urban patterns are not inevitable but can be altered with change in institutional and power arrangements (Squires, 2003). 

Yet actually shifting power from one group to another is easier said than done.  Urban political economy is better at theorizing and documenting the structure of political dominance than showing how it can be modified. 

The community reinvestment movement is one of the best examples of how people were able to alter the decisions of large and powerful banking institutions (Shlay, 1989; Squires, 2001).  The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 (CRA) permits community groups to challenge lenders from being granted regulatory permission to merge with or acquire another institution or to open a bank branch.  Community groups used this to leverage billions of dollars of agreements for lenders to put more money in urban, poor and minority communities. 

The community reinvestment movement, however, may be as much an anomaly as a prototype for how power may be wielded by community organizations.  The existence of federal legislation (CRA), the availability of lending data from the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (1975), the merger mania of the 1980s, and decreased federal assistance for urban development created the tools and opportunities that engineered the movement’s success (Shlay, 1999).  One outcome is that it established a vast new area of banking regulation.  But it may have also led to a conflation of low income housing policy into a push for low income homeownership as well as the rise of a subprime lending industry which many view as predatory (Engel and McCoy, 2002a; Engel and McCoy, 2002b).  The lasting political, economic and housing outcomes from this movement may not be known for some time.

How may community organizations acquire leverage that permits them to alter political decision-making around space and urban development?   What methods may disenfranchised communities use to get a seat at the policy making table around housing and community development?  How can community-based organizations gain authentic power over things that matter, not simply shift symbolic politics?  This paper addresses these questions?

This paper describes a collaboration designed to begin to alter the politics around policy decisions on blight in Philadelphia.  Called “Research for Democracy,” this collaboration represents the coupling of research and organizing sophistication that permits the structuring of research as part of community organizing and vice versa.  Research is used by leaders to organize.  But community organizing also defines the research agenda.  Research for Democracy is an attempt to develop a symbiotic relationship between research, organizing and public policy. 

This paper has several parts.  The first part examines research on blight and its conceptualization of the causes and consequences of blight and housing abandonment. The second part outlines the political context for blight policy in Philadelphia.  The third part describes the Research for Democracy initiative, the organizations and leaders involved in it, and its conceptualization of the research and organizing effort.  The fourth part presents the research findings and discusses how it was used to shape policy recommendations.  The final part discusses the political outcomes from this effort, lessons learned, and the implications for research, policy and organizing.

The Blight Problem

Blight is not a new concept or problem.    Defining and remedying blight, however, remains controversial.  Problems of housing abandonment and blight were recognized in a variety of federal housing and urban renewal initiatives beginning after World War II.  Blight provided both a technical legal rationale for land clearance, at the same time that it came to signify a constellation of problems associated with low-income urban communities. Abandoned housing has been central to understanding blight, both because important policy issues have revolved around demolition of vacant structures and because the dynamics of abandonment have long represented an enormous challenge for many urban housing markets.

Urban renewal was intended to target blighted areas for redevelopment.  But other federal policies fueled blight by creating transportation and lending policies that intensified the rate of suburbanization and therefore, reduced demand for housing in urban markets (Jackson, 1985; Downs, 1976; 1995).  Racial discrimination, redlining and FHA underwriting scandals then escalated problems of abandonment (Massey and Denton, 1993; Squires, 1994; Squires and O’Connor, 2001; Bradford, 1979).

Yet policy makers ignored the political and institutional origins of blight.   (Metzger, 2000).  By focusing on the inevitability of alleged neighborhood life cycles, housing abandonment became viewed as a normal market outcome.  Moreover, abandonment developed as a phenomenon associated with neighborhoods housing racial and ethnic minorities.  Viewing abandonment as “normal” and certain areas as blighted became even more acceptable ideologically because of racist associations of abandonment with neighborhoods of color (Bradford, 1979; Jackson, 1985).  Inevitably blight and abandonment were considered a normal market response to neighborhood racial change (Metzger, 2000).

The reigning perspective also viewed abandonment as the end stage of a process of neighborhood decline, not a cause of decline per se (Levin et al. 1976). Yet Michael Greenberg (1999) shows that the presence of abandonment and other negative conditions viewed as blight (including crime) seriously undermines perceptions of neighborhood quality, making blight more important to neighborhood quality than other seemingly important neighborhood amenities such as schools, parks and transportation.  In this understanding, blight can include trash on the street, broken car windows, higher crime rates, deteriorating building facades and nuisance businesses, as well as abandoned houses, all conditions that undermine demand and destabilize neighborhoods.  Perceptions about the onset of these conditions can initiate a cycle of neighborhood decline and the failure to address physical conditions associated with blight may undermine neighborhood improvement efforts.

Early conceptualizations of abandonment generally focused on landlord disinvestment and the eventual abandonment of property as economically rational decisions to defer maintenance when rental-housing profitability declined (Sternlieb, 1966; Sternlieb and Burchall, 1973).  But this perspective made landlords the blight scapegoat while overlooking the complexity of the dynamics that lead to abandonment.  Homeowners are also implicated in the spread of blight when they cannot afford to invest in their homes, when property values are over-assessed for tax purposes, or when homes are not probated in the event of the homeowner’s death. 

A myriad of decisions, large and small, create the opportunity for housing abandonment (Bartelt and Leon, 1986).  Macro structural forces like suburbanization and deindustrialization create the context for blight to occur (Bartelt, 1997; Bond, 1986, Dear, 1975).  But the precipitant causes are more micro in scope (Scafidi et. al, 1998; Arsen, 1992).  If the introduction of blight is a cause of accelerated abandonment, then preventing abandonment altogether would appear to be an appropriate focus for investigation (Accordino and Johnson, 2000).  Moreover, forces at the national or regional level cannot explain the variation in the distribution of abandonment and why some neighborhoods have more blight than others. 

Several issues are important to understanding housing abandonment and neighborhood blight.  First, abandonment should be viewed as a product of a combination of individual and institutional decisions that create the spatial, political and economic context in which abandonment occurs (Bartelt, 1997; Bond, 1986, Dear, 1975; Galster, 1987).  Blight is both a spontaneous market outcome as well as an outcome of political and economic institutions acting in ways that exacerbate blight (Meltzer, 2000).  Second, investigations of blight need to acknowledge that blight is not an all or nothing phenomenon but a process that varies considerably in degree and pace (Accordino and Johnson, 2000; Hiller et. al, 2003; Cohen, 2001).  Why some neighborhoods deteriorate more or faster than others is an important question.  Third, blight is not simply a market outcome; it is itself a market force (Burchell and Listokin, 1981; Greenberg, 1999).  Just as reinvestment can support neighborhood housing markets, disinvestment weakens them (Squires, 1994; Logan and Moloch, 1987).  Abandonment, the physical manifestation of a cycle of disinvestment, accelerates blight construction and further weakening of the local housing markets.   Finally, although blight is real in its physical manifestations and its social, economic and political consequences, blight is a social construct – it is simply an idea.  Therefore, what constitutes a blighted community is inherently subjective and subject to social negotiation.  As will be seen, it is the political negotiations around the definition of blight that became the stuff of Philadelphia blight politics. 

Philadelphia Blight Politics

Future mayor John Street faced a fierce contest with four other candidates in the 1999 mayoral democratic primary.  As part of his campaign, he proposed a $250 million program for a “blight removal program” (Burton, 1999).  Putting neighborhood improvement at the center of his campaign made sense for a man who began public life as a housing activist, represented some of the poorest neighborhoods for 20 years in City Council and had spent the last eight supporting a mayor who had focused public resources on reviving the city’s central business district.  Turning city resources toward blighted neighborhoods spoke to Street’s political base – poor and working class African-American and Latino residents.  It also represented one piece of a puzzle (along with two new sports stadiums) that helped cement a critical political alliance with the predominantly white building trades unions, who would help build new housing on cleared land.

During the primary and general election, attacking blight provided a powerful tool for Street to connect with residents in different neighborhoods in the city who felt neglected by city government.  When Street first announced his $250 million bond program during the primary, he stood in the middle of a new housing development that had been built in a once-heavily blighted section of lower North Philadelphia (Burton, 1999).   Later, he reminded voters of his blight plan during a bitter a tight general election campaign by using a rented backhoe to clear debris from a vacant lot in Juniata, a predominantly white working class row house neighborhood (Davies, 1999). 

Fighting blight per se was not a new idea for Street or novel to Philadelphia.  Fifteen years earlier, Street called for a $550 million program for financing low cost mortgages for families to rehabilitate housing.  The intent of his “vacant property mortgage rehabilitation program” was to reclaim some of the then 15,000 abandoned homes in Philadelphia (Loeb, 1985).  In this context, fighting blight became defined as providing potential homeowners with affordable mortgages that would permit them to fix up the properties.

This homeownership rehab element of the program was a complement to an anti blight program initiated the same year – a $35 million program to rehabilitate 1200 rental properties (Loeb, 1985).  And in 1986, $350 million in bonds were sold to rehab abandoned apartment buildings and to provide affordable housing for low- and moderate income families (Ferrick, 1989).  This “Housing Opportunities Program” also intended to fight blight by fixing up abandoned apartment buildings. 

Street’s proposed program to fight blight with rehab coupled with homeownership never got off the ground.  The accomplishments from the anti blight initiatives directed at rental housing also proved to be less than promising.  The $35 million program contributed to the rehabilitation of few buildings (Sutton, 1987 March 4).  The $350 program also accomplished far less than expected.  It renovated only 308 building, far less than the 6,000 planned (Davies, 2002).  The city then bought back $180 million of bonds from the original investors. 

Did these programs disappoint because of unrealistic expectations, problems in implementation, corruption, a weak market for rental property, mismanagement and general ineptness, faulty program design or all of the above?  The record is not clear.  When John Street, however, decided to run for mayor in 1999, the proposal for fighting blight was not about housing rehab but about housing demolition.  His campaign promise was to raise $250 million through the sale of bonds to clear land for eventual development (Burton, 1999).

Within several months of becoming mayor (January, 2001) Street reported that he would “unveil a comprehensive neighborhood transformation initiative that will include policies and programs designed to preserve and restore neighborhood vitality in the face of five decades of profound economic and social change” (Neighborhood Transformation Initiative Website, 2003).  He announced his plan on April 18, 2001 and submitted a proposed ordinance for city council approval to authorize the bond sales shortly thereafter.  Passage, however, was delayed for eight months.  This period of time and the activities occurring within it are the subject of this paper.

The Street campaign made neighborhood blight its central issue, an issue that resonated well with voters.  Blight, however, represented a metaphor for everything wrong in people’s neighborhoods – crime, debris, abandonment, vacant cars, crumbling side walks, etc. For the Street campaign, blight became its ultimate rhetorical issue; being for neighborhoods meant being anti-blight. 

Yet as a political tool, the Street administration viewed blight as more narrowly circumscribed.  Blight represented abandoned housing, but not all abandoned housing.  Blight became linked to concentrated abandonment and ultimately to clearance of large parcels for large scale development.  As a research and organizing effort, Research for Democracy’s task was to set up alternative definitions of the blight problem. 

Research For Democracy

With funding from two major local foundations, Temple University Center for Public Policy (CPP) and the Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project (EPOP) jointly launched the Research for Democracy project in September, 2000.  With the goal of addressing the declining resources and population in Philadelphia, the project was designed to conduct research activities that would support organizing activities designed to increase investment and improve the quality of life and education Philadelphia neighborhoods.

EPOP is a multi-cultural organization made up of faith institutions, schools, and neighborhood institutions that are committed to building strong relationships based on a vision of social justice for all people.  A member of a national network of faith-based organizations called PICO A Network of Faith-Based Community Organizations, EPOP uses an institutional organizing model that brings people together to develop leadership skills and address neighborhood problems through existing institutions.  In this, it is part of broader trend in community organizing which has seen a rapid increase in faith-based community organizing efforts across the United States over the past decade and the emergence of these groups as dominant civic organizations in a number of cities (Wood 2002; Warren 2001;Warren and Wood, 2001). 

EPOP and other similar faith-based community organizations are structured through leadership teams at each member institution that work on neighborhood issues and federated committees that work on broader policy issues at a city-wide, and in some cases at a state and national level.  They also see research as an integral part of developing community leaders, who often conduct what a referred to as research actions with public officials.  The centrality of research to EPOP’s organizing process and its two-tier structure were both important to shaping how the organization approached blight and its relationship with Temple University.

Originally, three churches, an adult education center for women and a parent association founded EPOP in 1993 to develop a new voice around neighborhood issues in Philadelphia.  EPOP central principles rely on the faith of power and self interest in organizing for change.  Over the next five years the organization focused almost exclusively on local neighborhood organizing in Eastern Philadelphia, winning repairs to playgrounds, getting city government to board up vacant houses, improving reading levels of neighborhood schools and creating community policing programs.   Often leaders in the organization found that their successes depended on having built a good relationship with a police captain or school principal.  The organization increasingly came to realize that it needed to move from being the squeaky wheel that brought resources into a particular neighborhood to an organization that could influence public policy at a citywide level if it wanted to significantly change the direction of its neighborhoods. 

By 1998, EPOP had become a potent political force in Philadelphia.  It negotiated a CRA agreement with First Union Bank when it purchased Philadelphia’s largest and last locally controlled lender, CoreStates National Bank.  In the 1999 mayor’s race, it sponsored two “Neighborhoods First Convention” attended by 2000 people, including both mayoral candidates, and was one of the largest events of the campaign.  It created a plan for ridding Philadelphia of thousands of abandoned automobiles and Mayor Street adopted this plan shortly after his inauguration. EPOP frequently held public actions in churches attended by 200 to 800 people at any given event.  At these public actions, public officials were presented with a set of concrete demands by EPOP leaders on the range of issues on which it organized.[1]  Public officials were asked to publicly agree or disagree to specific demands and be publicly accountable for any commitments they made.  In 2000, EPOP changed its name from the Eastern Philadelphia to the Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project to reflect its evolution from a group working in one part of the city to a citywide organization with institutional members in a diversity of neighborhoods across Philadelphia.

The Center for Public Policy is an applied research organization at Temple University that focuses on welfare policy, poverty, crime, housing, community economic development, child care and homelessness. It views community partnerships as central to its work and has often worked on research projects for community-based organizations.   

EPOP had successfully worked with CPP on several initiatives.  CPP helped EPOP to develop two reports on First Union Bank’s lending practices in Philadelphia – reports which helped to support organizing activities that resulted in a community reinvestment agreement between EPOP and the bank.  The following year in 1999 it helped the organization design and analyze a survey for a study of Operation Sunrise, a program that sought to improve city services and policy protection in an area where EPOP worked (EPOP, 1999).

These experiences validated several ideas that underscore the Research for Democracy collaboration.  First, research developed in a political organizing context is more likely to address questions of relevance for communities.  Second, community leaders can use research to support and provide credibility for policy demands and to provide sustain and accelerate organizing efforts.  Third, understanding research and research methods are important ingredient for tools for community leadership development.  Fourth, it is possible to conduct rigorous, methodologically sophisticated and objective research within a political organizing context.

Issues to be addressed by Research for Democracy came out of EPOP’s organizing efforts.  With Mayor Street poised to initiate anti-blight policy but several months away from providing any specifics on this policy, the first issue chosen was neighborhood blight and abandonment.  A blight research team was formed and 15 EPOP leaders began meeting regularly with CPP researchers to learn research methods and to develop a research design.  EPOP leaders interviewed neighbors and fellow church members to develop a set of research questions.  These questions focused on the extent of blight in the Philadelphia, underlying causes of housing abandonment, the cost of abandonment, and best practices from other cities. 

The Research:  Blight Free Philadelphia

The research was designed to answer specific questions that could be used to inform policy recommendations.  Areas to investigate included the distribution of abandonment, the economic effects of abandonment, causes of abandonment, and the adequacy of the public infrastructure for addressing abandonment.

To address these issues, data were compiled on the Philadelphia housing market.  The types of data by data source are shown in Table 1

            Vacant Property Survey

Until 1988, the Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) conducted vacant property surveys of the entire city every 12 to 18 months.  The survey work was halted 1988 and resumed in 1999.  Housing inspectors made visual inspections of the outside of properties to determine vacancy status.  The data used in this research are from the 1984 and 2000-2001 vacant property surveys.[2] 

            City Property Records

Philadelphia’s Board of Revision of Taxes maintains records on property ownership.  These records provide detailed information on property including structural characteristics and ownership status by property address. 

            Real Estate Tax Records

The Philadelphia Revenue Department maintains records on tax liability and amounts.  These records provide addresses of properties that are tax delinquent. 

            Sheriff Sales Records

The Philadelphia Sheriff Department sells delinquent property at auction.  These records provide the addresses of properties sold in Sheriff Sales for both delinquent taxes and mortgage foreclosure.

            Philadelphia Housing Program Records

Philadelphia has several programs design to encourage investment and property maintenance.  The Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation provides grants for housing repair through its Basic Systems Repair Program.  The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority provides grants for housing rehabilitation as part of its Housing Rehabilitation Program. The Philadelphia Office of Housing and Community Development provides cash grants for income eligible home purchasers to subsidize settlement costs as part of its Settlement Grant Program.  These records provide the addresses of properties participating in these programs. 

            Lending Records

Lending data are available as part of the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA).  HMDA data are the dispositions of residential loan applications and contain information on loan type (conventional, government insured, sub prime, home purchase, home improvement, multifamily); race, gender and income of the applicant; and the census tract location of the property. 

            Structure Fire Records

The Philadelphia Fire Department maintains records on fires in housing structures.  These records provide the addresses of properties that experienced a fire.

            Housing and Population Data

The U.S. Bureau of the Census collected housing and population data as part of the decennial census.  Census tract data were used for the years 1990 and 2000. 

Measuring Abandonment

The term blight was introduced into the federal policy lexicon with the Housing Act of 1949 (Fainstein, 1998).  As part of this legislation, neighborhoods deemed to be blighted areas, qualified for urban renewal funding.  The legislation, however, did not specifically define blight, largely leaving it up to local discretion.

Blight is a multidimensional condition that involves a neighborhood’s overall pattern of economic decline.  Housing abandonment is the most visible aspect of blight.  But other blight dimensions include the presence of trash, graffiti, abandoned automobiles, dilapidated public facilities, and crime.  Moreover, neighborhoods have varying degrees of blight, heightening the importance of early intervention or blight prevention (Klemanski and Smith, 1998). Housing abandonment is arguably the most important feature of blight because of the large negative externalities it creates.

Measuring abandonment is complicated because it is difficult to distinguish between vacant property for which responsible ownership exists from vacant property that has been discarded by the owner.  Since housing is located on a physical space, it cannot be thrown away like other commodities.  In addition, it is unclear where the phenomenon of abandonment actually begins (Bartelt, 1998).  Abandonment is both a process (disinvesting from property) as well as an outcome (a property for which no one assumes responsibility).  When a property is becoming abandoned (the process) or is definitively abandoned (the outcome) is difficult to discern. The impact of a property on other properties is dependent not only on its physical condition or ownership status, but also on perceptions about the future of the property and the neighborhood context in which it is located.  Therefore, counting abandonment is fraught with methodological difficulties (Hiller et al., 2003; Cohen, 2001).

The U.S. Census distinguishes between vacant housing that is either for sale or rent or set aside for seasonable use, from “other vacant housing”.  Other vacant housing represents housing units that are not on the market (to be sold or rented) and are not being held for seasonable use (such as a summer vacation home), but are in a condition to protect an occupant from the elements (i.e., has a roof and windows).  This measure, therefore, may be presumed to include abandoned housing although it may also include vacant, non-seasonal property that is not on the market.  It does not, however, include abandoned commercial property, abandoned vacant land, or abandoned shells that were once houses

The L&I vacant property survey determined property vacancy by instructing inspectors to visually determine occupancy status from visually inspecting property from the outside.  The L&I vacancy survey counted vacant structures (residential and commercial) and vacant land.  Like the census measure of other vacant housing, this measure may be presumed to include abandoned housing.  It does not account, however, for legal ownership status of the property so it also may include vacant property that has not been abandoned.

A third measure of abandonment accounts for additional property characteristics that typically accompany abandonment – namely indicators of disinvestment.  These include tax delinquency status and ownership.  A house is more likely to be abandoned if in addition to being vacant, it is tax delinquent because owners who abandon their property are unlikely to pay taxes.  Public, as opposed to private, ownership of vacant property is also a good indicator of abandonment because it can be assumed that the public sector took ownership of property when it was deserted by its private owner.

Table 2 presents counts of abandonment in Philadelphia for all three measures.  Clearly, determining the magnitude of abandoned property in Philadelphia depends on the measure used, in part because they are measuring different things.  The measure counting all vacant properties produced the largest number of abandoned properties because, unlike the other measures, it also includes vacant land and commercial property (N= 59,737).  Including only property that is either tax delinquent or publicly owned substantially reduced the number of abandoned properties (N=44,799).

The L&I measure of vacant residential property and the U.S. Census measure of other vacant housing are similarly defined.  Yet the numbers vary significantly.  The census measure indicates that there were 37,508 vacant residential properties in 2000.  The L&I measure indicates that there were 26,090 vacant residential properties in that year. Accounting for tax delinquency and public ownership reduces the L&I count of abandoned residential structures to 19,161.

Although the numbers vary substantially, they all demonstrate the large amount of abandonment in Philadelphia in 2000.  Measures of vacancy ranged from a high of just under 60,000 to a low of just over 19,000.  

Regardless of the wide range in the number of abandoned properties, Table 3 suggests that they are all measuring essentially the same phenomena —abandonment and blight.  The numbers co-vary together.  Table 2 shows the correlations among these measures. The lowest correlation (.74) is between the L&I total vacant measure (which includes commercial property and vacant land) and the census other vacant housing (which includes only housing).  The other correlation coefficients are .8 or above and most are over .9. 

From a measurement perspective, this is important.  Absolute counts of abandonment may vary across census tracts.  Yet the relative magnitude of abandonment among census tracts based on these measures is quite similar.  Census tracts with more abandonment on one measure have more abandonment on another

The Distribution of Abandonment

A policy response to a problem should correspond with how the problem is conceived as well as its magnitude. Except in a few parts of neighborhoods, EPOP members’ experience of blight was not one of devastation but of constant and incipient assaults.  Blight conceptualized as devastation connoted problems of wholesale abandonment of communities.  Blight, however, as a more incipient phenomenon suggested something more routine to Philadelphia neighborhood life, where the vast majority of households live in tightly compacted row houses.  This led to questioning the distribution of blight.  Did abandonment become concentrated in a few neighborhoods making it a specific and devastating problem for a few communities?  Or was blight more widely diffused, making it more of a city-wide issue? Tables 4 and 5 and Map 1 show that in Philadelphia, blight was both concentrated in particular communities as well as broadly distributed.  Documenting the dispersion of abandonment opened up opportunities for enlarging the policy discussion around blight.

Table 4 presents summary statistics for the distribution of vacant property in 1984 and 2000 among census tracts and in 2000 among residential street segments.  A street segment consists of parallel portions of blocks facing each other on the same street.  It is used to approximate a block unit.  For the purposes here, the focus is on residential street segments, those blocks largely containing residential structures.

The amount of blight, on average, was larger for census tracts than for blocks because tracts encompass larger spatial areas.  The mean number of vacant properties in tracts ranged from a low of 8.15 (for commercial properties) to a high of 84.88 for vacant lots.  The mean number of vacant residential structures was 71.94. 

The large standard deviations (and the much lower medians compared to the means) show the large variation in abandonment across tracts.  Yet the extremely high numbers of abandoned properties in some tracts (e.g., a high of 778 vacant housing structures in one tract alone) does not mean that the blight statistics are the sole product of outliers or extreme values.  Fifty percent of all Philadelphia census tracts contained at least 26 vacant housing structures, at least 20 vacant lots and at least two vacant commercial properties.  This analysis points to the wide dispersion of abandonment.

The 2000 tract level numbers mirror those in 1984 and are simply larger.  What characterized abandonment in Philadelphia from 1984 to 2000 was its continuity and expansion.

At the smaller geographical unit of the street segment, the majority contained no abandoned property.  Again, however, this does not indicate that blight was concentrated among a few areas.  Fully 45.47% of the residential street segments in Philadelphia contained some kind of abandoned properties.  More than one third (35.81%) contained at least one vacant residential structure. 

The concentration of blight within a few places coupled with its wide dispersion is shown geographically in Map 1.  It shows the distribution of vacant housing among census tracts in 2000.  Heavier concentrations of blight existed in the north central and western parts of Philadelphia, named Olney.  Yet the map also shows that vacant property was a familiar site across much of the Philadelphia landscape. 

Table 5 brings this analysis more centrally into the political sphere.  It shows the distribution of vacancies (including residential, commercial and lots) among the ten city council districts in 1984 and in 2001, as well as the distribution of new vacant properties that occurred between 1984 and 2001.   For each year or time period, shown are the number of vacant properties in each district and each district’s share of total vacancies.

Blight was similarly distributed in both periods of time with heavy concentration of abandonment in several districts.  Although the relative share of blight remained largely the same, new vacant properties during the 1984 to 2001 time period were more widely distributed than was vacant property in 1984.  In 1984, blight was more definitively concentrated.  By 2001, the magnitude of blight has not only increased dramatically in Philadelphia but it presented a problem for every council district making blight a more salient policy issue worthy of sustained city council attention.

On average 1,350 additional houses were abandoned in Philadelphia between 1984 and 2001.  Many of these newly abandoned properties were located in areas that already had a high density of abandoned property, but many could be found in areas that had not previously experienced significant levels of abandonment.   Between 1984 and 2001, abandoned housing intensified in many neighborhoods but also became more widely dispersed throughout the city.

Micro level mapping of vacant structures and land in 1984 and 2000-2001 shows a recurrent pattern of concentration and diffusion.  An example of one neighborhood, a multi-ethnic working class area of Philadelphia, is shown in Maps 2a and 2b.  Residents of this neighborhood reported a marked increase in vacant housing in their community over the last decade.  An EPOP leader at St. Helena Parish in Olney described how when she moved into the neighborhood twelve years ago it was rare to see a boarded up home; but that she now sees one or two vacant houses on almost every block.  A raster method was used to convert vacant property point data from 1984 and 2000-2001 into measures of concentration.  Point data for individual vacant residential structures was overlaid on top of the raster maps.  Areas that had small clusters of vacant properties in 1984 tended to see those clusters become denser and at the same time spread widely to include a much larger geographic area by 2000-2001.  This historical pattern repeated across different types of neighborhoods, suggesting a common process through which vacancy spreads at a local neighborhood level (Dear, 1975; Odland and Balzer, 1979).

Causes of Abandonment

Policy solutions to problems, hopefully, emerge from an understanding of the factors contributing to these problems.  Research for Democracy sought to develop an assessment of causes of abandonment to be able to recommend policy that would effectively reduce it.  This led to an examination of what characteristics explained the variation in abandonment across Philadelphia. 

The measure of the success of a blight strategy depends on its ability to encourage a positive cycle of private investment by homeowners and businesses.  Therefore, it is useful to understand how public and private decisions influence levels of abandonment.  To assess this, we employed multivariate techniques to examine the net effects of a range of public and private investment activities and housing and population characteristics on variation in the number of abandonment residential structures in census tracts. 

Table 6 shows the independent variables at the census tract level included in the analysis and their predicted effect on abandonment.   Public sector activities include average assessment of residential property, number of tax sales, number of property’s on which owed taxes exceeded their market value, number of publicly owned properties, and the number of properties which were targets of various public housing programs.[3]  Private sector activities included the percentage of loans made by sub-prime lenders, the number of home mortgages originated, the percentage of home mortgage applications denied, and the percentage of home improvement loans denied.  The housing and population characteristics included in the model are those shown to influence local housing market (Lee, Culhane and Wachter, 1999; Simons, Quercia and Maric, 1998).

 The dependent variable, number of abandoned houses, is expressed in log form.  The multivariate technique used is ordinary least squares regression.

Table 7 shows the b coefficients and the associated standard errors. Two public sector activities influenced the variation in tract abandoned housing levels.  More sales of properties for tax delinquency had a positive effect on abandonment suggesting that abandonment my be more prevalent where there are more tax sales and vice versa.  High assessments of properties had a negative effect on abandonment potentially indicating that areas with higher property assessments may be more viable housing market. 

Public housing programs targeted at improving property or facilitating its purchase had no effect on abandonment.  This means that Philadelphia’s public sector activities designed to strengthen local housing market activity had no discernable or systematic independent influence on blight as represented by the number of vacant residential structures. 

Private sector activities had a large net effect on abandonment.  More single family home mortgages caused a net decrease in abandoned housing.  Conversely, more loans by sub-prime lenders caused a net increase in abandonment.  In addition, areas with higher rates of home improvement loan denied experienced a net increase in abandoned housing.  Census tracts with more loans for home purchase, few loans from sub-prime lenders and lower rates of home improvement loan denials had less abandonment, all else equal. 

The large influence of private sector activities combined with the lack of influence of public sector activity on abandonment informed the policy recommendations coming from the Research for Democracy Project.  First, stemming abandonment required working with lenders to determine how to increase the flow of good credit to communities (home purchase and home improvement loans) and to minimize negative credit activities (sub-prime lending and home improvement loan rejections).  Second, reducing abandonment required more strategic targeting of public resources to effectuate more systematic effects on neighborhood blight.

The Influence of Abandonment on Residential Sales Prices

A well known rationale for public intervention in solving economic problems is that the market is not working effectively.  If there are systematic market effects of abandonment that have large negative consequences, public interventions to reduce it may be more justifiable.  Demonstrating systematic market effects can augment the amount of resources made available to solve problems.  EPOP’s experience of blight at the community level informed its leaders that blight was slowly strangling their communities, reducing property values and gradually destroying local housing market.  This observation led to research that would examine the impact of abandonment on local housing markets – specifically house prices.

Housing values are economic markers of the overall health of the housing market as well as a city’s fiscal posture.  Local reliance on property taxes renders this portion of local revenue streams a direct function of the value of housing.  If abandonment has negative consequences for local housing markets, it means that the local tax base is also being negatively affected.  Therefore, potential economic effects of abandonment are also potential political effects. 

A truism within the housing field is that housing is not simply a physical structure but a bundle of characteristics.  The housing bundle is comprised of the social and economic composition of the neighborhood (e.g., income, race, ethnicity, family type), access to transportation and services, the presence of crime, access to schools and recreational activities, and a host of other amenities.  Neighborhood blight (and its absence) is also part of the housing bundle. 

Economists have developed techniques to assess the influence of the physical characteristics of housing and the neighborhood characteristics of where housing is located on the variation in housing prices.  Known as hedonic analysis, this method uses multivariate statistical techniques to show the independent influence on housing prices of  each element of the bundle of  physical and neighborhood characteristics that give housing value (Simons, Quercia and Maric, 1998).  Sales price is estimated as a function of a set of variables believed to influence housing values.

This research analyzed 14,526 residential sales in Philadelphia that were greater than $1,000 in 2000.  The variables used in the analysis along with their summary statistics are shown in Table 8.  These include a range of housing structure characteristics (e.g., total living area), neighborhood characteristics, including population characteristics (e.g., percent change in population) economic characteristics (e.g., loans originated) and the presence of abandonment, and sales characteristics (e.g. season of sale). 

We asked three separate questions about the effects of abandonment on housing values.  The first question addressed the effects of the distance of housing from abandoned housing units on sales price.  The second question addressed the effects of the numbers of proximate abandoned property (residential, commercial and lots) on sales price.  The third question addressed the effects of the absence of any proximate abandoned property on sales price.  This required three separate analyses.

The results are shown in Table 9.  The first equation looks at the influence of distance from abandonment, net of other factors.  We measured each property’s distance from an abandoned residential structure in 150 feet increments using Geographic Information Systems software.  Four binary variables were used to denote a property’s distance from an abandoned unit  -- within 150 feet, between 150 and 299 feet), between 300 and 449 feet, and between 450 and 600 feet.  The omitted variable indicates no physical proximity to an abandoned unit.

The second equation looks at the influence of the number of abandoned units on the block in which the property is located, independent of other factors. Ten consecutive binary variables were used to denote the number of abandoned properties on the block beginning with one abandoned unit on the block and ending with 10 or more on the block.  The omitted variable is no abandoned property on the block.

The third equation looks at influence of the overall absence of abandonment, net of other factors, on sales price.  The absence of abandonment is measured as a binary variable indicating no abandonment on the block.

Housing abandonment in Philadelphia had large, systematic effects on housing values.  Physical proximity to abandonment (equation 1) undermined Philadelphia’s housing market.  Housing within 150 feet of an abandoned unit experienced a net decreased in sales price of $7,627.  Housing within 150-299 of an abandoned unit experienced a lower but sizeable net decrease in sales price of $6,810.  Housing within 300-449 of an abandoned unit experienced a net decrease in sales price of $3,542.  The effects of abandonment on sales price diminished at distance over 450 feet (the typical length of a residential block in Philadelphia). 

Variation in the number of abandoned properties on the block (equation 2) also had large effects of housing values.  One abandoned property on the block brought with it a net decrease of $6,467 in sales price.  More abandoned property brought with them larger net losses in value.  At five abandoned properties on the block, local sales prices experienced a net decrease of $10,043.  The market effects of abandonment diminished at over six abandoned properties on the block, most likely because the market value of property had already been severally undermined with this level of blight on the block. 

Not surprisingly, the absence of abandonment (equation 3) had a positive effect on sales prices.  All else equal, sales prices increased by $6,715 by virtual of having no abandoned property on the block.   The median sales price for a two-story row house, the most common residential structure in Philadelphia, was $27,000 in 2001, so the loss associated with abandonment represented a sizeable reduction in value in relationship to neighborhood property values (Whitman and Pine, 2002).

The findings underscored what EPOP leaders already knew.  Abandonment undermined communities by its sheer existence.  One proximate abandoned house or property created negative externalities not just in the poorest of communities but in all Philadelphia communities.  The robust statistical findings showing how abandonment weakened housing market again spoke to casting blight policy as a general neighborhood problem, not as one generic to just a few communities.

Policy Making

EPOP leaders began the research process with strong opinions about how the city should deal with blight.  These views were shaped by experiences that the organization had when trying to acquire vacant land for playgrounds and green areas and working with city agencies to get abandoned properties sealed or demolished.   EPOP saw blight as a problem that impacted different neighborhoods in distinct ways, but touched almost every part of the city.  It emphasized the need to prevent the spread of blight, viewing abandonment as a process that the city was in part responsible for through its neglect of neighborhoods and its convoluted systems for transferring vacant property for new use.   The collaborative research on blight helped leaders in EPOP interpret what they were seeing in their own neighborhoods, reshape the policy changes they were seeking from city government and, perhaps most importantly, enable them to be heard throughout an often chaotic policy-making process.

1999 Mayoral Campaign

During the 1999 Mayoral race EPOP presented a Neighborhoods First policy platform that addressed abandoned housing and blight in several ways.  Under the heading of coordinated city services, EPOP called for a 72-hour response time for sealing a vacant property reported by the public and for greater collaboration between departments that deal with abandoned property.  The policy platform laid it out like this:

Left untended these properties become havens for drug dealing, prostitution, and other illegal activities; they also become dumping grounds for garbage, bringing rats, roaches and other health dangers and can undermine the water and sewage systems of whole blocks. The Office of Housing and Community Development, the Redevelopment Authority, the Department of Licenses & Inspections, the Police Department, the District Attorney, the Water Department and the Health Department all deal with the consequences of abandoned housing, yet there is not enough opportunity for these departments to collaborate in order to either (a) prevent abandonment or (b) promote reuse or demolition of abandoned housing. A citizen who convinces L&I to demolish a dangerous abandoned house on their block must start from scratch with the RDA once L&I has created a vacant lot. In the mean time the unsealed lot has become a dumping ground for abandoned autos.

EPOP also proposed an audit of all abandoned buildings, a community reinvestment plan for each neighborhood that included plans for renovation or demolition of each abandoned building, stronger laws for acquiring and transferring abandoned property and consolidation of the multiple agencies dealing with housing and community development a single agency. 

As it turned out it was not abandoned housing but abandoned cars that played the more visible role in the mayoral campaign.   During the general election, EPOP leaders decided to try to make the tens of thousands of junked vehicles on the streets of the city a campaign issue, a symbol of what the next mayor could do to restore hope in neighborhoods.  EPOP had learned from its local work with police captains that the worst abandoned cars sat on the streets for the longest time because the private salvers who actually did the removal were able to pick and choose which cars they wanted to tow.   Since the salvers received assignments from 26 different police districts there was almost no accountability over which cars they removed.  EPOP proposed the creation of a centralized office of abandoned vehicles, patterned after a program in Chicago, and the establishment of a hotline and a 48-hour service commitment for removal of dangerous cars (Yant, 1999 October 14). Leaders plastered stickers with pictures of both candidates on thousands of junked cars.  The stickers read:

VIOLATION of our neighborhood

The next mayor will decide how long this car sits on your street

But you will decide who the next mayor is!

At a large public meeting, EPOP also asked both mayoral candidates to commit to its plan; both agreed to address the issue but neither agreed to support a centralized program.  Reviving neighborhoods and stemming the flow of population out of Philadelphia dominated the campaign, which was eventually won by John Street by a margin of 2%.

A New City Administration

After John Street was elected mayor in November 1999, he invited EPOP leaders to serve on his blight transition team.  During the fall and winter they helped design recommendations for the creation of a new office of abandoned vehicles.  But EPOP also kept pressure on the new administration from the outside.   The organization sent out Christmas cards to city officials with a grizzly picture of trash filled junked cars on a residential street.  In February 2000 leaders worked with a police captain to create a pilot abandoned auto hotline in one of the city’s police districts (Yant, 2000).  

In April 2000, Mayor Street kicked off his fight against blight with a convoy of more than 100 tow trucks and a promise to remove 40,000 abandoned cars in 40 days (Burton and Benson, 2000;Panaritis, 2000).  An avid truck enthusiast, Street personally hauled off the first abandoned car in the initiative, a picture that became a defining moment for his administration.  At the same time, the city created a new centralized abandoned vehicle program, with a hotline and dedicated staffing and cars within the police department and established a 72-hour service response goal.  By the end of May 2000, the city had towed away 32,852 cars (Burton and Ung, 2000); almost two years later the city reported it had removed more than 190,000 abandoned cars (Philadelphia, 2003).  Clearing abandoned cars from city streets indeed came to symbolize a new commitment to neighborhoods.

EPOP had hoped to use the success of the abandoned vehicle initiative as a model for dealing with abandoned housing and blight more generally.  Yet its relationships with the new Mayor rapidly deteriorated.  At a meeting attended by 500 EPOP members in May 2000 Street was given a standing ovation for his abandoned auto program.  But when the pastor leading the meeting pressed the Mayor to report on progress on other aspects of EPOP’s Neighborhoods First Platform, such as a consolidated office of housing and neighborhood services and a blight plan for each neighborhood, Street refused, saying he came to the meeting to report on his first 100 days, would not be pushed and was not prepared to respond to specific proposals.  When he later angrily walked out of the meeting, the event was widely covered on the evening news and for the next two days in the print media (Yant, 2000).

The Neighborhood Transformation Initiative

It would be another five and half months before Mayor Street was ready to begin talking about the details of his blight strategy and give the program its official name, the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI).   The outline that Street shared with City Council members at a private briefing called for the city to issue $250 million in bonds and then spend $190 million, 76% of the total bond issue, on demolition of approximately 12,000 buildings.  It set aside $55 million for home-improvement loans and property acquisition and another $5 million on a vacant property tracking system. 

The news coverage of the briefing revolved around the major questions that would dominate the discussion on blight over the 16 months that it took for Council and the Mayor to reach an agreement on authorizing legislation.  What would money be used for, where would it be used and what would follow from demolition?  The administration emphasized that NTI was a citywide initiative, aimed at not just the most distressed neighborhoods, and that every neighborhood would have a plan for blight removal as well as redevelopment (Burton, 2000).  Council members representing less distressed districts emphasized the need to “keep stable neighborhoods stable,” while those representing more blighted areas called for “public discussions in the communities about reuse strategies” before buildings are demolished (McDonald, 2000).

Through March of 2001, no legislation was submitted to authorize NTI.   This created a policy vacuum that Research for Democracy tried to fill.  Concerned that NTI would ultimately focus most of its resources on land clearance in two or three areas of the city and wanting to test potential interest in City Council for strategies that put more emphasis on rehabilitation and neighborhood stabilization, Research for Democracy scheduled a briefing for council members on its preliminary research.   At a packed briefing in City Hall, EPOP and CPP presented vacant property statistics broken down by council district and an analysis of how widespread vacant housing was throughout the city, including many blocks with just one or two vacant properties (Burton, 2000).    Research for Democracy framed its presentation around two strategic questions: (1) how to spend the bond funds in a way that prevented future abandonment; and (2) how to reorganize city government to support neighborhood development and prevent blight. 

When Mayor Street sent his blight legislation to City Council the next month, the Council President refused to schedule a hearing for the bills that would authorize the city to issue up to $250 million in bonds.  Her refusal would continue through the fall and set off an extended public debate over blight.  

The NTI plan that the Philadelphia-based Reinvestment Fund, acting as consultants for the city, unveiled in April 2000 divided Philadelphia neighborhoods into six market types that would receive different types and levels of treatment (City of Philadelphia, 2001).   It projected the construction of 16,000 new housing units comprised of market rate development, vacant house rehabilitation, elderly and special needs housing, and “critical-scale” new construction, 14,000 demolitions, 2,500 encapsulations of properties for future rehabilitation, 31,000 vacant lots cleaned, creation of the Philadelphia Land Bank and reform of the property acquisition and disposition system.  While NTI sought to bring all of the disparate elements of the city’s housing and community development efforts under one umbrella, and therefore included many parts, at its heart was a plan to promote market rate housing by clearing large tracts of land.  NTI proposed a significant policy shift away from a place-based development strategy that had relied on a relatively broad network of community development corporations to carry out neighborhood revitalization projects, including affordable housing development.  While community development work would continue, NTI would shift the focus of public resources toward restructuring heavily blighted areas in order to increase the ability of Philadelphia to attract middle class residents.

At a political level, blight policy in Philadelphia became a struggle over who would have control over the $250 million in bond proceeds.  Institutionally, the Mayor wanted as much control as possible in how the proceeds would be spent and City Council wanted as much oversight as it could obtain.  In crafting the blight bond program the Mayor was essentially capitalizing the $15 to $20 million the city had been spending each year to board up and demolish vacant property.   The city was committing expenditures of up to $20 million per year for the next 30 years to pay back the bonds.

Some council members including the Council President argued that they ought to have as much oversight over the bond funds as they would over yearly budget expenditures by each department.  Council members also saw their role as making sure that local neighborhoods had a say in the overall plan.  The administration countered that it needed to break out of the past practice in the city and avoid having its NTI program divided up into pieces and slowed down by the narrow self-interest of district council people.

Beneath this institutional power struggle was a more substantive set of questions about what blight was and how it should be addressed.  Those who saw blight as the inevitable product of population loss and economic transformation emphasized creating opportunities for redeveloping vacant land.  Other participants in the debate over NTI, including EPOP, saw blight as a process exacerbated by city policies.  They focused on reforming public systems and developing the capacity of the public sector to prevent abandonment.  Highlighting the role of city government in fueling blight came out of many residents experiences in trying to obtain tax delinquent and publicly owned land for redevelopment.  Work by EPOP at a neighborhood level also convinced the group that a more systematic use of city programs, like the Homeownership Rehabilitation Program, could have a positive impact on a community.  In addition, there was a major debate about whether developers would actually build market rate housing on cleared land. 

The questions of how to spend money and where to spend money were deeply intertwined since a demolition oriented program would concentrate dollars in a few highly blighted areas, whereas a rehabilitation strategy would spread dollars more widely.   But even in those areas slated to receive the bulk of the bond proceeds, there were deep unresolved questions about who would benefit from blight elimination.  Was fighting blight meant to help residents of struggling neighborhoods or restructure urban space for the benefit of the broader public?  For obvious reasons, the administration downplayed the amount of relocation envisioned in NTI, but many residents in housing markets designated as declining or reclamation feared that their neighborhoods would lose not win as a result as a result of being targeted for blight elimination (Young, 2003).  

These fears, which ultimately had a significant impact on the evolution of NTI, were captured by a North Philadelphia resident who, at an EPOP meeting, said, “we got excited when they started removing abandoned cars, but by the time they were done they had taken down our buildings too.” 

In contrast, a developer interviewed by Research for Democracy said that for him NTI represented a commitment by the Mayor to deliver land clear and free that he could use to develop housing that could sell for between $150,000 and $300,000 and compete with suburban housing at the fringes of the region as an option for families.  He emphasized that this commitment involved large areas of land separated by natural barriers from other blighted neighborhoods.  He would like to have seen streamlining of the zoning approval process and a restructuring of the union rules that make housing construction in the city as much as 25% more expensive than in the suburbs, but was willing to negotiate through the thicket of Philadelphia politics on a project-by-project basis if necessary.  Although presented as a single initiative, the elements of NTI clearly meant different things to different people.

Blight Free Philadelphia

In October 2001, with the Mayor and City Council still at an impasse over blight, Research for Democracy released Blight Free Philadelphia: A Strategy to Create and Enhance Neighborhood Value.  The report presented the research discussed in this paper, made a series of recommendations and presented examples of blight plans for each city council district. 

The proposals in the report represented a significant evolution in EPOP’s perspective on blight. Consistent with the research findings, the report recommended that more money be spent on property acquisition and development and less on demolition and that city functions be consolidated (including moving responsibility for treating abandoned property from the city department responsible for code enforcement to the agency in charge of community development) in order to increase the likelihood of city policy having a more systematic effect on preventing abandonment. 

New was a set of proposals that set out an alternative framework for community development policy, built around the creation of blight free zones throughout the city.  These zones would be areas where public investment would be used to stabilize existing neighborhoods around anchor institutions like hospitals or other large employers.  In some neighborhoods land clearance and new construction would be appropriate.  Yet rather than the deal-making culture that characterized current community development or a land banking approach that involved demolition with only the possibility of future development, the blight free zone plan envisioned a process in which community organizations and institutional anchors would collaborate as partners to develop and submit proposals for city dollars.  A key condition would be the ability of public money to leverage private investment, before large-scale demolition took place.

The blight free zone approach was a direct outgrowth of the Research for Democracy investigation into the impact of abandoned housing on property values, as well as the analysis of variations in abandonment across census tracts.  The report used the results of the hedonic regression analysis to model the potential impact of public investments in housing rehabilitation in existing neighborhoods.  It argued that city community development expenditures should not be viewed as social service payments but as leverage for private investment from homeowners, neighborhood institutions and employers and financial institutions.  

Blight Free Philadelphia shared two important things with the NTI design, a focus on stimulating market activity and an interest in changing the status quo model for community development in the city.  Yet it diverged significantly in arguing that new tools and strategies should be directed primarily toward stabilizing existing neighborhoods rather than creating new neighborhoods. 

Framing blight as a universal problem with a great deal of neighborhood level variation was important to EPOP because its own constituency increasingly represented a broad range of neighborhoods that had traditionally been pitted against each other in competition over scarce resources.  Moreover, framing blight more universally framed EPOP members’ experience of blight – not as wholesale abandonment but as persistent incursions of abandonment and decay on a routine basis within the neighborhoods in which they were living, not ones already forsaken by the market. 

Importantly, the analysis of how abandonment had spread between 1984 and 2000 helped demonstrated the interconnectedness of neighborhoods.  The Blight Free Zone model provided a flexible tool for meeting the needs of very different communities, and in this sense coincided with Mayor Street’s use of blight to encompass all of the things that troubled people about their neighborhoods.

One of the more interesting dynamics of blight politics in Philadelphia was that the city’s two major faith-based community organizations ended up on opposite sides of the public debate.  EPOP, which emphasized a mix of rehabilitation and new construction and wariness toward large-scale demolition, was inevitably pulled toward the City Council perspective that wanted greater focus on neighborhood stabilization.  In contrast, Philadelphia Interfaith Action, which had previously built 135 units of Nehemiah housing in Philadelphia, but had been blocked in its efforts to acquire land for additional new housing, became the Mayor’s most vocal supporters as the administration pressed council to move forward on blight legislation.  The administration’s proposal emphasis on large-scale demolition was consistent with Philadelphia Interfaith Action’s advocacy for large-scale new housing development.


In February 2002, two years after John Street took office, Philadelphia City Council finally passed the NTI bond program.  Ultimately reflecting Philadelphia’s strong mayor form of city government, the legislation gave most of the control of the bond proceeds to the administration.  City Council was not able to establish a project review team that would give council as a whole a say in the management of NTI. Nor was it able to require the administration to reorganize city housing agencies before it drew down on the bond proceeds. 

At the same time, the compromise between Council and the Mayor included major changes from the initial proposal.  Forty-five million dollars dedicated to neighborhood stabilization was added to the blight program, bringing the total cost to $295 million.  A $160 million cap was placed on demolition (vs. $190 million in the original outline).   The legislation also created a planning process that included yearly budgets and work plans for each city council district, strengthening the role of council people in decisions about blight (including giving them approval power over demolitions and acquisitions in their districts).  Following the blight free zone model, the final version of the NTI plan was revised to include a new program category called Geographically-targeted Preservation Programs, but how these programs would be implemented was not clearly defined.


The process of implementing NTI has been just as messy as the political process around its passage.  In February 2003, under pressure to demonstrate results from the blight initiative, Mayor Street came to a Philadelphia Interfaith Action press conference to present 7 NTI projects.  This announcement was, however, criticized by some for “placing a Neighborhood Transformation Initiative tag on projects undertaken by the Philadelphia Housing Authority that were already underway.”  (Fleming, 2003)  The Mayor’s announcement included plans for two market rate projects by a developer who has been active in the city over the last several years (Young, 2003).  The question of whether private developers would come to the city to build large numbers of market rate housing units remains an open question. 

Despite the large amount of money set aside for demolition, very little actually took place during the first year of NTI.  From June 2002 to June 2003 the city demolished 500 properties, about half the average rate of demolitions between 1984 and 2000, and 25% of the original target of 2,000 (Young, 2003).   One reason was community opposition to land clearance, especially in districts that were slated to receive the most funds under NTI.  Another difficulty was finding contractors interested in bidding on the demolition contracts, as well as community protest over demolition jobs not going to Philadelphia residents and businesses (Young, 2003 March 22).  In contrast, demand for money to acquire property has been much higher than expected, meaning that in practice much more money is being spent on acquisition and development than demolition that the original budget envisioned. 

In June 2003, tensions over relocations reached a boiling point as hundreds of families descended on City Hall to protest the condemnation of their homes (Young, 2003).  At the same time, through a separate set of protests and negotiations, affordable housing groups were able to force the administration to transfer $10 million in unspent demolition funds to the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development for affordable housing production and home repair in the second year NTI budget (Fleming and Twyman, 2003 June 6).   With the 2003 mayoral election heating up, blight issues (from abandoned auto removal to relocation of families) promise to be at the center of Philadelphia politics for years to come.

EPOP returned to its neighborhood roots following the NTI compromise.  Since then it has been working in five neighborhoods to use NTI funds and private investment to develop blight free zones.  The plans differ in character and in how advanced they are, but they share an emphasis on neighborhood stabilization.  In the Olney neighborhood, EPOP teams at two large Catholic Churches reached an agreement with a community development corporation from another neighborhood to rehabilitate 100 vacant houses, with subsidies from NTI.  Using research from their experience in Research for Democracy, they also persuaded the HUD regional office to change its practice of boarding up vacant houses awaiting resale and to create financial incentives for FHA foreclosed homes to be sold to new homeowners rather than landlords (Fernandez 2003).  In South Philadelphia, EPOP is working in a neighborhood adjacent to Center City, where gentrification pressures are threatening the stability of a long-term African-American community.  There, leaders have negotiated with Mayor Street and City Council President Anna Verna to use NTI funds to match a private investment commitment from the movie director M. Night Shyamalan to support a renovation and new construction effort to preserve the neighborhood as a mixed-income, racially integrated community.  While EPOP did not get all of the policy changes it wanted, it was able to move from its local work into the policy arena and return with resources and tools that local leaders could use to improve their neighborhoods.  The experience taught leaders involved in EPOP and researchers at CPP a great deal not only about blight, but also about the complex politics of policy change in a post-industrial city.


Echoing Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci and given more modern expression by organizer Saul Alinksy, the Research for Democracy project gave credence to the concept that power is the ability to shape the truth.  When the smoke cleared and the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative began to be implemented, what it had become was different than what was originally conceived.   Although not  successful in restructuring the city’s community development policy, Research for Democracy broadened the definition of blight to include not only areas experiencing devastation to incorporate communities poised to become the blighted communities in the near future.  With research forcefully showing how incipient abandonment grew and with EPOP working the political environment, the focus of the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative made room for projects that would work to improve neighborhood situations, not simply tear them down.  In the words of one EPOP leader, “We showed that blight is in every neighborhood.  We redefined blight and showed that blight means different things for different people.”  This represented a critical shift in the concept of what it meant to fight blight in Philadelphia – a shift brought to the table by the Research for Democracy—a partnership of research and community oranganizing.[4]

EPOP leaders were able to point to four major changes in Philadelphia’s blight strategy as a result of their efforts.  First, in the final bill, $45 million dollars was added for neighborhood stabilization -- money for property rehabilitation, acquisition and other improvements.  Second, the blight legislation capped expenditures for demolition at $160 million, $30 million less than the original budget proposed by the administration.  Both these changes were important to EPOP because the organization believed that how funds were allocated in NTI would drive city community development policy.  The third change was an agreement that reinvestment plans and budgets would be developed and approved for each city council district. Some in the media and the administration viewed these council district plans as part of an old system that gave parochial interests too much influence over community development policy, but for EPOP the stronger role for City Council was one way to institutionalize a citywide approach that was tailored to the needs of individual neighborhoods.  The fourth, and perhaps most ambiguous, change was a provision in NTI that created geographically targeted reinvestment projects, using language similar to blight free zones. 

From the perspective of EPOP leaders participation in the Research Democracy Project  brought with it concrete benefits to their neighborhoods, benefits that they could see were directly derived from their efforts to shape NTI.  After the final compromise on blight, EPOP returned to a focus on generating new investment in specific neighborhoods.   

In each of these neighborhoods, EPOP used the framework of Blight Free Zones, and sought to eliminate either through renovation or demolition, all vacant structure in defined geographic areas.  These development plans were also anchored by institutions and business strips, so while the Blight Free Zones did not become the city’s way of talking about neighborhood revitalization, they shaped the community level work of EPOP congregations.  And although in each neighborhood EPOP worked with a community development organization, the experience with the blight campaign led EPOP much more deeply into the physical development process than it had previously gone in the past.  Research for Democracy crafted policy at the city level in ways that were able to leverage varied policy responses in neighborhoods with different issues and problems. 

Beyond specific reinvestment projects, people reported that agencies such as the police were being more responsive.  For one neighborhood, an EPOP member  said that the neighborhood actually looked better, that people had more interest in their property and were taking better care of it.  These perceptual changes are important steps in supporting housing markets because the underlying strength of a neighborhood depends on it being perceived as a desirable place to live.   

Participation in the Research for Democracy project, however, brought with it more than physical neighborhood improvements.  Research for Democracy provided a new set of understandings on navigating local politics and acquiring leverage.  EPOP leaders saw the benefits accrued from being involved in doing research and using it as part of their strategy, particularly research conducted under the respected auspices of a major research institution, Temple University.  One EPOP leader said that he saw “the power of data and research in being respected.  It changed how EPOP is seen and added credibility so that we are taken more seriously.”  Another believed that using the research was crucial in getting access to, and respect from, City Council whose members felt shut out of the NTI process and therefore, appreciated getting information, particularly on their own districts. 

In addition, the process suggested the possibility for different types of political involvement typically experienced in Philadelphia.  Philadelphia politics were largely about “cutting deals” as one leader put it, “not a place where the whole city is serviced.”  Mayoral political maneuvering generally dealt with individual neighborhoods or council members as a way of building loyalty, thereby dividing neighborhoods from each other rather than allowing them to come together with shared interests and concerns.  One leader spoke about the ability to “be part of a political process without becoming partisan.” 

Studying blight as it played out in distinct ways across the city and crafting a community development strategy to meet the needs of different neighborhoods helped EPOP move from an organization with a neighborhood agenda to one with a citywide vision.  EPOP was always about going beyond “my” neighborhood to “our” neighborhoods.  Yet the Research for Democracy project heightened this understanding because it allowed people to see, as one leader put it, “the connectedness of neighborhoods.” 


Can community organizations shift the balance of power to gain leverage over the real politics of money, land and real estate development in cities?  Part of the answer depends on how communities organize themselves.  The development of EPOP over the past decade as a powerful faith-based civic organization in Philadelphia is part of a broader trend that has seen the growth of new institution-based community organizations across the United States (Wood 2002; Warren 2001;Warren and Wood, 2001).  These organizations, rooted primarily in faith institutions, have become a major vehicle for urban residents to engage in the public arena.   Being citywide and rooted in long-standing, dues paying institutions, groups like EPOP have a greater chance of competing within the complex political environment of urban policy making.  Yet they also face great challenges developing deep knowledge of the multiple systems they seek to change,  projecting a long-term vision of policy change, and balancing multiple interests.

Research for Democracy’s work on Philadelphia blight politics begins to demonstrate how an institutionalized research partnership can enhance the ability of broad-based community organizations to influence public policy.  The collaboration between the Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project and the Temple University Center for Public Policy proved successful in two ways.  First, Research for Democracy was effective in building a partnership between EPOP and CPP that produced solid organizing and research – activities that became symbiotic.  The research grew out of the organizing.  The research questions were shaped by the political agenda facing EPOP as it strategized over how to become involved in Philadelphia policy making on blight.  The research process was collaborative, involving university scholars and civic leaders in a process of joint inquiry, and the research findings shaped much of the policy directions advocated by EPOP.   Research and organizing became a regularized process under the rubric of Research for Democracy.

At the same time that the research was immediately relevant to policy and collaborative with community leaders, it relied upon sophisticated methods and met high standards of academic rigor.  The sophistication of the research methods repeatedly operated to help legitimize the research findings in the sphere of blight politics, particularly with City Council.  The Research for Democracy experience with blight research showed that it was possible to create knowledge that was useful to community leaders and policy makers and that also had the potential to make a significant contribution to scholarly debates within the academy.  

The collaboration was also successful politically.  The Neighborhood Transformation Initiative would have been different without the work of Research for Democracy.    NTI incorporated neighborhood planning concepts and oversight into its policy agenda.  It capped the amount of money to be spent on demolition.  And it included a sizeable amount of money to be spent on neighborhood stabilization and preservation.  Of course, these policies cannot unilaterally be attributed to one organization’s activities.  City Council and the Mayor’s Office ultimately decided what would constitute the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative.  The movement, however, to include neighborhood stabilization as part of NTI came out of the Research for Democracy initiative. 

The ultimate impact of Philadelphia’s current anti-blight efforts may not be known for years.    Yet for low income Philadelphia rocked by decades of continuing neighborhood decay and increasing abandonment and population loss, the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative represented a major policy agenda for neighborhoods – an agenda absent from Philadelphia politics for decades.  The opportunity for community leaders to participate in shaping that agenda was a critical and unprecedented opportunity.[5]  EPOP’s success in making its vision for the city central to the public debate points to how sophisticated community organizing and new relationships between scholars and civic leaders can combine to change power equations within cities.


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[1]   The discourse used in EPOP organizing refers to community participants as EPOP leaders.  The leadership of the organization does not rest with EPOP staff.  Rather, staff work for the leadership.  Research for Democracy followed this model where community members are the leaders who used the research.

[2] Vacant survey data prior to 1999 was only available for the year 1984.

[3] The number of Section 8 rental units in each census tract was not included because we were unable to obtain this information from the Philadelphia Housing Authority; moreover, our primary focus was on public sector programs designed to reduce abandonment and blight.

[4]  Data on lessons learned were collected at a two hour focus group with 20 EPOP on July 11, 2003.

[5] Between February 2001 and March 2002 the city’s two major newspapers referred to Research for Democracy more than 15 times, often in the form of quotes from EPOP leaders commenting on what was then the most important civic story in the city.


This work was funded by grants from the William Penn Foundation and the Samuel S. Fels Fund.   Many people participated in the organizing and research effort that is represented here.  We thank EPOP leaders and staff Dolores Shaw, Linda Haley, Joe Duffey, Michael Cunningham, Sam Santiago and Phyllis Santiago, Danilo Burgos, Father Ed Hallinan, Father Harry McGovern, Pat Smiley, Bob Smiley, David Koppisch, Marta Aviles, and Manuel Portillo for tremendous leadership and vision.  At Temple University, we thank Eileen Smith, Nancy Núñez, Sal Saporito, Brian Lawton, Vincent Louis, Kristen Bakia and Sanjoy Chakrovrty for assisting in the development and production of this research.  We thank Carolyn Adams, Adam Pine and Greg Squires for reviewing earlier drafts. We thank Roy Diamond, of Diamond and Associates, for helping make sure that our economic analysis measured up to the practical challenges of revitalizing urban neighborhoods.  We thank EPOP Executive Director Steve Honeyman, for his commitment and creativity in building the Research for Democracy project. 

About the Authors

Anne B. Shlay is Professor of Sociology at Temple University. She is the former Associate Dean for Research for the College of Liberal Arts and Director of the Center for Public Policy (dissolved by the university in 20004) at Temple University. Her current research looks at the effects of low income homeownership and cross cultural differences in uses of child care subsidies and child care preferences.

Gordon Whitman served as Director of Research for Democracy from 2001 to 2004 and as Associate Director of the Temple University Center for Public Policy from 2003 to 2004. He was the co-founding organizer of the Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project and has worked as a lawyer, community organizer and researcher in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Boston and Latin America over the past fifteen years. He currently works for PICO, a national network of faith-based community organizations.