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Rev. Kermit Newkirk
Harold O. Davis Memorial Baptist Church
Philadelphia, PA

Interviewed by Lynn Adler and Jim Mayer
Producers of Faith, Hope and Capital

RN: I'm Kermit Newkirk and I'm pastor of the Harold O. Davis Memorial Baptist Church. I'm also Project Coordinator for Nehemiah Phase I Development of Affordable Homes in Philadelphia

LA: Rev. Newkirk, let's get right into it. What is Nehemiah all about?

RN: Well, it's based on the biblical character, Nehemiah, who went to the king because he saw the condition of the city and he got permission from the king to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the gates and the walls of the city. And what Nehemiah's about really is to go into depressed areas of the inner city and areas where nobody's really developing, that people have forgotten, abandoned, and bring truly affordable homes. Critical for our success is: organized people, organized money, and a critical mass of land, so that we can bring not just two, twenty, thirty, fifty houses, but really three hundred, four hundred, five hundred--present a new community in the midst of a most blighted area. We got that concept from our sister organizations in New York, ABC, who did about two thousand, three thousand in East Brooklyn. BUILDT, Baltimorean's United In Leadership Development in Training, did about seven hundred in Baltimore. So, the concept is now here in Philadelphia and that's what we're planning to do--develop new communities in the midst of blight.

LA: Where do these organized people come from?

RN: Mostly they are faith-based institutions--the churches and other community groups. One of the great strengths of a Philadelphia Interfaith Action is that we are interfaith, we are multidenominational, we are multicultural, and we're multiracial and we go the gamut. We discovered that people united and working together for common causes can help to resolve issues and so our strength is in our diversity. It's not a black problem. It's not a white problem. It's not a Hispanic problem. It is a people problem. So, in most of our inner cities, the only thing left that is still viable and living is the institution called the church. There are other community groups that are living, but in most of our blighted areas, the only thing left is the church.

LA: We were meeting some of the residents of Nehemiah and we were really impressed with their knowledge, not just of why they were there, but what they could do with their power. Why don't you talk a little bit about the impact that this project has.

RN: I'm glad you said that because one of the things that we have been pigeon-holed as is a developer, of housing. And PIA is not that. In fact, PIA is multi-issued. One of the issues was housing. One of the things that we do best and probably what we are best at is organizing people. Because we are organizers, we organize, we develop relationships and out of those relationships, issues emerge. So although we built 135 units of housing and a new community in West Philadelphia, what we really did was bring those people together. We started the process of organizing. We helped them to understand how people who are powerless can work in the power arena, and to understand how power works, the importance of relationships, the importance of research, the importance of understanding how we utilize our power to affect change. And it is happening. And it will continue to happen. And exactly what we said would happen, happened. We put 135 families together in a small and neglected part of the city of Philadelphia and they are emerging as a force and a power force just because we have our lead organizer out there, helping them understand how power works and to have them organize so, it is emerging as we deal with issues, they get success. They do some action and they win and they like winning. Because they've been in other organizations and in other communities where they never win. "They can't fight city hall." You can fight city hall, but it's a power. It deals with recognition and respect. And so a couple weeks ago they went down to the Bureau of Taxes and Abatement, and the Department of Revenue, because of some unfair practices that were happening. And they filled up the deputy's office with about 35 home owners and they showed how power works. So, it's emerging. It's working. It did exactly what we said it would do.

LA: Great. So, most of the families that are living there, are they from other parts of the city? Where are people from that end up at Nehemiah Housing?

RN: We are a citywide organization. Our institutions cover the vast area of Philadelphia. That's why, when we deal with the Mayor or anyone else, we're not talking about just the West Philadelphia issue or North Philly or Logan. We're citywide. We assumed that when we started to market these homes, that because we are being a citywide agency and organization, that would draw people from all over the city to the Nehemiah. But Philadelphia is a very parochial city. I've never seen a city such as Philadelphia. And what has happened is most people in West Philadelphia or in neighbors just outside of West Philadelphia, are the real persons who would be interested in buying a Nehemiah home. So, if we did a count and a survey, which we have, most of the home owners were living either in apartments or living with certain relatives and were looking for their first home. And they come out of West Philly, South Place, and Philadelphia. So, that's where most of them are coming from.

LA: If you could sort of generalize about the kind of folks who are living there. Are they families? Are they older people?

RN: I think it covers the broad gamut. I would've assumed that a lot of home owners would've had children and they would have a lot of families and they would've been younger families, moving up, trying to get mobility, but it covers the whole gamut. You have folks who are almost ready for retirement, our 100th homeowner was a gentleman who's about ready for retirement and he's a single gentleman and his brother lives in another part of the Nehemia West. We also have families, school teachers, who are just getting started in their professions. We have a couple of lawyers, who just got out of law school, this is their first home. Then we have laborers. We've got people from the city sanitation department, hospital workers. You name it. It is a broad spectrum of people, which is what we were looking for. We want a broad section of people, coming together... what used to be happening years ago in communities, when your teachers and your doctors and your laborers, all of them kind of live together in the inner city. So, that is who is the make-up of Nehemiah, many people.

LA: I'm just curious. What kind of impact Nehemiah is going to have on the city as a whole.

RN: I'll tell you what I think should happen. When we developed the concept of Nehemiah for Philadelphia, based on what has happened in other cities, we felt that this would be something that would go into a most blighted area and stabilize it, showing that you can really bring quality homes at an affordable price and bring a new community within an area that has been neglected and forgotten. It would be kind of like the wave of real urban renewal. We know that the average city subsidy per unit per house is high, very high. Sometimes it goes up to 120, 130, even 150 hundred thousand dollars per unit. We built these homes around 72-73 thousand dollars per unit, which is very low, and we bring our own money to the table. So, we feel as though this should be the way, if you really want to do real critical change in our inner cities in terms of making it livable, this would be the model for which you'd do urban renewal, urban development. But in Philadelphia no good deed goes unpunished. I think that this has been a threat to a lot of developers, a lot of other community groups see it as a threat to what they had been used to doing. Success is punished in Philadelphia, so we're having a difficult time doing the phase 2. We made a commitment that we would build it, and the mayor made a commitment that he would help us fast track his bureaucracy. What we planned and what has happened has been a struggle. Maybe it's their learning curve, but it has not done what we expected it to do, although we hope that it will.

LA: Let's talk about the role of Delaware Valley Reinvestment Fund.

RN: We needed a PIA to make this work, but we also needed a Delaware Valley for two reasons. First of all, their technical assistance has been invaluable. Although we had the concept as to how to do it, the actual nuts and bolts and dealing with the bureaucracy and all the technical stuff that goes into that, it was The Reinvestment Fund that gave us that support. They gave us a retired contractor who has built thousands of units, has served as a kind of a mentoring for our people who are actually doing it in the field. So, in that light, they have been excellent and they have been almost invaluable. Also, the very fact that the politics of Philadelphia is so difficult and the housing bureaucracies are filled with traps... they know all of the jargon, they know all of the technical stuff that we would never know, and also they helped us with that. But, thirdly, most importantly to us, they put their money up as well. They put about $1.5 million into our lending pool. And so, not only did they serve as technical advisors and gave us the technical support, but they also put up money to help in terms of construction costs. When you talk about PIA and the Nehemiah development, DVCRF has to be right on their front line because they have done an excellent job, and Jeremy Nowack has been just--he got an award a couple of years ago, "Mr. Philadelphia". He honestly deserved that award, and ever since then I have nobody I would even recommend who in fact matches his shoes in terms of Mr. Philadelphia because he's been great. Particularly for the inner city communities. And not with us, but in a whole lot of different areas. I don't think there's anybody in the country like them.

JM: Were they any struggles at all or was it an easy path working with The Reinvestment Fund?

RN: Struggles? I think the struggles and the tensions that we had were not based on our relationship. I think the struggles and tensions were based on outside and things that we could not control that were really making all of us tense in terms of the city fulfilling their commitments. And we would be sitting there waiting for the Philadelphia bureaucracy to follow through or finalize certain things or do something, and so it would be a lot of tension to getting those things done. But, we really, it has been a very congenial, cordial relationship because we all had the same goals. I mean, we wanted to get Nehemiah built and built on time at cost, and get homeowners in. So, I can't think of much tension at all other than getting it done.

JM: One other thing, maybe just a couple of words on Nehemiah Phase 2?

RN: We believe that there are about sixty people a day leaving Philadelphia. We believe that Philadelphia is going to have a thriving city center area, but a desert when it deals with the neighborhoods. We see decline. My church is in an area, I mean, if you go around with your cameras you will see what is happening in our area and we're hoping that a phase 2 would be here as well. But, the issue for us was, we feel as though we have stopped the bleeding. These people are upwardly mobile that have moved into Nehemiah West. They were able to get a mortgage, if they could get a mortgage in Philadelphia from the banks, they could get a mortgage in the suburbs from the banks. In fact, they could take their mortgage commitment anywhere. But they committed to moving into an area where a Nehemiah was developing. I think we have stopped that flow and I think because of the success in West Philadelphia we can duplicate this and reverse the issue of people leaving the city and maybe people coming back into the city. We know that there are people in the suburbs and in the surrounding communities that are in apartments, and they are renters, and they would love to move back into Philadelphia but they had to move out of Philadelphia to rent in the suburbs because it was far more affordable. But, we've gotten plenty of inquiries in terms of when is a phase 2 because these are renters in the suburbs and they want to come back and have a house in the city because they cannot afford affordable houses in the suburbs. The market is there, we could reverse the trend if we could get the bureaucracy and the powers that be to look at that. Now the mayor has started this by putting his money and his mouth together in Nehemiah phase 1, but the commitment was for a thousand, and right now we see now focus at all in terms of fulfilling that commitment. But, people want to come back into the city.