Rev. Kermit Newkirk
Harold O. Davis Memorial Baptist Church
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
Newkirk, let's get right into it. What is Nehemiah all about?
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.
do these organized people come from?
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.
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.
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.
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.
just curious. What kind of impact Nehemiah is going to have on the city
as a whole.
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.
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.
they any struggles at all or was it an easy path working with The Reinvestment
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.
other thing, maybe just a couple of words on Nehemiah Phase 2?
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.