If I had a hammer: Faith-based organization rehabs Germantown one house at a time

If I had a hammer: Faith-based organization rehabs Germantown one house at a time

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The ceiling was coming down, the walls were crumbling and two sinks were leaking. But Joan and Curtis Garrett, senior citizens on fixed incomes, couldn’t afford to hire commercial contractors to repair their home in the Germantown section of Philadelphia and they weren’t in any shape to do the work themselves.

“I can’t fully extend my left leg,” explained Curtis Garrett, a retired electrician whose knee has never fully healed from surgery.

Getting lucky

But the Garretts, whose home is in the 1000 block of East Syndney Street, were lucky. They got help with their home repairs from the Urban Resource Development Corporation  (URDC), a faith-based organization that rebuilds and repairs homes for low-income people in Northwest Philadelphia.

Joan and Curtis Garrett (right) say the repair work done by URDC on their Germnatown home was “a godsend.” At left, Joe Waldo, URDC executive director. (Photo by Kevin Cooke).

“That’s the passion of this —  to fix the one house” before it brings down the value of an entire block, said Joe Waldo, executive director of URDC.

The non-profit organization is financially supported by a dozen churches in Northwest Philadelphia and small grants.

It offers below market-rate repairs on homes for low- and moderate-income people, with any profits plowed into future projects.

Home owners are also asked to make some contribution, whether that be coveirng part of the cost or volunteering their own labor to help with the repairs.

The group’s annual budget of about $175,000 is also supported by rental income from three homes owned by URDC.

Nearby neighborhoods, too

The URDC, which started in 1995, concentrates its work in Germantown, but has also worked in nearby neighborhoods like Mount Airy and West Oak Lane.

These are the zip codes in Northwest Philadelphia where URDC works.

When it began, the organization aimed to buy, fix and sell homes to first-time home owners “It was great,” Waldo recalled as he explained how the organizaiton renovated and sold houses in the early days. Its goal was to stop a neighborhood from decaying by fixing the first neglected house and turning it into a sturdy home.

At the start, the URDC was making money on renovations, but when the recession hit and developers became more active in the neighborhood, things changed. “We weren’t making money and couldn’t sell to the intended target” (first-time home owners,), Waldo said.

Sales to rehabs

In response to market forces, the agency shifted its focus in 2006 to repairing or rehabbing homes but not selling them, Waldo explained. “Ninety percent of our work now is rehab,” he said.  “We generally help with the smaller jobs because we can help more (people).”

Joan Garrett got her basement faucets fixed through URDC. (Photo by Kevin Cooke).

The Garretts’ situation is common among Germantown home-owners, many of whom struggle to pay their bills.  “At any given time, we are working at three (houses),” Waldo said. Last year, the group served 50 families; in 2017, URDC aims to serve 55.

“God’s work”

Waldo said the members of URDC are “trying to do God’s work,” which makes the group different from commerical developers.

Currently, 12 faith-based organiztions, including Protestant and Catholic parishes, are members of the URDC. Two joined in the last month and the organization is looking for more.

The newest member is Mishkan Shalom Synagogue and the group hopes to add a Philadelphia mosque to its membership list soon.

Waldo, who got involved with the URDC because he was a member of First United Methodist Church of Germantown, one of the participating congregations, talked about the organization’s volunteers.  “Now I’m staff, but I was a volunteer,” he said.

Volunteers help

The URDC organizes four or five volunteer days a year where the organization gets anywhere from five to 20 volunteers a day.  “Sometimes it’s just cleaning. It doesn’t take too much skill, ” Waldo commented.

While the City of Philadelphia has a home repair program known as  the Basic System Repair Program (BSRP), which provides free home repairs for low income and senior homeowners, the URDC’s three-to-four-month wait time is about six times faster than the city program, Waldo said.

URDC’s track record over the past three years. (Chart by Kevin Cooke).

When committing to a project, the URDC looks at three things — whether the property is within its service area; the size of the job; and the willingness of the home owner to contribute what Waldo called “sweat equity.” He said that might mean making a finacial contribution, getting a low-interest loan with the help of URDC or volunteering to help with the rehab work themselves.

Recently, the URDC has developed another way to cover its costs — getting a referral fee from financially secure residents who call URDC seeking the names of trustworthy contractors. “We’ve had many people who can afford it call us to give them people they can trust,” Waldo said.

Protecting people from scams

He said the referral service helps protect the community from scam artists seeking quick bucks for shoddy workmanship. “This area has had a problem with (bogus contractors) taking advantage of people who need help. It just breaks your heart. Finding a contractor you can trust is huge,” Waldo said.

For their part, the Garretts say they were pleased with the work of URDC contractors who installed grab bars in the bathroom, added railings on the steps to the basement, replaced facucets, and fixed and painted walls and ceilings.

Joan Garrett called URDC “a godsend.” She added: “You don’t hear of a lot of programs for moderate-income areas.”