From the City Paper May 25, 2000...

city beat

Rental Problems

A Manayunk community coalition wants solutions to problems stemming from an exploding rental market.

by Frank Lewis

In the mid-1990s, a coalition of Manayunk-area community and church leaders set out to analyze the widely recognized but poorly documented changes in the character of the neighborhood over the last 10 to 20 years. It would have been understandable, even logical, if they had assumed from the outset that Main Street, the commercial strip that exploded in popularity in the 90s, was the primary culprit. But they tried to keep an open mind as they conducted their "listening campaign," which consisted of interviews with hundreds of Manayunk residents, and researched demographic trends.

And it s well they didn't act on assumptions. When they analyzed the data late last year, they were surprised to find that the forces behind Manayunk's gradual change from stable and working class to transient and trendy aren't necessarily all attributable to the rise of Main Street.

Of equal or greater importance, it seems, is the proliferation of rental properties.

"We weren't homing in on rental properties, per se," when the study was launched, says Ed Dougherty, a member of the leadership team at North Light Community Center on Green Lane, the force behind the Manayunk effort. (North Light is a member of the Greater Philadelphia Federation of Settlements, a nonprofit umbrella organization. A William Penn Foundation grant to GPFS helped fund the Manayunk study.) "But we were surprised by how clear was the message that it wasn't Main Street [that worried residents], it was [What's happening on] my block. "

The North Light Leadership Team s report outlines the trend. Among the key findings:

In addition to an overall population decline in Manayunk in the last 20 years a trend seen around the city there has been a noticeable drop in the number of families, as opposed to single adults. Using Census information and Realist, a real estate data base, the North Light team

projects a 32 percent decline in the number of families in zip code 19127 (covering almost all of Manayunk) by 2002, from 1980. This is slightly higher than the projected decline in citywide population for the same period.

Homeowner occupancy is also dropping. From 1990 to 1998, sales of homes to non-occupying buyers (typically landlords) increased 300 percent in 19127. In Census Tract 214 (described as "Central Manayunk"), almost half of all sales (42 percent) in 1998 were to non-occupying owners. As of 1999, approximately 30 percent of Manayunk s homes were owned by outsiders. On some blocks, it s 50 percent. Manayunk has become popular in recent years with real estate investors.

For example, 14 people own almost 200 homes in Manayunk and lower Roxborough. Only four live in the city; the rest are out-of-towners. The report says that in interviews, local realtors described increasing interest in Manayunk homes among investors "many of whom had never even been to Manayunk" and among parents of college students needing off-campus housing.

Many city neighborhoods have experienced only population loss, and might welcome the interest of investors and renters. And the North Light folks are quick to note that they don t mind sharing their beloved community with newcomers, even those who wouldn t dream of living there if it were still the blue-collar and decidedly un-trendy community it was 20 years ago.

But there is a strong and growing sense of loss throughout Manayunk, they say, heard over and over in the listening campaign. Some longtime residents are dying or leaving, and they re being replaced by people who seem to have no intention of staying more than a few years.

"The common story," says Sue Syrnick, "is so and so died and now five guys live there. "

Rosemary Hughes recalls being contacted recently by a 20-something friend of a friend who was moving to Manayunk. Hughes was struck by the fact that the young woman didn t even know the address of the home she would occupy, or how to get there. She was moving to Manayunk, Hughes says, "sight unseen."

There seem to be several reasons for the neighborhood s growing popularity with renters: rising rents in Center City, easy access to Center City and local universities, proximity to the Main Street shopping-and-dining corridor, and the perception that Manayunk is "safe." But as the transient population has grown, so have many longtime residents concerns and not just about the community's infamous parking shortage, or renters who routinely put their trash out days before pickup.

The report describes a "frat house atmosphere" on some blocks with multiple rental properties: "Many [renters] are attracted to Manayunk because of its thriving bar scene and weekend nightlife. Many of these rental properties are now also the site of large, frequent and loud parties. Many homeowners report having to call the police on a regular basis to quiet a party next door."

Similarly, the report notes a "decline of community cohesion": "If people do not know each other they are less likely to look out for each other s homes and property and are less likely to feel safe walking the streets alone at night. Hundreds of one-on-one interviews revealed a widespread feeling that we don't know our neighbors anymore. This is a serious danger signal for a neighborhood which for decades could count on neighborliness and community cohesion as its main source of stability."

"Its nice on my block right now with 30 percent renters," says Hughes. "I don't think it s going to be nice with 50 percent renters."

But the trend marches on in what s becoming a self-perpetuating cycle: Longtime resident gets fed up with trash, noise, lack of parking, etc., and puts home up for sale. Investor buys it, converts it to two-, three- or four-bedroom rental. Tenants move in, park on sidewalks and hold loud parties. Another neighbor gets fed up with trash, noise, lack of parking .

"There seems to be an imbalance" in Manayunk s real estate market, says Dougherty, "and the effect of that imbalance is it will just continue to push the neighborhood in the same direction."

And if Manayunk s popularity wanes for these or other reasons, property values will plummet.

So the North Light team is looking for support. Deputy Commissioner Dominic Verdi of the city s Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) has been a "good friend," according to North Light organizer David Koppisch. Last fall, L&I inspected more than 50 properties suspected of violating the housing code in some way in particular, by allowing four or more unrelated tenants to live in the same house. But North Light recognizes that ongoing enforcement is difficult for L&I's overburdened staff, and wants more comprehensive solutions.

After meeting with the team last month, Councilman Michael Nutter is studying several options, according to chief of staff Julia Chapman. Among them are ordinances modeled on ones from suburban communities with college-student populations.

North Light s "excellent" report "really helps crystallize the issue," Chapman says. "We re definitely not going to let their work go to waste."

Among the team s long-term proposals is a community land trust, which would "purchase property (vacant or otherwise) before speculators or investors can buy them," according to the report. "In Manayunk, a land trust could buy single-family homes, target young and/or first-time moderate-income buyers and keep them out of the rental pool."

"What I always liked [about Manayunk], I still have," says Hughes: Her kids walk to school, she has a short bus ride to work in Center City, and she has many longtime friends in the community. "What we want is a healthy real estate market. We want a vibrant mix" of homebuyers as well as renters.