Two or three years ago, buying a house seemed like a good idea to Ana. But with little money saved in the bank, she knew that she was still a long way from being able to call a house her own.
One day in early last year, Ana — who works as a research administrator at Drexel University’s School of Public Health, and declined to give her last name — saw a pamphlet about the university’s Employee Home Purchase Assistance Program. After meeting with the director at the time, decided to enroll in the program and begin the process of purchasing a house.
Nearly a year and half later, Ana and her fiancé own a turn-of-the-century Victorian row house in the West Powelton neighborhood of University City, in West Philadelphia.
“There’s no way I would have been able to buy a house without this program at this point,” Ana said. “It gave me the extra money and helped me get through the process.”
Through the assistance program, Drexel University provides any member of its faculty or staff with a $15,000 forgivable loan towards the purchase of a house located in the neighborhoods adjacent its main campus in University City.
This means that the university will “forgive” 20 percent of the $15,000 loan each year the enrollee remains a member of the faculty or staff over a five-year period, explained Program Director Althea Wallace, so that “after five years, he or she no longer has to repay Drexel any money.”
“Drexel is tying to make is so our employees live where they work,” said Wallace, “so that the university can enhance its overall relationship with the surrounding community and become more than just a university located in West Philadelphia.”
The program was introduced as a part of Drexel University President John Fry’s Civic Engagement initiative that he outlined during his convocation address in 2010.
In his speech, Fry — the engineer behind the University of Pennsylvania’s investment into University City when he served as Penn’s vice president in the 1990s — said his goal was to make Drexel “the most civically engaged university in the United States.”
In the year and a half since the program launched, Drexel has sold nine homes for an average price of $228,000. Five more houses are close to being finalized. According to Wallace, the home sales through the program have represented over $2 million worth of investment into the local community.
However, that figure represents just the beginning of the impact that an influx of homeowners has on a community, said Farah Jimenez, president and CEO of the People’s Emergency Center, a community center with ties to Powelton Village, West Powelton and Mantua, the West Philadelphia neighborhoods involved in the program.
“Drexel’s program is an opportunity to bring in a community of additional homeowners,” Jimenez said. “One of the realities of the neighborhoods where Drexel is making this investment is that there is a substantial amount of rental properties and not a lot of owner occupied housing.”
Powelton Village exemplifies this imbalance of renters and homeowners described by Jimenez. According to 2010 Census data accumulated by PolicyMap, the owner-occupier rate in Powelton Village alone was just 9 percent, with Mantua and West Powelton sharing similar rates.
While clearly a rented property is better than a vacant or abandoned building, Jimenez said that it’s important for communities to have a balance between renters and owner-occupiers.
“The beauty of homeowners is that they’re not easily moved,” Jimenez said. “Generally when a person has made that type of investment, a person is laying roots and is going to stay for a while.”
Jimenez continued: “It matters to a homeowner how a nearby commercial corner gets developed, whether there are community programs for children, if the local rec center is being maintained,” whereas a renters simply do not have the same level of investment in the community they live in.
While Jimenez said that it’s too early to truly measure the impact that the program is having on the local economy, she believes it will not take long before Drexel’s initiative takes hold and begins to catalyze economic growth in the communities around its campus.
To help reach that point, Dr. Lucy Kerman, vice provost for Drexel’s University and Community Partnerships, said that the university has “been really focusing on making the neighborhood itself a cleaner and safer place to live for our faculty, as well as preexisting residents.”
Beyond offering the financial assistance for home purchasing, Kerman said that Drexel has focused on improving the community as a whole to make the area a more viable, attractive place for employees to live. The university has invested in its own police force, which patrols the area surrounding Drexel’s campus. In addition, Drexel has contracted Mantua Community Improvement Committee to clean up regions of that neighborhood.
“All to make the neighborhoods surrounding the university more attractive for potential employees and to make the community stronger for those people who already live there,” Kerman said.
Drexel’s holistic neighborhood improvement strategy has made the entire process of moving into a new neighborhood that much easier for Ana, who had grown up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and had never lived in the city prior to moving into West Powelton.
“I definitely had some reservations about moving from the Mainline into West Philadelphia,” Ana said. “Now I feel completely safe living in my new house.”