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The intersection of 74th and Ogontz in Philadelphia. 

Philadelphia was hit hard by the Great Recession of 2008. According to a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, Philadelphia experienced the second-largest decline in homeownership of the nation’s 30 largest cities between 2000-2012, with the bulk of that drop occurring after the financial crisis. Fueled by predatory home mortgage lending practices, between January 2008 and March 2014, almost 10 percent of owner-occupied homes in the city went into foreclosure.

Some neighborhoods in Philadelphia, including Germantown, East Oak Lane, and West Oak Lane, remain particularly vulnerable today. Community development advocates refer to these areas as “middle neighborhoods.” They are affordable, with relatively high rates of homeownership, and are stable compared to some other Philadelphia neighborhoods—neither falling into decline nor experiencing widespread gentrification. Yet since 2008, predominantly black middle neighborhoods like Germantown and the Oak Lanes have suffered disproportionately high rates of foreclosure, vacancy, and unemployment compared to similar white middle neighborhoods in Philadelphia.

Many Germantown residents, particularly those living in poverty, struggle to maintain and hold on to homes they inherited from their parents or grandparents. “The situation is so fragile,” said Anna Brickman, legal director of Face to Face, a human services organization in Germantown. “Without help sorting out title issues, payment plans to get the power turned back on, and income to clear the taxes, [my clients] are always one step away from homelessness.”

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Claudia De Palma of the Public Interest Law Center.

There are resources available to help solve these problems. In the wake of the foreclosure crisis, the United States Department of Justice sued Bank of America for widespread fraud. In 2014, the case settled, and Bank of America was required to set aside money for community redevelopment legal assistance to help stabilize affected middle-income communities by taking on systemic issues that still loom large, like unaffordable property taxes, declines in income, and inaccessible public benefits.

As part of the process to determine how these funds should be spent, Regional Housing Legal Services (RHLS), a nonprofit that works with community organizations to increase the availability of quality affordable homes, found that Germantown and the Oak Lanes—specifically, the 19126, 19138, and 19144 ZIP codes––were among the communities that could most benefit from this support. Through a collaboration known as the Community Redevelopment Legal Assistance (CRLA) project, which is administered by the PA Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts Board, RHLS has brought legal aid organizations together to help community members stay in their homes by addressing the issues that threaten housing stability in their neighborhoods.

Residents can get free help in a number of ways. Through the CRLA project, Community Legal Services (CLS) and Philadelphia Legal Assistance (PLA) are helping homeowners avoid property tax foreclosure by addressing delinquent property tax bills. Many area homeowners—especially those who inherited their homes—also lack the clear documentation needed to sell their property, enter into repayment plans, or receive grants to make repairs. CLS’s Homeownership and Consumer Rights Unit is helping homeowners address these “tangled title” issues. Meanwhile, CLS’s Energy Unit is helping homeowners and renters tackle unpaid utility bills, helping them access payment programs and defending them against shutoffs.

As part of these efforts to promote neighborhood stability, legal aid organizations are also helping residents increase their household incomes. PLA is representing individuals who are having difficulty claiming federal tax refunds, including the Earned Income Tax Credit, or who are dealing with IRS debts, as well as those who need assistance obtaining unemployment compensation or other public benefits. The Public Interest Law Center is lowering barriers to employment faced by residents with criminal records by providing Know Your Rights trainings to job-seekers and reaching out to area employers.

“CRLA draws on the expertise and passion of the legal services community to help people hold on to their homes and improve the quality of life for residents of Northwest Philadelphia,” said Cynthia Daley, RHLS’s Director of Community Redevelopment Initiatives.

CRLA helps the organizations, churches and networks of neighbors already working in Northwest Philadelphia increase their positive impact on the community. Harambe Baptist Church runs a food pantry that serves dozens of their neighbors. One day, when helping a community member get her groceries home, a pantry volunteer discovered that the woman’s home had no electricity, gas or water.

“[There was] no way to cook or refrigerate the food we gave her, no way to wash the dishes she used to eat,” said Rev. Jeff Harley, the pastor of Harambe Baptist Church. “We connected her to CRLA, and CLS helped her get her utilities restored – and helped Harambe’s food resources go much farther for her.”

Northwest Philadelphia’s middle neighborhoods have tremendous strengths, but have been shaken by the disruptions of the foreclosure crisis. The legal aid organizations coming together through the CRLA project seek to help these communities use this strength to prevail over the challenges they face. To find out more about how you can get help staying in your home or increasing your income, view an online brochure for CRLA at https://www.pubintlaw.org/cases-and-projects/community-redevelopment-legal-assistance-project/. Working together, we can keep Northwest Philadelphia moving forward.

Claudia De Palma is a staff attorney at the Public Interest Law Center

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