(Photo by M. Fischetti for Visit Philadelphia)
This essay was originally published via ImpactPHL Perspectives, a multi-part series which explores the many facets of the impact economy in Greater Philadelphia from the perspectives of its doers, movers, shakers and agents of change.
Drexel University has taken on a mission as an engaged anchor institution with a substantial role and set of responsibilities in the life and local economy of West Philadelphia.
One of our key strategies is to integrate this outward-looking perspective into our core academic functions through comprehensive supports for civic engagement. The Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships, part of Drexel’s Office of University and Community Partnerships, offers a hub for doing academically rigorous work that is creative, collaborative, responsive to the needs and interests articulated by residents and neighborhood stakeholders, and generates benefits for both students and residents.
Housing and homeownership issues, especially around stability and affordability, have emerged in each of the local neighborhood planning processes as a high-level priority, and Drexel is implicated — even if unintentionally — as a driver of neighborhood change as private housing developed with students in mind has spurred rent and real estate value increases. Drexel works to address this challenge in a number of ways:
- We take part in community-driven, multi-stakeholder initiatives that prioritize housing, like the West Philadelphia Promise Zone and the Housing Preservation Initiative.
- We support single-family housing in the neighborhood with an employee benefit, while simultaneously adding student beds on campus with the aim in part to reduce the number of students seeking housing in privately developed neighborhood “mini-dorms.”
- We participate with Rebuilding Together Philadelphia as it brings extraordinary block-scale home and streetscape improvement resources to neighborhood homeowners.
As a university, however, we are uniquely situated to apply our knowledge resources— the professional training, creativity, and problem-solving energy of our faculty and students — to these types of challenges. Two Drexel academic programs, the Community Lawyering Clinic and Writers Room, use the resources of the Dornsife Center to engage with these housing issues in ways that are unique to their programmatic design and academic homes, represent substantial investments of academic resources, and together offer ways to ameliorate some of these housing challenges as they enrich the quality of Drexel’s education.
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The Community Lawyering Clinic
Located at the Dornsife Center, the Kline School of Law’s Community Lawyering Clinic (CLC) takes a two-pronged approach to helping neighborhood residents resolve legal issues related to homeownership. We try to tackle problems at both the individual and system levels. First, we provide free legal services to individual homeowners for any legal issues that threaten their homes: we have helped homeowners to avoid foreclosure, to reclaim property after a sheriff’s sale, and to transfer title of their homes into their names so that they can get access to weatherization and utility programs.
We also develop projects aimed at assisting the community at large to stabilize homeownership in the neighborhood. For example, we regularly conduct community education sessions on legal issues related to homeownership and are currently developing an initiative to help community organizations have greater input into proposed development in their neighborhood.
The CLC is staffed by Drexel’s law students, who offer legal representation for individual homeowners and also work side by side with the community on collaborative projects. It is a yearlong commitment for participating students, who receive six credits per semester and must devote 16-20 hours per week to their clinic work. To be successful, the students must demonstrate that they have developed healthy working relationships with their clients and have built sustainable partnerships with community leaders and organizations.
The CLC is staffed by Drexel’s law students, who offer legal representation for individual homeowners and also work side by side with the community on collaborative projects.
The CLC has successfully assisted over ten homeowners to regain or maintain legal ownership of their homes, and we have advised hundreds of other residents on legal issues related to homeownership. We also assist homeowners with issues that are the collateral consequence of not having their homes in their names. For example, when an elderly man did not have water in his home for nine years because his name is not on the deed, our students arranged to transfer the title. Now, for the first time in nine years, our elderly client can take a shower at his own home, instead of at a neighbor’s house. This individual representation gave rise to a successful community advocacy project: realizing that many neighborhood residents similarly had no running water in their homes, often for years due to bureaucratic hurdles, our students developed a Right to Water campaign. Partnering with community members and other stakeholders, we succeeded in compelling the Philadelphia Water Department to change outdated policies.
Not only does our work help make the community stronger and more stable, but our students learn to think more holistically about legal challenges — along with basic skills such as drafting legal documents, arguing in court, and managing cases. In this way, Drexel is educating lawyers who are not just technocrats, but change makers, where residents are not just clients, but essential partners in a joint struggle for equality.
Writers Room (WR) holds writing workshops throughout the academic year at the Dornsife Center. Drexel students along with community members come together at WR to write, often about their lives and their neighborhoods. Students, faculty, staff, and residents are on equal footing at WR—as storytellers desiring to improve their craft. We have found, since our inception, that the same issues are of concern to our writers no matter their backgrounds.
Although we have been aware of local housing issues since one of our founding members was displaced from her home three years ago, as a program WR entered the housing and homeownership conversation only recently. In early 2017, we began putting together a proposal to build a Writers House—a cooperative living situation that envisions student and community members as resident writers.
This year been a whirlwind of learning as we have educated ourselves about the fiscal, practical, political, and institutional barriers to addressing affordable housing in a neighborhood poised for ongoing and disruptive change, with the nearby innovation-district project Schuylkill Yards among other projects currently in development. Throughout this process, we talked with WR community members, Drexel undergraduates, faculty, and staff, and more than 50 potential community partners to ascertain what the desires and needs are of these intersecting and overlapping communities, and what resources are available to address them.
In early 2017, we began putting together a proposal to build a Writers House—a cooperative living situation that envisions student and community members as resident writers.
Decisions made by the new administration in Washington, DC have caused increased insecurity for both student and resident members of WR. Accessible healthcare, citizen-status, the availability of reasonably priced and healthy food, and affordable housing are concerns for the several communities who intersect at our program. Our self-reflective writing workshops allow us to experience this commonality and to sometimes commiserate, occasionally problem-solve, and always find solace through sharing stories that — although they may differ in substance — share core strands of both struggle and joy.
Academically-housed creative writing, as a field, does not (or not often) venture into action in service of social justice. WR, however, believes that true listening compels response. This belief is what has now galvanized us to engage in a dialogue about housing in our neighborhood, hopefully through the mindful construction of a model residence—designed and programmed through co-creative practices.
We put our initial proposal for Writers House into ArtPlace America, a national consortium of funders, in February 2017. When we were named a finalist (one of 70 out of a field of 1000), we immediately began speaking to groups and individuals in our communities to build partnerships that would help this dream come to fruition whether or not we received ArtPlace funding. Because we recently learned that we did not receive that seed money, we are adjusting to find other resources that will push this project forward. The local conversation that this residential house would join and support—about how a community can respond a process of neighborhood change without large-scale displacement is both necessary and urgent.
The role and history of art — especially of collaborative art — in generating creative solutions to collective challenges inspires WR’s taking on these issues of housing and homeownership.
We are only in our fourth year of programming at the Dornsife Center, and our Writers House is not yet a reality, but already we have several success stories. Perhaps more importantly, we have created a community of writers through our programming at the Dornsife Center that lowers the barriers between Drexel University and its neighbors. Students have helped local residents move, senior citizens and undergraduates have visited each other’s places of worship and have attended performances together outside of the programmed time at Writers Room. In other words, the benefit of Writers Room — beyond improvement in literacy skills and text production — is the opportunity to engage with a nonhomogeneous group of writers, bonded by their interest in this craft, and find not only commonality in our shared stories but also a deepening respect and the desire to forge relationships outside our habitual spheres. We hope to build on this community by making it the foundation of our residence. The goal is that our Writers House will become a pilot for other purpose-driven communities in West Philadelphia and, potentially, a model for other urban universities.
Academic engagement for mutual benefit
These two approaches to collaborative work on shared challenges are at the core of what Drexel’s Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships aims to be: a resource for both the university and community, that enriches the quality of education for Drexel’s students, while offering resources for the university’s neighbors to support their own vision of a vibrant community, and forging substantial bonds between the two.-30-
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