Ken Weinstein is attempting the impossible in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia: gentrification without displacement. Removing blight without removing long-term residents. 

From redlining in the 1930’s to urban renewal projects of the ‘50s and ‘60s to the ‘Brooklynification’ of low-income neighborhoods all over the country today, the American housing story has always been one of discrimination and displacement for those struggling the most. Gentrification is not a new problem, but with cities finally growing in population again after a sixty year decline, previously forgotten about neighborhoods are being bought up by developers faster than ever.

As a real estate developer with 30 years of experience, Weinstein understands that gentrification is unpreventable when cities need to grow. It is the symptoms of gentrification that hurt residents: drastically increased rent prices push the most vulnerable inhabitants out and affordable shopping/restaurants get upscaled to satisfy the wealthier residents who move in. Luckily these factors can be controlled.

Weinstein started Jumpstart Germantown four years ago with the goal of training Germantown residents to become developers themselves. Instead of locals becoming passive victims of the gentrification process, they are empowered to improve their own neighborhoods and reap the benefits.

Last week, WYL spoke to Weinstein about his work in Germantown.

WYL: What is your background and why/how did jumpstart come about?

Weinstein: Like a lot of real estate developers I get inundated with requests to sit down from people who want to do what I do. We all like to pay it forward so we tend to say ‘yes’. But I was starting to get 5-10 people a week and it would take a lot of my time. Also, I didn’t feel like I was particularly helping people. Sitting down with someone for an hour and telling them about your path and then expecting them to follow it just isn’t realistic. So instead I experimented with a 12 hour real estate curriculum. Four years ago, we started to put people through this program and give everyone a volunteer mentor at the end. Since then, we’ve now graduated 625 people just through Jumpstart Germantown. Now, there are eight Jumpstart programs in Philadelphia and we’re training 70 people at a time, four times a year.

WYL: Why specifically are you based in germantown?

Weinstein: 30 years ago I was living in Fishtown, a now fully gentrified neighborhood, and I was really inspired by my landlord who renovated six houses in the neighborhood with her own two hands. I thought ‘wow how cool is that! That’s what I want to do.’ So we looked around the city and saw Germantown, a neighborhood with good opportunity and needed the kind of blight removal that I wanted to work on.

WYL: How has gentrification affected that area?

Weinstein: Well—there’s always gentrification pressures. So any developer who says that they will improve a neighborhood without gentrifying it is lying to you. So the question then becomes, how do you manage gentrification— improve the neighborhood and remove the blight without pushing people out who’ve lived there for many years. That’s partly how we came up with Jumpstart Germantown, because one method of improving a neighborhood without displacing people is to train up residents of that neighborhood who want to develop and let them make the change themselves. So rather than having lots of outsiders come in to improve the Germantown neighborhood, we are training local people and giving them the tools and money they need to succeed. It keeps wealth local.

WYL: Your website says you support scattered site rehabilitation as opposed to urban renewal. What is the difference and why does that difference matter?

Weinstein: Back in the 70’s, when I was growing up, urban renewal was a federal policy where they would knock down entire neighborhood blocks and rebuild from scratch. To me, that becomes a way to quickly gentrify a neighborhood while also removing the fabric of it, which isn’t healthy. So I prefer to teach a method of scattered site rehab. If there’s one or two vacant properties on a lot now, by next year there will be three or four. We train Jumpstarters so they can renovate those properties, which improves the quality of life for everyone on the block without greatly increasing rent prices or displacing anyone. Urban renewal, however, immediately displaces people.”

WYL: What are some tangible ways jumpstart has helped the germantown neighborhood?

Weinstein: Over the first four years of the program, we gave out over $15 million in loans and that represents about 115 loans. We know we have had that sort of impact. We’re seeing a lot less blight, more commercial development—all the signs are pointing up. Also, we’re seeing a lot of people, both Jumpstarters and non-Jumpstarters, who are now more interested in real estate development than ever.

ICYMI: Make sure to check out our previous sit-down with Michele Cohen where we discussed the eviction crisis in Philadelphia.

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