City hopes to entice police and firefighters to move into Mantua

Posted: September 04, 2014

Hoping to stabilize the dilapidated West Philadelphia neighborhood of Mantua, the city wants to entice police officers and firefighters to move into the struggling area - with cash to help buy homes and pay taxes on them.

Officials think having police and firefighters living in Mantua and interacting as neighbors with residents would improve the quality of life in the area.

But even with the cash incentives, the initial $200,000 program could be a hard sell.

"It's a good idea," said Joe Schulle, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 22. "However, our guys are still going to be reluctant to move into transient neighborhoods if they have kids and families."

Promise Zone

John McNesby, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, doesn't think any police officers would move into dangerous neighborhoods, given the city's "rigorous off-duty rules."

If anything, McNesby said, police officers are looking to move out of the city.

Mantua, on the eastern side of West Philadelphia just over the Spring Garden Street Bridge, is plagued with high poverty and crime as well as blighted lots and properties.

Mantua's poverty rate is 51 percent, and in parts it surges to 80 percent. Unemployment is at 14 percent. Nearly 15 percent of the houses are vacant, double the city average. The 2012 homicide rate was slightly higher than the city average, the rate of aggravated assaults and robberies much higher, and the rate of rapes was double.

The two-square-mile section of the city does have its advantages: It is within walking distance to Center City, Drexel, and the University of Pennsylvania. Strong neighborhood groups have helped revitalize many blocks.

It has been designated a Promise Zone by the Obama administration, meaning federal renewal help.

Even that and an influx of 25 uniformed personnel into Mantua - the pilot's starting goal - won't solve decades of decline, city officials say, but there is hope.

"We're not claiming this is going to drop crime," said Edward Garcia, one of the two assistant managing directors who came up with the idea. "Instead, firefighters and police officers can help improve the community and be agents of change."

Mantua could be on the upswing - new housing is being built and residents say the drug dealing isn't as blatant as before.

The pilot, the Residency Opportunity for Officers and Firefighters, is expected to be rolled out in early 2015, offering $2,000 for homebuyers' closing costs to 25 police officers and firefighters. In addition, the city would pay $2,000 for three years after that to help with property taxes and home maintenance.

Funding for the annual $50,000 outlay is likely to come from the Mayor's Fund for Philadelphia, a nonprofit separate from the city's general fund, said city Managing Director Rich Negrin.

The pilot program was designed by Garcia and his colleague Manny Citron, who saw how the location of the future police headquarters at 46th and Market Streets in West Philadelphia could benefit the area. The city Health Department and morgue will also be located there.

That would bring more police driving to and from work, the pair said, the better for the neighborhood.

When they mapped police and firefighters' homes, they saw more than 50 percent live in the city's Northeast. Getting them to move into "the neighborhoods" could help with building relationships, Garcia said.

Five-year rule

In 2009, the city allowed police officers who had lived in the city for five years to move out of Philadelphia. Since then, 400 of the city's 6,600 police have migrated to the suburbs. Firefighters and other city employees are still required to live in the city.

Schulle thinks maybe some of the younger firefighters who don't yet have families might take advantage of the pilot program.

If Mantua becomes a "better, more vibrant neighborhood," the program would be expanded to other struggling neighborhoods, Negrin said.



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