TO GET WHAT Jamie Moffett is all about, think of what the Lichtenstein slumlords are all about.
And then imagine the opposite.
Brothers Michael, Yechiel and Nahman Lichtenstein live in New York, far from the Thomas W. Buck Hosiery building they own in Kensington. The derelict warehouse burned on Monday, leading to the deaths of two Philly firefighters.
The Lichtensteins buy Philly properties for development and then ignore them as they crumble, blighting blocks that are already struggling. They also stiff the city on property taxes - they owe $385,665.
The Lichtensteins don't give a rat's ass about the folks who live among the dumps the brothers own. If they did, they'd behave more like Jamie Moffett.
Moffett, 35, is a documentary filmmaker who owns a studio on Westmoreland Street in Kensington. His neighborhood, which he says is the poorest section of the poorest neighborhood in the city, is riddled with vacant houses he calls "abandominiums": homes to squatters and addicts, pit stops for prostitutes and commerce centers for drug dealers.
"The corner is so profitable, some dealers come all the way from West Oak Lane to work here," Jamie says, pointing to a corner a few steps from his front door. The spot is near the Market-Frankford El's Allegheny stop, so addicts have easy access to dealers.
Proving, once again, that the prime determinant of property value is location, location, location.
Moffett's home is 500 feet from H and Westmoreland streets, where a former textile factory burned to the ground in June 2007. The rubble is gone, but the vast property, bigger than a hockey rink, has become a short-dump site of spreading blight that disgusted neighbors are trying to contain with old tires for an urban garden.
These are the community residents Moffett knows and loves: decent folks, many from hardscrabble origins but trying harder to make it. They're imprisoned in their homes by crime worsened by neglected properties that telegraph, "No one cares. So come on in and do your thing."
Moffett's neighbors can't afford to move to the safer, tonier neighborhoods that parasites like the Lichtensteins wouldn't dare disrespect. And because so many renters live in the area, there's a churning transience that exacerbates its instability.
Which invites more crime.
The key to breaking the cycle, Moffett believes, is home ownership. He quotes studies linking home ownership with neighborhood safety, and studies detailing the obstacles - banks, mostly - that prevent low-income renters from becoming owners.
Moffett aims to change that through Kensington Renewal Initiative, a program he founded with several neighbors to acquire and rehab blighted properties at low cost and sell them to renters, who will become owner-occupants. Profits are used to buy more houses.
Interestingly, the group is using "crowd-funding" through the website Helpers Unite, which matches financial donors with charitable causes, to get the program going.
"We're their first group to crowd-fund for a house," says Moffett.
On Monday, Kensington Renewal acquired its first property - a home that had been torched by arsonists - from suburban real-estate investor Roger Dickson, who was glad to sell it to Moffett's group for a dollar.
"I don't have time to repair it, and Jamie is so passionate about his project, I was glad to give it to his group," says Dickson, who owns other properties in the area. "When people own their homes, they have a stake in the neighborhood. They take care of it. And that brings up the values of other properties."
Moffett, ever the documentarian, is working with television producer Chris Pack to develop a reality series about the work of Kensington Renewal, so that urban pioneers in other cities might copy the model, which Moffett is convinced will change lives.
"It's not a difficult concept to grasp," says Moffett, who grew up nearby and still has relatives in the area (his mailman is his cousin). "That doesn't mean it's easy to do. But doing nothing isn't an option."
It never is when you look at a struggling neighborhood and see people, not dollar signs.
If only the Lichtensteins had seen them, too.