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Kenny Gamble dreams big for his hometown

A friend to his old haunts, he has ventured into upscale housing.

Kenny Gamble, 64, is many things to many people: R&B legend, black community activist, record producer, music promoter, political contributor, champion of the poor, real-estate developer.

This year, he is to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Last year, he helped to rally African American men against violence in Philadelphia.

He dreams big for his hometown. Gamble is trying to create a National Center for Rhythm and Blues here that would tout the city's music heritage.

He gives big to local politicians. Gamble has given more than $250,000 either directly or through his political action committee, New Urban Reform Inc., to local politicians. Mayor John Street received $115,000 in 2002 and 2003.

But it's Gamble's role through his nonprofit to build high-end housing that has him entangled with the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA).

The nonprofit that Gamble started in 1993 began venturing into upscale housing five years ago as a way to finance its affordable-housing projects.

Universal Cos., an umbrella redevelopment nonprofit that includes a real estate division, says on its Web site that its efforts to sell houses at whatever prices the market can bear help to pay for building homes for poor families.

In 15 years, Universal Community Homes has built more than 200 low-income apartments and houses, and has more than 80 other units in development.

Critics in government and community development have questioned why a nonprofit has gotten city help to build expensive homes.

Universal has two projects for market-rate housing, both of which have hit delays.

The first was a deal to renovate 25 abandoned rowhouses in the area known as South of South, which is south of South Street, west of Broad Street, and north of Washington Avenue. The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority condemned the properties for Universal and arranged financing.

But the effort fell behind schedule. Some of the homes have sold for as much as $435,000, but about seven renovations are unfinished.

"Many people in the neighborhood were concerned that so much city money was going into paying for market-rate housing when private developers already were developing market-rate housing," said David Feldman, who was acting director of the South of South Neighborhood Association in 2005.

Feldman said an effort by the association to build affordable housing for residents was having a hard time finding sufficient funds.

On the other side of Broad Street, in the Hawthorne section of South Philadelphia, Universal had a deal with PHA to develop 19 market-rate homes.

It was part of a redevelopment agreement in 2000 for the former Martin Luther King public housing project. However, Carl Greene, head of the housing authority, said yesterday that Universal failed to live up to its end of the agreement to provide job and employment services to tenants.

The authority decided in 2006 to deny Universal the land for the 19 homes.

Carl Dranoff, a Center City developer who has worked with Universal, said Gamble has had a "substantial impact" in turning around borderline neighborhoods - in particular the South of South and Hawthorne areas.

"I give him great credit for being an entrepreneur and catalyst," Dranoff said. "He's come in early and invested his own money not only in housing, but also job training and education.

"He's ahead of the pack and takes risks," Dranoff said.

The Universal Web site says that since 1980, Gamble has spent more than $7 million of his personal funds to buy 120 run-down properties around his old neighborhood at 15th and Christian Streets. According to real estate records, he owns at least two dozen properties in the area.

In 1989, Gamble took things one step further and moved out of his Gladwyne home to return to his neighborhood.

Through his nonprofit, he started a charter school, offered employment and business training, and began building homes for low-income families.

Universal also bought the landmark Royal Theater on South Street, hoping to turn the shuttered landmark into a revitalized entertainment district west of Broad.

When Gamble returned, the predominantly African American community was called South Central. The neighborhood battled drugs and was scarred with decaying and abandoned houses.

Today, the area is called South of South. New construction and renovations are moving at a fast clip. Homes sell for close to a half-million dollars and attract newcomers.

Gamble derives much of his wealth from a lifetime in songwriting and record-producing. He and partner Leon Huff have 3,000 soul and rhythm-and-blues titles to their credit. On March 10, the pair will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with such artists as Madonna and John Mellencamp.

They created the lush Sound of Philadelphia, found in such songs as "Wake Up Everybody," "Me and Mrs. Jones," and "Love Train."

Last month, however, one of their star groups, the O'Jays, sued the pair for $3 million in overdue royalties. Eddie Levert Sr. and Walter Williams claim that Philadelphia International Records failed to comply with a 2006 court order for back payment.