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April 21, 2016

Five for Friday: Healthy Rowhouse Project Executive Director Jill Roberts

Five questions for the rowhome-repairing nonprofit leader

Lifestyle Influencers
042116_Jill_Roberts_Carroll.jpg Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Jill Roberts, executive director of the Healthy Rowhouse Project, stands across from an abandoned row home that has fallen into disrepair in the city's Brewerytown neighborhood.

Center City native Jill Roberts has a passion for preservation.

So much so, in the case of Philadelphia's affordable housing, that when the executive director gig at the Healthy Rowhouse Project popped up this year, a friend forwarded her a note saying — needing not even a nanosecond to mull it over — that it "had Jill written all over it." And sure enough, it did: In March, the 49-year-old Roberts left her role at Project HOME to lead Healthy Rowhouse Project's initiative to repair many of the city's rowhomes, part of an ongoing effort to prevent the displacement of Philly's poorest residents.

Here, Roberts talks misconceptions about Philly rowhomes, setting goals and how sports made her a better leader.

Just last month you were named executive director of the Healthy Rowhouse Project, which recently launched with a startup grant. What do you hope to accomplish in your first year leading the project?

Many studies have been done about the tremendous need in Philadelphia for affordable housing, the very high cost to build an affordable home and the need for a great deal of subsidy to do so. There have also been a great many studies locally and nationally about how a person’s home and its condition have a direct effect on the occupant’s health — especially when it comes to issues with breathing and falls. I hope and plan to lead a group of incredibly talented and knowledgeable consultants in figuring out the scope of our challenge and finding viable solutions.  

There are home repairs in low-income neighborhoods that would alleviate the affordable housing situation and at the same time improve the heath of people living in those houses — if we just reach a bit. Philadelphia already has a large supply of affordable housing in the form of its iconic rowhomes. Repairing those homes to get rid of health hazards like mold costs money. With 38 percent of Philadelphia homeowner households making less than $35,000 a year, it's no surprise that for many people doing those repairs would mean taking the money from food or medical budgets. Compared to the cost of developing a new affordable home, the cost to repair an existing one is very reasonable and sustainable. And if the occupants are healthy, they are attending school and work with more regularity and contributing more to this incredibly vibrant city. I hope we can connect all of those dots for people so the goals of the Healthy Rowhouse Project become reality.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about Philly’s rowhomes?

That they are all the same and that they are not viable for the way families live today. There are so many different styles of rowhouses, and if the original architecture is not all that exciting, owners add their own flair to the existing structure. And so the result is that the owners create a visually interesting and distinct rowhouse neighborhood. With a bit of creative thought and modification, rowhouses are great homes for individuals and families. They're inherently energy efficient, often close to public transportation and offer great connection — literally! — to neighbors.

What do you think will be the biggest challenge of reaching the goal of repairing 5,000 homes per year?

Can I have two biggest challenges? First, sorting out the financing models. There will need to be more than one in order to cover owner-occupied houses and rental properties, and to cover various levels of financial need. Second is the delivery method. Doing simple math of 5,000 houses divided by 52 weeks in a year, you come up with almost 100 homes repaired every week. Several nonprofits have repair programs; the city has one and they all have slightly different funding methods, costs to the clients and delivery methods, but most — if not all — are oversubscribed or have waiting lists for services. We have to figure out how to take the best practices of all these successful programs and find ways to support their work without taking city resources.

I’ve read you’re a lifelong Philly sports fan and play hockey in your free time. How has your love of sports influenced your career, if at all?

I think the team aspect of sports has influenced my career — just the idea that if you collaborate and work with others you can succeed. If you have the right mix of talent and let people do what they do best. Don’t force people to play in positions that are not right for their skill set and expect success. Mind you, a few utility players are great to have on any team. Recognize what your talent pool is and figure out how to work with that group to make them winners. OK, I lapsed completely into some sort of coach inspiration speech. Sorry about that. But clearly sports have had an influence on my career. I feel I'm able to work with many different types of people and I think I've usually been successful in meeting the goals of the team.

What are you most looking forward to about the upcoming 2016 AIA Convention?

I will not be attending the actual convention, but I expect to meet many attendees. Healthy Rowhouse Project is an initiative of the Center for Architecture and Design, which provides the public with a place to explore architecture and design and is also home to AIA Philadelphia and the Community Design Collaborative. The center will serve as AIA Philadelphia’s home base of operations, with a coffee bar and happy hours plus an exciting new exhibition celebrating Philadelphia architecture — a napkin sketch showcase exhibit — and a parklet design competition on Arch Street. 

To that end, I'm excited about the people I'll meet with so much activity driving people into the center and fun things like the parklets. I find that such a cool and accessible way for people to experience architecture without even realizing it. Your perspective about the built environment changes as you sit in a parking space with some greenery or unusual furniture around you. I have always loved buildings and maybe should have been an architect if I had realized that earlier in life. I truly admire the skill architects have to create and preserve buildings. Being around so many architects from all around the country will be awesome. I hope they all get the chance to appreciate this city and its wonderful architecture — and to have fun along the way.