Wharton course develops inner city

For a dozen years, an enterprising Penn professor and his students have been helping save struggling neighborhoods in Philadelphia, one house at a time. And the effort is spreading to other Philadelphia campuses.

The effort began in 1985, when William Zucker, the Meshulam Riklis Professor Emeritus of Creative Management in the Wharton School, first offered a course called "Entrepreneurial Inner-City Housing Markets." The course introduces students to development issues in blighted city neighborhoods and illustrates principles of teamwork in project management, but Zucker also wanted to introduce his students to all of the problems that face deteriorating central cities, including poverty, racism and poor education.

To do this, the first class bought two vacant houses on a blighted block of Latona Street near Point Breeze Avenue. Each house cost about $15,000 to purchase; after two years, the rebuilt houses were sold for about twice their purchase prices.

Zucker and his students then plowed the profits from those sales into purchasing and renovating other abandoned houses in West Philadelphia and Powelton Village. So far, the class has rebuilt and sold four houses, and work on a fifth - the largest house to date - is under way while students evaluate more properties to buy.

The house currently under renovation is a three-story, four-bedroom, two-bath house on 34th above Spring Garden. "The next-door neighbor is delighted, as the abandoned house caused her insurance to go up," Zucker said. Based on the class's track record, the house should fetch a good price; the houses sold so far have gone for two to six times their initial cost.

The results may seem modest, but Zucker points out that the work stimulates neighborhood revival. "What we're trying to do is stop a cancer from forming," he said. "When we went to work on Latona Street, three-fourths of the block was in an abandoned state. Now, 10 years later, almost the entire block has been rehabbed."

The students in Zucker's class design and rebuild the houses by consensus. "It takes a little longer," he said, "but it satisfies the curiosity as well as the intellectual proclivities of the students."

As Zucker had hoped, some graduates have gone into careers in inner-city redevelopment in places such as Cleveland, Denver and New York. And Zucker is trying to expand his approach to other urban campuses: a partnership agreement lets Drexel architecture students take the Penn course, and Zucker and Lecturer in City Planning Hanley Bodek have approached Temple officials with a proposal to serve as consultants to a similar course there.

Originally published on February 12, 1998