Nonprofitable owner?


A longtime civic activist’s public criticism of a plan to build dozens of new homes in his neighborhood has gotten him suspended from the organization he cofounded and made him the target of a racially charged leaflet circulated through his neighborhood.

Alan Mandel has "started a white propaganda war against a person who is trying to save our community, Mr. Kenny Gamble," alleged an organization identifying itself as Concerned Black People of South Philadelphia.

The document was distributed last month. It appeared days after another flyer from a group calling itself the Public Policy Forum & The Coalition Opposed to the Condemnation. It questioned the city’s plan to condemn numerous properties in Mandel’s neighborhood, which would be sold to Gamble’s nonprofit Universal Companies for the construction of market-rate housing.

Mandel had been a member of the South of South Street Neighborhood Association until two weeks ago, when board members forced him into taking a three-month leave of absence from his volunteer position as treasurer. In later conversations with SOSNA board members, Mandel claims he was told that the city had pressured the board to get rid of him — and even threatened to cut the funding the group receives through the Office of Housing and Community Development as a neighborhood advisory council.

Doetre Smith, SOSNA’s vice chairperson, confirmed that Mandel was asked to temporarily disassociate with the group, but she would not comment further on the situation.

Mandel said he doesn’t know who is behind either flyer, but many of his views jibe with those of the Public Policy Forum — including one assertion that he and his neighbors do not stand to gain nearly as much as Gamble and his family do from the construction of the new homes.

Mandel’s suspension from SOSNA has not stopped him from spreading that belief.

"The city loves community input, but only if you agree with them," he said. "They don’t want to hear any dissident voices, and I guess I was the loudest."

Mandel, the Democratic committeeperson for the 30th Ward’s First Division and a real-estate agent, raises an array of issues. Several can be proven inaccurate and more are simply unfounded accusations.

But at least one allegation is worth addressing.

According to records from the Board of Revision of Taxes, Gamble owns four properties — independent of any held by Universal Companies — on one of the 13 blocks where the city has approved the condemnations.

On four of those blocks, nine deeds are held by Salaam Enterprises, Inc., a for-profit real-estate company that rehabilitates properties and develops new ones. The president of Salaam Enterprises is Gamble’s wife and cofounder of Universal Companies, Faatimah Gamble.

Gamble or Salaam Enterprises’ properties skirt those included on the city’s hit list, but none is among the condemned.

On the 700 block of South 15th Street, for instance, Salaam Enterprises owns three properties. Two are adjacent properties, numbers 757 and 759. The city has approved the condemnation of 756 S. 15th St., directly across from Salaam properties, as well as the two adjacent parcels immediately south of 759 S. 15th — an abandoned lot and a vacant rowhouse.

On the 1500 block of Christian Street, Gamble owns two adjacent vacant lots, in addition to a three-story rowhouse on the east end and an apartment building in the middle of the block. Salaam Enterprises owns a rowhome next to one of Gamble’s and another at 1512 Christian St. At the other end of the block, two vacant buildings and an empty lot are marked for condemnation.

Mandel said he has discussed the plans for all the properties Gamble owns privately and those held by Salaam Enterprises with Abdur-Rahim Islam, president of Universal Companies.

According to Mandel, Islam told him those properties would be added to future neighborhood improvement projects.

"That raises an interesting question," Mandel said. "If you develop all of these other vacant houses [on the condemnation list] and you build up the neighborhood, and then you are doing appraisals … [Gamble] is going to wind up with a windfall on the transfer of his vacant properties."

But chances are, the relatively strong real-estate market in the neighborhood would be bolstered by Universal’s influx of market-rate homes and would eliminate the need for the city to condemn properties. (The proceeds from the sale of these market-rate houses would fund the construction of affordable housing units south of Washington Avenue.)

In that case, Gamble and Salaam Enterprises could stand to earn even more by selling land they are speculating on the open market.

The property at 755 S. 15th St. sold to a developer for $160,000 a year ago. Salaam Enterprises purchased the three-story rowhome next door for $10,000 in May 2000.

"People say ‘nonprofit,’" Mandel said, "but somebody is making money here."

Islam did not return calls requesting an interview for this story.

In Philadelphia, the Redevelopment Authority carries out property condemnations after a succession of city departments, Council and the mayor sign off on the plan.

The 55 properties Universal wants were mostly part of a condemnation ordinance approved in 1999, said RDA executive director Herbert Wetzel. At the time, he said, the parcels were slated to receive funding through the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Hope IV program, which funded the construction of affordable homes and public-assistance housing.

That federal funding never materialized, but with Mayor John Street’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative entering its second year, local finances have been flowing freely as the city looks for investors to clean up long-neglected properties.

This opportunity has rekindled interest in the blocks west of Broad between South Street and Washington Avenue, Wetzel said, adding the RDA has been working closely with Council President Anna Verna’s office to pick the properties slated for condemnation.

"We are not going to submit any ordinance that isn’t going to be supported with the district Council person," he said.

Additionally, the Central Philadelphia Development Corp. selected the area to be one of six neighborhoods around the city to benefit from an intensive marketing plan enticing people to consider moving there. The neighborhood has even been given a name: Southwest Center City.

This has all contributed to the neighborhood’s popularity and resulted in a spiked interest from developers looking to build new homes there.

A CPDC official who was reached said she had no comment on Mandel’s claim against Universal.

Mandel said he believes his neighbors feel intimidated by Universal Companies, and noted in particular SOSNA’s board members. At the same time, he added, Universal has not done anything to change that perception.

"Sometimes the bigger you get, you don’t have any sensitivity to who you are stepping on," said Mandel.

Prime real estate?

Kenny Gamble and Salaam Enterprises own the following 13 properties on four blocks where the RDA has made condemnations:

Address Owner Existing structure Price Purchase date
748 S. 15th Salaam Enterprises 3-story rowhouse $40,000 Oct. 2002
757 S. 15th Salaam Enterprises 3-story rowhouse $10,000 May 2000
759 S. 15th Salaam Enterprises 3-story rowhouse $1,000 May 2001
1504-10 Catharine Salaam Enterprises hotel/roomhouse $198,000 Feb. 1999
1512 Catharine Salaam Enterprises vacant lot $2,000 Feb. 1999
1537 Catharine Salaam Enterprises apartment building $100,000 Aug. 1998
1502 Christian Kenneth Gamble vacant lot $2,100 March 1992
1503 Christian Salaam Enterprises 3-story rowhouse $90,000 April 1998
1504 Christian Kenneth Gamble vacant lot $42,000 Oct. 1991
1505 Christian Kenneth Gamble 3-story rowhouse $25,000 July 1991
1512 Christian Salaam Enterprises 3-story rowhouse $50,000 July 2002
1516 Christian Kenneth Gamble apartment building $30,000 Jan. 1994
1639 Christian Salaam Enterprises 3-story rowhouse $25,000 April 1999
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Jane Kiefer
Jane Kiefer, a seasoned journalist with a rich background in digital media strategies, leads South Philly Review as its Editor-in-Chief. Originally hailing from Seattle, Jane combines her outsider perspective with a profound respect for South Philly's vibrant community, bringing fresh insights and innovative storytelling to the newspaper.