Vacant Land, New Housing, and Exciting Innovation

Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

Credit: Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

Affordable City Housing

Philadelphia’s apartment rental fees are rising.This trend can be seen across many of the city’s neighborhoods, particularly in West Philadelphia. It’s an issue happening throughout large cites nationally and internationally. Several factors have contributed to the price increase, including the fact for the first time in human history more than half the world’s population lives in cities. New innovations are being produced to solve the problem of affordable urban housing that may provide a roadmap for Philadelphia to tackle two of its issues: vacant land and a lack of affordable housing.

In the London borough of Merton, a previously vacant lot will be transformed into a community of single-occupancy apartments. The units, called the Y:Cube, can be assembled quickly and efficiently using only a few basic tools.

(YMCA London South West)

Y-Cube rendering. (Credit: YMCA London South West)

Introducing the Y:Cube

The Y:Cube is a collaboration between the renowned architecture firm Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSH+P) and the YMCA.The project is generating excitement because it presents a unique, sustainable solution to the problem of affordable housing. The Y:Cube units are lightweight and don’t require a foundation. This offers the possibility of putting units almost anywhere such as above subways or along overpasses. The apartments are built to connect to existing plumbing and electricity lines. Because the units can be assembled and reassembled quickly, the apartments can move to other locations if needed. Because the costs to construct Y:Cube units are low, developers don’t have a significant need for grant funding.

While excitement about the Y:Cube grows, it’s important to acknowledge that nobody knows if the project will be successful. Construction on the first 37 Y:Cube units starts later in 2014.

A Solution For Philadelphia?

Organizations like the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society are already transforming Philadelphia’s vacant land into useful assets like community gardens through its successful LandCare program.

If the Y:Cube is successful, it may offer a template for other cities, including Philadelphia, to take another step forward to transform vacant land for affordable, sustainable housing. Time will tell whether its a viable option or a project with promise that ultimately failed.

Will the Y:Cube be a success? Share your answer with us on Twitter @FairmountV


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World Class Summit 2014 Insights

Philadelphia SkylineLast week Fairmount attended the 2014 World Class Summit. The Economy League of Greater Philadelphia has hosted the annual event since its inaugural year in 2009. Leaders across the social impact sector convene to leverage their skills and influence to create lasting regional impact in three primary areas: education and talent development, business growth, and infrastructure.

Global Positioning Strategies & the World Class Index

Throughout the past five years, 1,700 cross-sector leaders have provided input to help create the World Class Global Positioning Strategies (GPSes). The GPSes detail goals to create higher quality education, increased business growth, and more effective infrastructure for Greater Philadelphia.

The World Class Index was also released this year. It’s a way to track progress around the World Class agenda. The goal is to create accountability and help provide clarity where progress is (or is not) being made. The World Class Index “establishes common indicators for local leaders, provides clear-eyed analysis of metro trends, highlights collaborations leading to impact, and points to where immediate action is needed.”

Nonprofit Implications

Of the three World Class focus areas, education and talent development offered the greatest implications for nonprofits. Within this cohort, the most significant goal is to ensure Greater Philadelphia has a talented workforce where every resident is equipped to compete in the global economy. To achieve that outcome, World Class focused on four areas:

World Class Summit - EducationConsidering our role helping Public Citizens for Children and Youth and the Urban Affairs Coalition lead the region’s Grade Level Reading by Three Campaign, early learning and K-12 education were areas of significant interest as they offered most implications for the nonprofit community.

Early Learning

The Economy League has a partnership with Pre-K for PA, an issue campaign centered on the mission to ensure every three and four-year-old in Pennsylvania will have access to a high quality pre-kindergarten education. We learned in Greater Philadelphia only 34% of children in low-end and moderate income families are enrolled in publicly funded pre-kindergarten programs.

The need for high-quality early learning access is vital to create a strong foundation for children to achieve educational success. Studies show significant vocabulary and cognitive differences between poor and higher-income children. In Greater Philadelphia there aren’t enough early learning programs and the ones available are often too expensive for low and medium income families.

A solution for some parents is to enroll their children in public programs that provide access to Pre-K for children in low and moderate income families.The World Class is working to not only to increase the number of cost-friendly early learning centers but also to ensure the quality of those programs is strong.

K-12 Education

World Class leaders across the region are working together to increase the number of children reading at a proficient level grade. This benchmark is a key indicator of children likely to graduate on-time from high school. The proficiency level of children varies throughout the region.

Grade Level ReadingPhiladelphia County falls well below the Pennsylvania state average. World Class leaders are attempting to increase reading proficiency in several ways such as:

  • Increasing coordinated technical assistance to early learning centers
  • Increasing public funding for high-quality learning centers
  • Increasing parental awareness about the importance of early childhood education and what high-quality options look like
  • Attracting private funding through charitable capital or program-related investments (PRI) for expansion of successful early learning centers

More Findings

The two remaining World Class focus areas, business growth and infrastructure, also were topics that revealed great insights. The general takeaway is that while significant progress has been in made in the World Class focus areas, much work is left to do. The ability of the regions’ impact leaders to share ideas, insights, and a framework to identify areas needing help increases the likelihood of genuine positive change.


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Lessons From the Challenge to Build A Strong Board


In reSources, our free monthly e-newsletter, we sometimes showcase smart things other people are doing on a national level, especially if those experiences can serve as lessons that can be applied to the Greater Philadelphia area. The New York Times recently featured insights from Rebekah Campbell (above), a veteran entrepreneur creating her first Board of Directors. The case refers to a for-profit board but many principles likely apply to your nonprofit.

Case Summary

  • Rebekah Campbell knew nothing about boards when she started her company Posse.
  • She created an eight-member-board, following her lawyer’s advice.
  • The board demanded detailed financial information Rebekah was unprepared to share.
  • A board director unexpectedly submitted a full-time job proposal to the board and was denied. The director quit and later submitted a significant invoice for his time.
  • Several more board directors quit while new ones joined throughout the past three years.
  • Rebekah is on her third mix of board members. This time she has found the right fit.


Make sure your directors have the right experience. Rebekah’s original board had impressive names but they didn’t have experience working with a start-up. Similarly as you build your nonprofit board, focus on adding people with the right mix of skills and experience that aligns with your organization’s objectives.

Invite people you like and trust. Posse almost folded after one year. One board member then turned on Rebekah and influenced others. Don’t underestimate the value of being around people whose company you enjoy. The more trust and unity that can be established within your board, the more efficient, productive, (and let’s face it, enjoyable) your board will be.

Keep the numbers small. Rebekah’s current board has four directors, including herself, and a regular observer with no voting power but acts like a director. This small number works for Rebekah and her team at Posse. For your nonprofit the size of your board will depend on your organization’s resources and goals.

Set expectations up front. Rebekah struggled when a few months after Posse launched some board directors had different expectations about receiving payment. Her situation is relevant to the for-profit sector. But the larger point that applies to your nonprofit is be clear with your prospective board members about what you expect and how you envision their role. This way potential differences that otherwise would be undiscovered until later can be addressed early.

Be transparent and organized. Your board can only help you if they know about the challenges you face. Rebekah learned being clear about what she wanted to accomplish for each board meeting forced her to consistently evaluate Posse’s current state and how her board could help. As a result, she received better counsel from her board when she began making organization and clarity a priority. Being transparent also demonstrates trust to your board. If your board knows you trust and value them, they are more likely to go the extra-mile to meet your organization’s needs.


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Consider 3 Questions Before Retaining A Consultant

Selecting a consultant is a significant decision. To ensure that your receive the best possible value from an experience with a consultant, consider three questions:

Do I have the right people around the table?

  • The best organizations make smart decisions consistently. Throughout your engagement with a consultant you will have to decide on key issues. Whose involvement is critical from your team? Some suggestions are people who know the most about your organization, those with the highest investment in a successful outcome for your organization, people with a reputation for giving honest and intelligent feedback, those most affected by potential changes to your organization and those who will be the most heavily involved implementing future changes.

How do I encourage group participation while ensuring the project remains strategic?

  • Collaboration is critical for long-term success. Multiple voices often lead to a diverse array of fresh ideas, perspectives, and insight. But while feedback is valuable to gain a big-picture sense of problem areas, too many voices can dilute your ability to make the best decisions. Consider how you will ensure your board and staff feel their feedback is valued while remaining strategic about the direction of your organization.

What commitment level do I have from my staff and board?  

  • This question is designed to help you consider how dedicated your organization’s staff and board are to being involved in the engagement process with the  consultant. While you may be ready, do you have the rest of your staff and board equally committed? It’s an important question because the outcomes from working with a consultant will ultimately need to be implemented by your staff and board. Your engagement with the consultant will be more productive if you have a staff and board ready to commit to the the process from the start.


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