Collecting the tools of a sustainable, self-directed life

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21- Evaluating Philly, Part One

When I started investigating tiny living in 2013, finding a place to do legality was a major feat. But as I take a look at the landscape today, I realize that there are many more ways to evaluate a place for your lifestyle design.

Although I didn’t before, I started my Philly evaluation with a search of vacant residential plots at the local tax auction. The Sheriff’s Office holds auctions and sale seminars every month. (Even if you’re buying elsewhere, the online seminar could be extremely helpful.)

I created a spreadsheet to organize auction properties. Assuming that higher income neighborhoods have better shopping and less crime, I searched for listings in zip codes with the highest median incomes.

Finding no vacant plots in the top three zip codes, I checked the crime rates of the next three. The rates were two-to-three times the national average. A google search revealed link after link about the city’s rising crime and violence.

In September—a year after others called for it, Mayor Jim Kenney declared the city’s gun violence a public health emergency. One hundred days later, he released a public health plan that addresses the structural violence and trauma accompanying the city’s crime.

I was shocked. None of the articles listing the city as “tiny-house friendly” mentioned the city’s crime. And despite its severity, I had not heard about this deadly crisis going on just a few hours south of me on any of my regular news sources.

So, I added columns in my spreadsheet for zip codes, crime rates (overall, personal and murder) and distance from crime hotspots. Because the seven safest zip codes had no vacant plots at auction, I reached out to Philly friends for recommendations to compare to the next seven zip codes.

With their recommendations (Baltimore Ave corridor, Art Museum/Spring Garden area, Manayunk and Rittenhouse Square), I was able to whittle forty plots down to ten and finally my top choice: the tenth of an acre at 222R-34 Rector Street in Manayunk, with a starting bid of $1500.

Eight blocks away from crime hotspots and on a rear alley with only one front door (to a 200sf home) in sight, this Rector lot seems nestled away from the hustle of the city. Even with a 400sf home, there would be plenty of room on the 27’ by 145’ lot for gardening, open space and an ADU, which is legal.

The last time I lived in an area with crime approaching Philly’s was 12 years ago in Dallas. But because my condo was in a gated complex, I only drove through crime hotspots. So, to get a feel for what life might be like in Philadelphia, I’d have to make a trip there.

In addition to driving by the top properties on my spreadsheet, I’d do a second tour of the choice picks and places of interest by public transportation to get a better feel. How do I feel walking around? What are the people in local shops like? Are the neighbors chatty? Welcoming?

I’d also stop by the Department of Licenses and Inspection to get details (application fee, processing time, permit length, renewability, costs, etc.) on the permit required for keeping an RV on vacant property.

Lastly, after signing up ahead of time, I would attend one of the Sheriff’s in-person seminars.

From the information gathered so far, it seems that there are options where I could create a simple, affordable lifestyle in Philadelphia. But, living simply does not complete the vision of my self-directed life. I’ll explore the replicability of another piece of it in the next post.

In the meantime, what have you learned from my initial evaluation of Philadelphia? What questions or concerns have been sparked for you? I’m looking forward to reading your responses and continuing the conversation in the comments below.