A m. Fixit’ helps West Philly residents and businesses cut red tape

Ryan Spak enjoys untangling titles, locating long-lost owners, and discovering how to reinvigorate vulnerable residential and commercial real estate in West Philadelphia.

“The more complicated the problem, the more fun it is to work on it, and the more enjoyable it is to solve it,” said Spak, who provides free service as a part-time employee of the University Town District Rehabilitation Project.

The 41-year-old Northeast Philly native connects homeowners with resources to stabilize, renovate or sell their properties and, in doing so, avoid demolitions that can lead to vacant land and reduce quality of life and property values of a neighborhood.

Spak also has its own development company, the Spak Group, which does not operate in the district.

“Ryan is a deed detective,” district communications manager Chris Richman said, citing Spak’s skill in determining the legal owner of a distressed property. Title uncertainty, often referred to as entangled title, typically occurs when title is not properly transferred after an owner dies. It affects more than 10,000 properties across Philadelphia.

“Ryan is the guy who knows a guy and can recommend five contractors for every problem,” Richman said. “He’s the guy you want on your side to figure out taxes, permits and grants.”

The 61 successes in Spak’s portfolio over the past decade include preserving a beloved church complex at 47th and Kingsessing and helping find new quarters for a popular tattoo artist’s studio. Collectively, these projects generated about $32 million in real estate market value, according to an estimate by the University City District.

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Established in 1997, the neighborhood spans 2.4 square miles between 50th Street, Spring Garden Street, Woodland Avenue and the Schuylkill. It is home to major institutions, bustling and less bustling commercial corridors and 52,000 people in five neighborhoods: Spruce Hill, Cedar Park, Garden Court, Walnut Hill and Powelton Village.

Much of the housing stock consists of townhouses, semi-detached homes, triplexes, Victoriana block assemblies, and mid-rise apartment buildings built a century or more ago.

So there’s a lot of work for someone who has earned a nickname like Mr. Fixit.

“The Rehab Project came about because the community was frustrated with how difficult it was to do anything about vacant buildings,” Spak said during lunch at Renata’s Kitchen, a restaurant that opened next to the 40th street streetcar portal in 2019. He helped activate this project. , too.

“The system is not set up to deal with distressed properties. There is also no methodology for citizens to deal with it,” Spak said.

“When you have a matted title and L&I (the city’s licensing and inspection department) is about to tear down your property and you don’t have money for an attorney, how do you fight that? “

“With Project Rehab, I’m not working for investors looking to buy properties,” he said. “I work for the person, estate or association that already owns it.”

Tattoo artist Justin Turkus began looking for rental space to open a private studio in West Philly in 2020. “Ryan has been a resource to me as I navigated … the process of opening my business,” he said. he stated in an email.

“His comments helped me understand city procedures,” he said. “Ryan’s motivation was to help my business. He followed me throughout the process.

His approach is based on in-depth knowledge of the neighborhood, due diligence and what he called a “special sauce” – a knack for connecting people with information, expertise and each other.

Spak devised the strategy while interviewing for a leadership position in the district 11 years ago; he didn’t get the job, but was offered a short-term consultancy contract to pilot a pest control approach he suggested.

One of his first challenges was a vacant, fire-damaged house on Catherine Street near 50th.

“The owner had no insurance, was in the middle of bankruptcy,” Spak said. “These types of issues compressed and compiled on a single property happen far more often than I would have imagined, and they can become overwhelming for a homeowner.”

The Catherine Street home was eventually saved, but Spak describes its “first victory” as a 49th Street triplex that had been used for storage and had partially collapsed.

“L&I sought to demolish the property,” he said. “I notified the out-of-town owner and took steps to file an injunction to stop the demolition.” After being stabilized and sold in 2011 by the owner for $68,000, the house has since been renovated and was subsequently listed for sale at almost $500,000.

“I knocked on doors to find neighbors who might know what happened to the owner of a vacant house,” Spak said. “In one case, where I could not [ascertain] when an owner had died, I went to the cemetery to confirm the date of death.

Spak lives at Overbrook Farms with his wife Jessica, a grants administrator, and their 6-year-old daughter, Charlotte.

He grew up loving 80s music and movies (he has the collections to prove it) and remembers both his parents going into real estate. Her father, who was a teacher, died; his mother, Marsha, “an incredible entrepreneur”, is his business partner in the Spak group.

He was bitten by the real estate bug while a student at the Temple in the late 1990s.

“It made no sense to me that magnificent homes [near the campus] were vacant,” Spak said. “I came to believe that no house should be vacant. That was the spark.

A decade after graduation, he had purchased three investment properties in the city, founded a janitorial business, and moved to West Philadelphia.

“West Philly encapsulates everything this city means to me,” he said. “My whole career has been born out of the resilience of West Philly.”

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While West Philadelphia has seen significant displacement and gentrification—historically associated with the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University—in recent decades, existing residents and newcomers drawn to the architecture, the region’s greenery, walking and many public transport options have become important drivers of its real estate market.

These include people like businesswoman and Powelton Village resident Joan Schiff, who got involved with Project Rehab when she was trying to build an addition and remodel her home. The program, and Spak, then helped her navigate the purchase of the building that houses Sun-Lite, her window tinting business.

“Ryan rolled up his sleeves and fought for me,” she said. “He gave me a list of three banks. He was very helpful in evaluating contractors and finding an appraiser. He gave me a list of comparables.

Schiff likened Project Rehab to the “invisible connective tissue” that can make a community stronger “and protect it from exploiters.”

During a tour of properties he helped turn around in West Philly, Spak stopped at 44th and Chestnut streets near the Ethiopian Community Association of Greater Philadelphia. Forty years ago, the association purchased a three-story building on the southwest corner with money pooled by immigrant families, but nearly lost it due to structural failure in 2021.

“We were a bit discouraged and thought about selling the building, but Ryan advised us to stick with it,” said Tsahai Kebede, president of the 500-member organization. His Go Fund Me page raised about half of the $100,000 that will be needed to complete the interior work.

“Ryan took the time to introduce us to three or four different banks,” Kebede said. “He gave us contractor references. He helped us find grants and he really gave us confidence.

Although Project Rehab was not involved in finding a new home for Renata’s Kitchen, owners Kate and Yasser Aiq said Spak’s familiarity with their former restaurant – “my daughter’s favorite brunch spot” , he said — and the community ties helped them move and grow their business.

“I pitched them to the developer,” Spak said.

“People ask me why I still do this job. I do it because I love West Philly. It’s a love, a hobby and a job,” he said. “When there are no more vacant properties here, then I can retire.”

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