Lancaster’s SoWe neighborhood anticipating upgrades

SoWe's Inaugural Block Party was held on June 23. - (Photo / BIANCA CORDOVA)

The SoWe neighborhood — so named for its location in the southwest corner of the city of Lancaster — has a strong and proud history as a working-class neighborhood. Its roots trace back to an 1800s influx of German immigrants.

The neighborhood was built quickly, with narrow streets and slim rowhouses. While the city of Lancaster’s downtown and northwest neighborhood have seen a resurgence in recent decades, SoWe was left behind. At least that was the case until a few years ago, observers noted.

In 2015, the Lancaster Housing Opportunity Partnership, or LHOP, started work with the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation to develop a plan, which the foundation later funded with a $100,000 grant to study the neighborhood. The resulting plan led to more grants, including more than a $1 million from the Wells Fargo foundation, which was leveraged to get more money from Lancaster-based groups, said Jake Thorsen, SoWe neighborhood director. His group is an affiliate of LHOP.

The pot eventually reached about $2.2 million, Thorsen said.

The money has been used for a number of initiatives, including hiring bike ambassadors and a cleaning crew. The ambassadors ride around the neighborhood, helping residents where they can and keeping an eye out for code or safety violations. That program initially started downtown years ago and had proven to be effective, he said. The cleaning crew of two part-time workers monitors the streets and alleys for trash and litter.

The goal is to demonstrate that people care about the neighborhood and are being proactive in fixing its problems, so others will want to join in, he said.

The biggest success so far is that the activity is grassroots-based among those living in SoWe, he said. The 25-member board of directors, for example, includes people either who live in the neighborhood or work there in various nonprofits with a stake in making SoWe better, Thorsen said.

“The most exciting thing about SoWe is our resident-driven board,” he added. “That board drives everything, including how the money is spent.”

SoWe was built at a time when the new German immigrants were feared by the residents already living there, such as those of Irish descent, said Matthew Johnson, chief of staff for Mayor Danene Sorace. Today, the neighborhood is filled with new immigrants, primarily of Hispanic descent, which makes the neighborhood interesting and vibrant, Johnson said.

The unique history of SoWe has created some modern problems, such as available space for parking. A study will be conducted to determine how to best accommodate a modern household with multiple vehicles in a neighborhood of narrow streets designed before cars existed, Thorsen said.

Another major goal is to convert as much housing as possible from rental to owner-occupied homes, Johnson and Thorsen said.

Jim Shultz, who recently retired from LHOP, said some estimates show that rental properties account for about 65 percent of the housing stock, with the rest being owner-occupied. A generation or so ago, those numbers were reversed, he said. In fact, a program has been set up in his name to encourage more home ownership – The Jim Shultz House to Home Fund.

So far, much of the investment in SoWe has come from nonprofits and governmental agencies, as well as residents, and not as much from private investors. However, SoWe is working on initiatives to attract private investors interested in creating affordable housing. The idea is for an investor to buy a home, fix it up and then lease it for eventual sale to an occupant, Thorsen said.

In the meantime, the neighborhood will continue to try different approaches to achieving other core objectives, such as improving safety. One idea involves installing porch lights for houses in areas where visibility at night is an issue when it comes to crime. More than 50 lights have been installed so far, he said.

Shultz, like Thorsen, said the biggest accomplishment has been getting the people in SoWe involved in its future.

“This is a neighborhood that didn’t have resources for decades,” he said. That changed, with the 2015 study and resulting grants, he added. “And we have empowered them.”

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