Ryan Spak loves to untangle titles, locate long-lost owners, and figure out how to reinvigorate vulnerable residential and commercial real estate in West Philadelphia.
“The more complicated the issue, the more fun it is to work on, and the more enjoyable it is to resolve,” said Spak, who provides the free service as a part-time employee of the University City District’s Project Rehab.
The 41-year-old Northeast Philly native links owners with resources to stabilize, renovate, or sell their properties and, in the process, stave off demolitions that can lead to vacant lots and lower a neighborhood’s quality of life and real estate values.
Spak also has his own development firm, the Spak Group, which does no business within the district.
“Ryan is a deed detective,” said district communications director Chris Richman, citing Spak’s skill in ascertaining a distressed property’s owner of record. Uncertainty about ownership, often referred to as a tangled title, typically occurs when a title is not properly transferred after an owner’s death. It affects more than 10,000 properties across Philadelphia.
“Ryan is the guy-who-knows-a-guy and can recommend five contractors for every one problem,” said Richman. “He’s the guy you want on your side for figuring out taxes, permits, and grants.”
The 61 success stories in Spak’s portfolio over the last 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 have 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 district encompasses 2.4 square miles between 50th Street, Spring Garden Street, Woodland Avenue, and the Schuylkill. It is home to major institutions, lively and not-so-lively 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 rowhouses, twins, triplexes, block-long assemblages of Victoriana, and mid-rise apartment buildings built a century or more ago.
So there’s plenty of work for someone who’s earned a nickname like Mr. Fixit.
“Project Rehab came about because the community was frustrated by 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 trolley portal in 2019. He helped enable that project, too.
“The system isn’t set up to deal with distressed real estate. There’s no methodology for citizens to deal with it either,” said Spak.
“When you have a tangled title, and L&I [the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections] 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 don’t work for investors looking to buy properties,” he said. “I work for the person, the estate, or the nonprofit that already owns it.”
Tattoo artist Justin Turkus began looking for rental space to open a private studio in West Philly in 2020. “Ryan was a resource for me as I navigated … the process of opening my business,” he said in an email.
“His feedback helped me understand the city’s procedures,” he said. “Ryan’s motivation was to assist my business. He followed up with me throughout the process.”
His approach relies on deep knowledge of the neighborhood, due diligence, and what he called “special sauce” — a knack for connecting people with information, expertise, and each other.
Spak devised the strategy while being interviewed for a managerial job with the district 11 years ago; he didn’t get the position, but he was offered a short-term consulting contract to pilot a blight-fighting 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 a bankruptcy,” Spak said. “These sorts of compressed and compiled issues on a single property occur way more often than I ever expected, and they can become overwhelming to an owner.”
The Catherine Street house was eventually saved, but Spak describes his “first win” 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 sprung into action 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 later listed for sale at nearly $500,000.
“I’ve 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 couldn’t [ascertain] when an owner had died, I went to the cemetery to confirm the date of death.”
Spak lives in 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 dabbling in real estate. His father, who was a teacher, is deceased; his mother, Marsha, “an incredible entrepreneur,” is his business partner in the Spak Group.
He got bitten by the real estate bug as a Temple student in the late 1990s.
“It didn’t make any sense to me that gorgeous homes [near the campus] were vacant,” Spak said. “I came to believe that no homes should be vacant. That was the spark.”
A decade after graduation, he had bought a trio of investment properties in the city, founded a janitorial company, and moved to West Philadelphia.
“West Philly encapsulates all that is this city to me,” he said. “My entire career has been born from the resilience that is 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 by the area’s architecture, greenery, walkability, and abundant transit options have become significant drivers of its real estate market.
They include people like Powelton Village businesswoman and resident Joan Schiff, who got involved with Project Rehab when she was trying to build an addition and renovate her home. The program, and Spak, later helped her navigate the purchase of the building that houses Sun-Lite, her window-tinting company.
“Ryan rolled up his sleeves and went to bat 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 against exploiters.”
During a tour of properties he has 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 bought a three-story building on the southwest corner with money pooled by immigrant families but came close to losing it because of a structural failure in 2021.
“We were kind of discouraged and were thinking of selling the building, but Ryan advised us to stick with it,” said Tsahai Kebede, president of the 500 member organization. Its Go Fund Me page has raised about half 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 references to contractors. He helped us find grants, and he really gave us the 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 previous restaurant — ”my daughter’s favorite brunch place,” he said — and community connections helped enable them to move and expand their business.
“I introduced them to the developer,” said Spak.
“People ask why I still do this work. I do it because I love West Philly. It’s a love, and a hobby, and a job,” he said. “When there are no more vacant properties here, then I can retire.”