Kenny gamble and the Muslim brothers and sisters cleaned up the area. now, white speculators from NYC down to DC are coming in and buying it up: ABDUR-RAHIM Islam can hardly believe it. But a ferocious rise in property values for southwest Center City is pricing his company, Universal Homes, out of the market. And what began as its noble effort to rebuild a neighborhood nobody wanted has turned into something even more pressing: Make sure the neighborhood's low-income, mostly African-American residents don't get shut out of the boom. "Five years ago, there's no way anyone could have told me that this would be happening. I simply wouldn't have believed it," said Islam, CEO of nonprofit Universal Homes. "In many ways we are the victim of our own success. We just didn't understand what the market would do." Throughout the city's 30th Ward, which stretches from South Street to Washington Avenue and Broad Street to the Schuylkill, homes that once sold for $10,000 are now being rehabbed into $450,000 properties. People are fighting over the right to develop abandoned shells, and there's construction under way on almost every block. As a result, Universal, which earned the gratitude of the city when it first announced interest in developing the area, has been forced to scale back on plans for "Bainbridge West," an ambitious market-rate construction project that called for more than 200 new homes in the area north of Washington. Now, it will build only 25. "If the private market is doing it, then there's no sense in us taking over," said Kathleen Murray, staff member for City Councilwoman Anna Verna. As councilwoman, Verna has final say over whether city officials force owners to sell properties so Gamble can develop them. Universal, a subsidiary of Universal Companies, has already developed and sold about a dozen affordable - thanks to government subsidies - homes in the neighborhood, as well as scores of rental units, convenience stores and other community facilities. But after building Universal Court, a complex of 52 homes for rent at 15th and Christian streets, Universal Homes has now shifted to building affordable homes for purchase in the Point Breeze neighborhood south of Washington. Because the clock is ticking there, too. "We begged Universal to go south of Washington Avenue, because we knew the market was changing," Murray said. "Empty lots are now being listed at $90,000. Will they get that? I don't know. But that's where the market is heading." None of this means that Universal's job is done - even in the 30th Ward, said Islam. But it does mean that the job is changing. Now, the company is pushing hard on a plan to stimulate home ownership among low-income residents, identifying those people who could potentially buy, and helping them get ready to do it. "The challenge, now, is to maintain affordability, and to educate the existing population," said Islam. "If we can maintain a degree of affordability without impeding the market, then we can create wealth for everyone." Translation? Make sure that low-income homeowners, who stuck it out through years of blight, get their fair share of rising values. That might mean teaching people how to get top dollar if they decide to sell their homes. It might be help on refinancing a house, so an owner can pay bills, fix it, and keep it. Or maybe it's more complicated, like teaching people how to build the credit they need to buy a house, rather than rent one. I hope he can pull it off, and soon. Rising property values are a good thing, and a sign that Philadelphia's future is looking up. But let's face it: There's a reason "gentrification" has become such a dirty word. And it's not just because renters get chased out. I hear too many stories about working-class homeowners who, faced with a rising market like this one, somehow miss out on the financial benefits they should be realizing when properties change hands. Such as people who feel forced into selling when they don't have to, or who sell for far less than their property is worth. "It is a serious issue, unfortunately, that some people have no idea what their properties are worth," said Murray. "I just looked up a lot that someone bought in March of this year for $7,000. It was a private transaction, and the poor woman who sold it, she lives in West Philadelphia. Trust me. She didn't have a clue what it was worth." That lot was worth at least $60,000. And the way I see it, this kind of fleecing is not just wrong. It's bad for the city. Americans have always built wealth through real estate. Increased value for homes should be everybody's ticket to a better standard of living. And a better standard of living translates into a better kind of city.