Affordable senior housing on South Broad Street in the works

With Point Breeze and Newbold bustling with new development on the west side of the city, and with East Passyunk experiencing the same directly to the east, it’s surprising that a corridor as large as South Broad Street has only recently drawn interest from large Philadelphia developers.

Beyond early investments such as Carl Dranoff’s 777 South Broad apartments in 2010 and Southstar Lofts in 2014, the South Philadelphia boulevard otherwise has remained home to gas stations and drive-through restaurants, empty lots, and spotty, smaller developments.

But developers have taken more interest recently: Two large, mixed-use projects are moving ahead at Broad Street and Washington Avenue. One, called Lincoln Square, by Alterra Property Group and MIS Capital, is slated to bring more than 300 apartments, restaurants, and a Target store to the intersection sometime this year. Across the street, developer Bart Blatstein last month closed on a vacant lot, and is considering a 34-story retail and residential tower.

Already, the increased interest in South Broad has stoked concerns and questions among residents: How much will projects like these change Broad Street? Will longtime neighbors be displaced?

To help address at least some of that concern, one plan is emerging along the South Philadelphia corridor to help a population facing a housing dilemma: Philadelphia’s lower-income seniors.

At South Broad and Ellsworth Streets, next to the National Shrine of St. Rita of Cascia, plans are moving forward for a five-story building that would offer 46 one-bedroom apartments for income-qualified senior citizens. On the ground floor, the design includes more than 7,000 square feet of conference rooms, offices, a kitchen, and communal spaces for the church’s Cascia Center, a “center for peace and justice” to serve the community and the many pilgrims who visit the shrine each day to pay homage to St. Rita.

“It’s a great thing for this neighborhood and for affordable housing, and having it right on Broad Street is great — it’s a great gesture for the city,” said Nancy Bastian, a partner at Cecil Baker + Partners, the Philadelphia architecture firm that designed the property. “There’s just not a lot of affordable housing in that area.”

Camera icon Jessica Griffin
Before plans for senior housing were made for the empty site, a previous plan for a one-story prefabricated building was put forth. It drew widespread resistance.

The design is quite a change for the space, which today is a parking lot across from a diner, corner stores, and bars. Three years ago, renderings for the site were put forward by Robert W. McCauley of Strada Architecture L.L.C in Philadelphia, planning for a one-story, prefabricated $2.5 million shedlike structure. Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron called it “one step up from a tent,” arguing that greater density was needed at such a prime location. Community pushback followed, despite explanations from the pastor and former shrine director, the Rev. Joseph Genito, that it was all St. Rita’s could afford.

Those plans fizzled, and the St. Rita’s site began drawing interest from developers, many of whom had different residential and commercial mixed-use plans. Finally, one developer and one plan won out: affordable senior housing, to be developed by Catholic Health Care Services of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

“It’s supportive senior housing at an address on South Broad Street for people who have lived in this community for years,” said John Wagner, CEO of Catholic Health Care Services. “This development represents an opportunity to provide balanced development … in one of the hottest neighborhoods in Philadelphia.”

Across the region and the nation, senior citizens are facing a housing dilemma: As Americans are living longer, many seniors want to age at home. But locally, with half of Philadelphia’s houses estimated to be more than 60 years old, many properties are not equipped for the features seniors need, such as handrails and first-floor bedrooms, minimal stairs, and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms.

For many seniors, moving is necessary. And though 55-plus luxury retirement complexes, nursing homes, and assisted-living facilities abound, options for lower-income seniors are more limited. Today, about one-third of adults 50 and older are estimated to be “cost-burdened” because they spend 30 percent of their income on housing. Nearly a quarter spend more than 50 percent.

The Philadelphia Housing Authority supports more than a dozen affordable senior-only housing communities across the city, and private developers offer affordable options, too. Yet most the housing authority’s developments are far from Center City, concentrated in the Northeast, West Philadelphia, the Strawberry Mansion area, and the Southwest. Only one, the Gladys B. Jacobs Manor at Fairmount Avenue and 11th Street in the West Poplar neighborhood, is close to the center of Philadelphia.

More and more, affordable-housing advocates nationwide have been pushing for increasing integration of affordable housing into wealthier communities. Building low-income housing in more impoverished areas, they argue, makes it more difficult for residents to get richer.

Placing an affordable-housing community in a prominent Center City spot was part of the strategy behind Catholic Health Care Services’ planned development.

“I can step outside and wave to City Hall,” said Chesley Turner, the shrine director for the parish who will lead the Cascia Center once it is built. “We want to leverage this position to be more of a part of our community and help it.”

Camera icon Jessica Griffin
The South Broad Street location is within sight of City Hall, which is in the background.

“This is a society that tucks our seniors away,” Turner said. “But having them right on Broad Street says we don’t forget about our seniors.”

The senior-housing plan received zoning approval in December, and Catholic Health Care Services is now working on amassing city, state, and federal funding for the $17.3 million project. The project has received a $1.4 million commitment from the Augustinian Friars, and the development group is applying for nearly $12 million in low-income housing tax credits from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency. There is no cost for the land, which is owned by the St. Rita of Cascia Shrine and the archdiocese.

The group is aiming for a 2020 opening.

To qualify for the housing, seniors must be 62 or older, and rent will be based on a sliding scale. No senior will pay more than 30 percent of his or her income, said Suzanne O’Grady Laurito, assistant director of development at Catholic Health Care Services. Only a person who makes 60 percent or less of the area median income can qualify — $34,980 for a single person, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2017 estimates.

Bastian said the architecture firm designed the apartments with accessibility in mind. They include open kitchens with appliances at wheelchair level, walk-in showers, and lower-to-the-ground windows. A plaza and open spaces for seniors to gather will be situated outside.

For the Cascia Center on the ground floor, Bastian said, the firm designed an all-glass facade to show the center’s openness to the community. And though  its opening is years away, Turner said, she was exploring programs the center could offer, such as counseling and meditation, services for victims of violence, and panels to promote interfaith understanding.

“St. Rita of Cascia, in her own time, was a peacemaker … she brokered peace between two warring families,” Turner said. “In this city, we need to help our people love each other. …That’s what we want to focus this corner lot on.”

Camera icon Jessica Griffin
A sculpture of St. Rita receiving the stigmata, created by local sculptor and painter Anthony Visco, in the shrine of St. Rita of Cascia.

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