City Council's Committee on Rules approved a plan on Tuesday that would allow the Philadelphia Housing Authority to acquire 1,300 properties in the North Philadelphia neighborhood surrounding the Norman Blumberg Apartments at 23rd and Jefferson streets.
If the plan is approved by the full Council, as early as next Thursday, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority will be authorized to use eminent domain to condemn more than 800 privately owned properties in the area and transfer those, along with 500 publicly owned properties, to the PHA. The Housing Authority plans to tear down the Blumberg Apartments, which includes 510 units spread across three towers and 18 other buildings, this fall, according to PHA President Kelvin Jeremiah. It received federal approval for the demolition last week, Jeremiah said.
See a list of all the properties slated for condemnation here.
If the Housing Authority completes the redevelopment according to plan, those apartments would be replaced with 1,200 new units, including nearly 700 affordable rental units and 320 affordable homeownership units. The PHA also plans to build 200 market-rate units for rent and for sale, 500,000 square feet of retail space on Ridge Avenue, a renovated school and recreational center, and new athletic fields.
The transformation would double the number of affordable-housing units at the project. That would be a break from the PHA's projects over the last few decades, which have focused on tearing down high-rise projects and replacing them with lower-density developments, resulting in a net loss of almost 7,000 affordable units. Jeremiah said on Tuesday that the PHA is hoping to reverse the trend and make up for the loss of affordable units by developing 6,000 new units over the next five years. (In the 1990s, the federal government scrapped a rule that required a 1-to-1 replacement ratio for demolished public-housing units.)
The rate of poverty at Blumberg is more than 50 percent, according to Jeremiah's testimony, and only 16 percent of the project's residents over the age of 18 are employed.
"Blumberg houses some of the city's most vulnerable and hard-to-house residents, who require intensive case management and supportive services," Jeremiah said in prepared testimony to the committee. "The long-term outcome for Blumberg residents is dismal, with incidences of social pathology higher than any other PHA site. The area around Blumberg suffers from a violent crime rate that is twice that of the rest of the city."
A small group of witnesses, including some who own property that's slated for demolition, testified in opposition to the plan on Tuesday. Alice Lawrence, a nurse who lives in the area and is planning to retire soon, said she had dreamed of opening an ice cream parlor on one of the properties that PHA is looking to acquire. Judith Robinson, a community activist and owner of Complete Real Estate Services, characterized the plan as government-sponsored gentrification in hyper-speed. She said it would strip existing property owners of everything they've struggled for.
The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority says that only 73 of the 800 private properties slated for condemnation are occupied. Of those, 57 are residential and 16 are commercial. Brian Abernathy, PRA's executive director, said the agency has so far made contact with the occupants of 45 of those 73 properties. The remaining occupants have not responded to repeated mailings and site visits, Abernathy said.
The Housing Authority developed its plan after receiving a $500,000 Choice Neighborhood Initiative planning grant from the federal government. Council President Darrell Clarke, whose district includes the neighborhood, helped the Housing Authority secure a 9 percent Low-Income Housing Tax Credit from the state Housing Finance Agency to use toward the project, according to Kelvin Jeremiah.
That state tax credit helped PHA raise $12 million in private financing for the first phase of the project, which involves the development of 57 affordable rental units. The total cost of that phase is $21 million, or $368,421 per unit.
The Redevelopment Authority will begin sending out condemnation letters with proposed condemnation amounts after the full Council approves the plan.