Public housing developments have traditionally been seen as “neighborhoods of last resort” for low-income families, who have few, if any, other options for affordable housing. But with careful planning involving community residents, coupled with the commitment of public and private actors, public housing can be much more. It can serve as a “door to opportunity” that helps strengthen families and breaks the cycle of intergenerational poverty.
This belief has motivated the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) to pursue a multifaceted strategy that focuses on affordable housing as a platform to support other critical objectives, such as improving education, health, and financial outcomes for residents. PHA can not only provide quality housing for those priced out of the housing market, it can also promote self-sufficiency and deliver the tools for families to transition with dignity into the mainstream economy. This ambitious approach to improving lives and revitalizing communities has been supported by residents, the city, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
PHA started by cleaning up its own house, implementing measures to ensure accountability, efficiency, and transparency. The agency also commenced an aggressive and ambitious initiative to enhance the quality of its properties and expand the availability and supply of affordable housing. In tandem, PHA adopted a multidisciplinary approach to neighborhood transformation that reenvisions and integrates education, job training, and business development into the revitalization strategies. At PHA, we know that the key to high quality, well-functioning public housing lies in building successful communities that support and strengthen individuals and families.
As an example of this approach, PHA is working with community residents, the city, and a network of committed partners to revitalize the Sharswood/Blumberg neighborhood, one of Philadelphia’s most distressed and poverty-impacted communities. PHA’s multiyear commitment includes facilitating construction of a planned 1,200 units of mixed-income housing, building a new headquarters facility on Ridge Avenue, and supporting the development of a new neighborhood supermarket. The new headquarters and supermarket will break ground soon, creating a critical foundation for the long-term plan to revitalize the Ridge Avenue commercial corridor. In addition, PHA is supporting a wide array of support services and other initiatives that will benefit both existing and new community residents.
In identifying the most critical components needed to ensure the success of the Sharswood/Blumberg initiative, access to high-quality educational opportunities rose to the top of the list. Just as poor-performing K-12 schools can destabilize communities and contribute to perpetuating cycles of poverty, high-performing schools can help strengthen and stabilize families, attract new families from all income levels, build community bonds and pride, and promote development and other resources. Not everyone has the financial means to move into expensive neighborhoods where the educational opportunities are often significantly better, but PHA can step up and bring better educational services — coupled with higher expectations — to its residents.
In September of this year, PHA, in collaboration with Big Picture Philadelphia Inc. and the Philadelphia School District, will celebrate the opening of a new 9-12 grade school in Sharswood/Blumberg, in the once shuttered Vaux High School. PHA is committing up to $15 million to fund the rehabilitation of the school building, assembling education and social services partners, providing a per pupil contribution to support enhanced student services, and helping to forge a unique partnership with the Philadelphia Federal of Teachers.
The new Vaux School will provide superior educational programs based on proven best practices, with high expectations of both teachers and students. Aligning with Mayor Kenney’s Community School model for traditional neighborhood schools, the new Vaux School will also serve as a hub for community resources that support and strengthen families. It will be an enrichment and recreational center, with the social services needed to address challenges that undermine a child’s educational prospects, as well as opportunities for adult education and parent training. As part of this dynamic and evolving initiative, the Vaux School anticipates coordinating with residents, community partners, local faith-based organizations, and other Sharswood/Blumberg stakeholders, as well as developing the school’s locally elected parent and community council.
The Vaux School initiative is the beginning of a more comprehensive plan and commitment to improve educational attainment for all PHA families. Young people are PHA’s most vulnerable residents, but, if provided the opportunity, they have the greatest potential to permanently break the cycle of poverty.
PHA is enthusiastically forging ahead with bringing good schools home. Shouldering that responsibility is not only core to PHA’s mission of opening doors to opportunities, but also our civic and moral obligation.