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Philly’s housing agency taps nonprofits to build affordable housing on 240 city-owned lots

The Philadelphia Housing Authority is tapping into a network of neighborhood groups to help the city alleviate its shortage of affordable homes.

Nonprofit developer APM built some of the Pradera Homes (right) on Philadelphia Housing Authority lots near its Paseo Verde apartment project (center). APM is among those set to develop more PHA-owned land under plans announced Wednesday.
Nonprofit developer APM built some of the Pradera Homes (right) on Philadelphia Housing Authority lots near its Paseo Verde apartment project (center). APM is among those set to develop more PHA-owned land under plans announced Wednesday.Read moreAPM

The Philadelphia Housing Authority is setting aside 240 vacant and abandoned properties in neighborhoods northeast of Center City for affordable-housing development, representing an unusually large cache of land to remain available for low-income residents in an area picked over by market-rate builders.

Under the plan, the vacant structures and empty lots will be transferred to area nonprofit groups committed to housing longtime community residents, as they increasingly struggle against rising rents and home prices, officials said in a news conference Tuesday.

The parcels are largely in the neighborhoods known as Norris Square and West Kensington and are within the boundary of Second and Sixth Streets and Cecil B Moore and Lehigh Avenues. Roughly 80% of the parcels are vacant lots where new construction can be built.

The plan was developed with Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, whose district encompasses the properties. It aims to tap into an existing network of groups that best understand the community’s housing needs and how to fulfill them, PHA president Kelvin Jeremiah said at the news conference.

We “want to give them the flexibility to go crazy and wild if they need to as they think about the critical needs of how their families live,” he said. “We are not going to dictate to the community what its needs are.”

Beth McConnell, policy director for the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, said it has become increasingly difficult to secure land for affordable housing in quickly revitalizing neighborhoods such as these.

“It’s a fairly significant number of parcels,” she said in an interview. “It’s also significant where they’re located.”

The plan comes as officials seek to alleviate an acute shortage of affordable housing in Philadelphia. The situation has worsened as the ongoing health crisis further erodes the financial stability of many city residents.

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For every 100 Philadelphia households that earn 50% of the area median income — $48,300 a year for a household of four in the region — the city has roughly 59 available housing units that they can afford, according to recent data from the nonprofit National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Housing prices, meanwhile, have soared in many parts of the city, including those covered by Wednesday’s announcement.

Rents in the city’s 19122 zip code, which covers neighborhoods to the east of Broad Street, north of Girard Avenue, and including most of Norris Square, were up 30% in September, compared with that month five years earlier, according to a pricing index calculated by the website Zillow.

Within that zip code and the 19133 zip code encompassing West Kensington to the north, about 950 luxury apartments have sprung up in rental buildings since 2014, costing an average of $2,422 for a two-bedroom unit, according to data from market tracker CoStar Group.

That’s just a few hundred dollars less than similar dwellings in Center City, according to CoStar.

“I live here, and I hear from my neighbors every single day, feeling the pressure of what’s going to happen to them,” Quiñones-Sánchez said. “I want long-term residents to feel like this neighborhood is being developed with them in mind, but obviously welcoming others as redevelopment happens.”

» READ MORE: In fast-developing corner of North Philly, vacant lots become priceless

All of the 240 properties to be transferred to the nonprofit groups, for a nominal fee, are already sitting on the PHA’s land inventory. The transfers require approval during PHA’s public board meetings and by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The groups include developers HACE, Esperanza, the Norris Square Community Alliance, and Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM). CEIBA, a nonprofit organization that serves Philadelphia’s Latino community, helped develop the plan.

Properties transferred for rental development would come with requirements that the resulting homes be affordable to residents earning no more than 80% of area median income and that they stay that way for at least 20 years, Jeremiah said.

But types of housing to be constructed at the sites — whether apartment buildings or single-family homes, rental units or for-sale properties — are expected to differ on a project-by-project basis.

APM president Nilda Ruiz, for example, said her group hopes to team with a for-profit developer on a project that would combine market-rate and affordable rental units, with revenue from the former going to subsidize the latter. An earlier APM project, built beside its Paseo Verde complex, near Temple University, was previously constructed on some land obtained from PHA.

Maria Nixa Gonzalez, who leads HACE’s development team, meanwhile, said her organization plans to build homes that can be sold to buyers with qualifying incomes at below-market rates, so they can benefit from increases in the homes’ values.

“There is a lot of investment that’s going into this area, but very little is benefiting the long-term residents in the area and low-income families,” Gonzalez said. “We want to change that in making sure there is equitable development for the families that want to stay living there.”