As part of the agreement that closed the sprawling, controversial homeless encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in October, the city committed to establishing two tiny-house villages to accommodate unhoused Philadelphians.
Without fanfare, the city has selected a site in West Philadelphia, and is considering another in the Northeast, on which the villages can be built as part of a pilot program. The first will cost around $1.2 million to develop, and the other is expected to cost less than $500,000, according to people with knowledge of the projects.
However, a spokesman for the mayor’s office said that it’s too soon to determine project costs. No city money will go into construction, officials said. Relatively few people — no more than 36 — will be housed.
The encampment, which appeared in June on the Parkway at 21st Street, was organized both to protest homelessness and support issues related to the Black Lives Matter movement. At its peak during the summer, it was home to about 200 people. Those who lived in the encampment will not be given special consideration, a person familiar with the projects said.
Along with the villages, the city said it also would provide 25 vacant houses in various neighborhoods for people experiencing homelessness. The Philadelphia Housing Authority pledged another 25.
The houses, described by city officials as being in poor condition, have not yet been released. In the meantime, however, encampment organizer Jennifer Bennetch and others have created a nonprofit that will eventually receive titles to the properties and manage them, according to attorney Justin Hollinger of the nonprofit Regional Housing Legal Services, which represents nonprofit developers of affordable housing.
City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who represents the Mill Creek area of West Philadelphia where one of the villages is expected to be created, said that the possibility makes her “incredibly excited.” She added, “We have to be aggressive in solving homelessness and the housing crisis in this city.”
The West Philadelphia site is at 4917 Aspen St., a parcel of less than an acre with a market value of $352,000 that sits between a three-story apartment complex and Greater Mount Olive A.M.E. Church, city records show.
The potential Northeast Philadelphia plot, also less than an acre, is near 8201 State Rd. at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center, records show.
“The city has carved out a piece of the old House of Correction site that’s no longer in use, and not visible from the street,” said Tara Gontek, president of the Holmesburg Civic Association. “We think it’s wonderful. Any initiative to house the most vulnerable is a noble undertaking.”
Residents won’t be moving in any time soon. The process is in its nascent stages, with a call out to nonprofits to submit proposals to run the villages and find financing for construction. People familiar with the project said that the city will bear some nonconstruction costs, but a city spokesperson said it’s too soon to determine what they will be.
Proposals are due early next month, and the projects are scheduled to be completed by summer.
“Pods” and houses
The villages won’t be identical. The Northeast site, inspired by similar communities in Seattle, is expected to consist of 12 to 24 single-room units or “pods” that are 120 square feet each, city documents show. While they’ll be heated and have electricity, they won’t have water or bathrooms. A central kitchen, as well as a building with bathrooms, showers, and laundry, will be constructed. Services to help the homeless also will be available.
Some of the costs of running it are expected to be covered by Philadelphia’s share of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, city documents show.
The total cost of building the proposed Northeast project is estimated to be less than $500,000, according to Courtney Voss, chief of staff for the office of City Councilmember Bobby Henon, in whose district the village will be erected.
The site would be considered a so-called transitional facility, more like a homeless shelter residents live in for a while and ultimately leave.
Conversely, the West Philadelphia site will host permanent housing for 24 people. The village will consist of 12 two-bedroom tiny homes, each under 400 square feet, all outfitted with utilities, bathrooms, and kitchens, people familiar with the plans said.
With an eye toward helping those considered more susceptible to COVID-19, residents of both villages will be age 65 and older, or people living with certain underlying medical conditions, a city spokesperson said.
The people who populate the villages will be selected by the city’s Office of Homeless Services, according to Stephanie Sena, a poverty professor at the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. She’s also the founder of the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia, a nonprofit that works with college students to provide shelter for homeless people. Sena, who brought an unsuccessful lawsuit against the city during the summer to prevent it from shuttering the Parkway encampment, has for years been an advocate of using tiny houses for people experiencing homelessness.
Her organization has applied to the city to develop the West Philadelphia village site.
Familiar with the city’s plans, Sena said that the Office of Homeless Services is expected to fill the West Philadelphia village with homeless people who have some income. The vast majority of homeless Philadelphians don’t live on the street; they couch-surf, or live in shelters, or even cars.
Many have money coming in. Some receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a federal stipend given to aged, blind, and disabled people who have little or no income. Quite a few homeless Philadelphians have low-paying jobs.
The nonprofit that runs the West Philadelphia site will own the land, given over by the city.
Anyone living at the West Philadelphia site will be expected to pay rent — not more than 30% of income, Sena said. The nonprofit would transform the property into a land trust, which would allow residents to enter into a rent-to-own arrangement. Residents would eventually be able to sell their tiny houses to create equity, and have a chance to build wealth, an opportunity rarely afforded to low-income Americans, Sena said.
As for developing the West Philadelphia site, Ken Weinstein, president of Philly Office Retail, a Germantown property management company, said he would like to work on it with Sena.
“Coincidentally, my company has been looking at building tiny houses in Germantown to provide affordable, market-rate housing,” Weinstein said.
The Aspen Street project would cost an estimated $1.2 million, Weinstein said. The houses would be built by an outside group, possibly Liberation Tiny Homes in Leola, Lancaster County, a tiny-home manufacturer.
Weinstein said he is willing to provide his company’s development expertise as an in-kind contribution worth around $500,000.
That leaves $700,000 to be raised by the nonprofit that would own the site, Sena said. The money would come from grants and donations, she added.
“This will be a great thing for the community,” said Pastor Derrick Long of Men of Mill Creek Bible Fellowship, a nondenominational Christian church near the Aspen Street site. “The gospel I follow says we’re supposed to make a way for the poor.
“Can you imagine being homeless in this COVID? Anything we can do to help the homeless would be great.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.