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City chooses Black-owned firm to develop tiny-house village in West Philly

The developers say they are “deeply rooted in solving community problems, particularly for people of color.”

A lot in the 4900 block of Aspen Street in West Philadelphia will be the site of a tiny-house village to be developed by Mosaic Development Partners of Strawberry Mansion, a Black-owner firm.
A lot in the 4900 block of Aspen Street in West Philadelphia will be the site of a tiny-house village to be developed by Mosaic Development Partners of Strawberry Mansion, a Black-owner firm.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

The city has chosen Mosaic Development Partners, a Black-owned firm based in Strawberry Mansion, to develop a tiny-house village in West Philadelphia for people experiencing homelessness.

The 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.

Known for developing projects in low-income Philadelphia neighborhoods that have not seen much investment, Mosaic is co-owned by Leslie Smallwood-Lewis and Greg Reaves.

“We go into the most difficult communities in Philadelphia,” Reaves said. “We are deeply rooted in solving community problems, particularly for people of color.”

Mosaic is developing a mixed-use site that includes a grocery store near the headquarters of the Philadelphia Housing Authority in North Philadelphia, the site of a homeless encampment over the summer.

It also developed Edison Square, in the shuttered Edison High School in Fairhill, from which more students who fought in the Vietnam War died than any other high school in the country. Mosaic created a shopping center and housing for 66 homeless veterans there.

Mosaic was also one of two partners selected last year to help redevelop the South Philadelphia Navy Yard. And it’s developed housing units in various Philadelphia neighborhoods.

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 people who are homeless. The other is in Northeast Philadelphia.

That project will be developed by a Hatfield nonprofit called Sanctuary Village on city-owned property at 7979 State Rd., the campus of Riverview Personal Care Home, according to Liz Hersh, director of the city’s Office of Homeless Services.

No city money will go into the construction of either project, the cost and timeline of which are still undetermined, city officials said. The city will convey the land on which the sites will sit to the developers.

At the West Philadelphia site, Mosaic plans to build 12 units of two-story modular housing, “a little more than” 650 square feet each, Reaves said. Each will have two or three bedrooms and be fully functioning, he added.

City documents show the State Road site is expected to comprise 12 to 24 single-room units that are 120 square feet each. 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.

Although the city has called the Northeast site a tiny-house village, homeless advocates have said the units are more accurately described as “pods” rather than houses.

The site would be considered a so-called transitional facility, more like a homeless shelter residents live in temporarily and ultimately leave. The West Philadelphia site is seen as permanent housing.

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.

Both sites will provide services for those who are housing insecure. Mosaic executives haven’t yet chosen an organization to run that aspect of the community.

In the Northeast, some of the services available will be provided at the Riverview Personal Care Home. Such homes have been described as residences that provide shelter, meals, supervision, and assistance with personal care tasks, typically for older people, or people with physical, behavioral health, or cognitive disabilities who are unable to care for themselves but do not need nursing home or medical care.

When Mosaic hires partners in its projects, it works only with minority- or women-owned firms, said Smallwood-Lewis, who grew up in East Mount Airy and went to Philadelphia High School for Girls. She said that Columbus, Ohio-based Moody Nolan, the largest African American architecture firm in the United States, will be part of the team developing the Aspen Street site.

Asked for comment about Mosaic’s attachment to the project, a city spokesperson said simply, “We are looking forward to working with them to continue the process.”

Homeless advocates expressed surprise Thursday that Stephanie Sena, who teaches a course on poverty at Villanova University’s Charles Widger School of Law (of which Smallwood-Lewis is a graduate), was not chosen to develop the site. She applied last year.

Sena is founder of the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia, a nonprofit that works with college students to provide shelter for homeless people. During the summer, she brought an unsuccessful lawsuit against the city to prevent it from shuttering the Parkway encampment. Sena has been a longtime advocate of using tiny houses for people experiencing homelessness, and helped change zoning laws in Philadelphia that makes such housing possible, advocates said.

“I’m disappointed because I’ve worked on this for years,” said Sena, who was collaborating with tiny-house builders in Lancaster County.

“But Mosaic will do justice to this work. They will value the voices of the West Philly community and uplift the dignity of the un-housed.”