When Yvonne Gibbs moved into the Westpark Apartments 57 years ago, the trio of high-rises was brand new — a large green courtyard bustling with playful children led to glistening elevators that whisked tenants up to modern public housing units.
“It was slick and beautiful,” said Gibbs, now 74.
But today these Philadelphia Housing Authority-owned buildings are deteriorating: elevators frequently break, heating systems fail, pipes leak, smoke alarms have been unreliable, and scaffolding catches falling bricks. Many residents describe living in fear of crime.
Last month, the housing authority started the process of moving residents out of Westpark in preparation for redeveloping the complex.
”I am ready to get out of here,” said Terrie Jacobs, 60, who’s lived in a ninth floor unit for seven years.
Like housing authorities across the nation, PHA has sought to rid itself of deep maintenance obligations tied to legacy housing complexes it owns. Westpark is among the last of the agency’s mid-century high rises, as many others have already been demolished and redeveloped, often into low-rise, mixed-income communities, and frequently with the help of private developers.
All tenants, even those eager to leave, are granted the right to return to the redeveloped units, but experts say these overhaul projects often scatter communities and, in reality, few ever come back. For relocated Westpark residents, most will not be able to stay in West Philadelphia, due to lack of public housing unit vacancies.
PHA announced in 2019 plans to overhaul and expand Westpark, which opened in 1964 near 44th and Market Streets. After a lengthy process delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, last month PHA selected New-York Based L+M Development Partners and MSquared to helm the redevelopment. Soon, the three 19-story buildings, which together hold 323 units, will be redeveloped and the residents of the 247 occupied units will be relocated to new housing, paid for and assisted by PHA.
“Everyone wants to get out of bad housing, especially if the housing has been under-maintained,” said Akira Drake Rodriguez, assistant professor of city planning at the University of Pennsylvania. “And ideally we would want people to return. But in practice, that doesn’t really happen.”
Take for example the Norman Blumberg Apartments, a sprawling housing complex in the Sharswood section of North Philadelphia that was also plagued by deferred maintenance and crime. Most of the towering buildings were imploded in 2016 to make way for a 10-year redevelopment project meant to create 1,200 mixed-income housing units.
Residents could “temporarily” relocate to another PHA complex, agency-owned scattered site housing, receive a Section 8 Housing Choice voucher, or go their own way.
But of the 450 households relocated from Blumberg, just under a quarter have returned to the new development, which is still under construction, according to PHA spokesperson Nichole Tillman.
“As PHA opens more phases [of the redevelopment], remaining former Blumberg households can still apply,” Tillman said. “We have found that many residents, once at their new location, choose not to move again.”
Rodriguez said there are many reasons this occurs, from families adjusting to their new locations and not wanting to pull children out of school a second time, to lengthy construction timelines.
Shakera Frisby, 30, lived in Blumberg for 10 years with her mother and four siblings. When that complex was imploded, Frisby and her 2-year-old were first offered to be relocated to Bartram Village, a Southwest Philly public housing project.
“I would have been moving from one bad area to the next bad area,” she said.
Frisby requested another option, and was offered a unit in Germantown. Although she and her now three children need more space than their current two-bedroom, they like the new neighborhood, she said. Unless PHA offered her a significantly larger unit, she wouldn’t return to the new Sharswood development — she’s too traumatized by the trials of life in Blumberg to return to that area. Nor would her mother, she said.
“Where I am [now] is a really good area. My kids don’t know about what I experienced in Blumberg,” said Frisby, an airport TSA agent.
On average across PHA redevelopment relocations, 58% of residents move into other PHA developments, 25% move to scattered site homes, and 14% used vouchers, Tillman said. The remaining 3% move to private residences or have their belongings moved to storage, she said.
But Rodriguez said that, over time, as housing authorities have come to rely on handing out vouchers rather than providing public housing units, rental costs have soared. With landlords less likely to accept vouchers in more expensive, sought-after neighborhoods, tenants are more likely to end up in far flung or, sometimes, less desirable areas.
“That neighborhood is blooming right now,” she said of the area around Westpark, which has drawn development fueled by nearby universities. “[They’re] in what is now actually a choice neighborhood. And one where we don’t really have much affordable housing to begin with.”
The relocation process for Westpark residents began mid-January, evaluating tenants’ current units and needs. There’s not a timeline for when residents will begin to actually move out.
Tillman emphasized that speed was a priority.
Tillman said in an email that the authority was redeveloping Westpark “because it is antiquated, and we do not have the resources to continue the extremely high maintenance costs. PHA wants to relocate residents as quickly as possible.”
Indeed, since 2007, the buildings have racked up 94 violations from the Department of Licenses & Inspections, records show, including fire code violations that loom large after a fatal January blaze at another PHA unit that killed 12 people. PHA has estimated the Westpark towers need more than $50 million in repairs, which would consume almost all of its annual capital budget.
The deferred maintenance takes a toll on elderly residents like Terrie Jacobs, who has arthritis and other health problems, and must painfully hoist herself up nine flights of stairs when the elevators break. Charlotte Hilton, a resident of 24 years, wants out so her 10-year-old grandson can play outside without fear of being shot.
But Andrea Foster, the tenant president of Westpark, said residents were disappointed to learn there were no available PHA units in West Philadelphia.
For Yvonne Gibbs, who was only offered units in North or South Philly, leaving West Philadelphia — where she’s lived her entire life, and where her family, doctors, and church are located — is distressing.
“At first they said we could have a choice where we go, and now they’re just giving you a place you don’t even want to go,” said Gibbs.
Jacobs was offered units in the Gladys B. Jacobs Manor in Fairmount or Bentley Hall in North Philly. She’s crossing her fingers for Jacobs Manor, and said she can’t bear to live near Bentley Hall. It’s close to where her brother and nephew were fatally shot, she said.
Other residents aren’t too picky. For Rajsheeda Mitchell and her two kids, just getting out is the top priority.
“Anything is better than here,” Mitchell said.