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Could turning vacant buildings into housing for people in need solve Kensington’s homelessness problem? | Opinion

"When you tell me, ‘not with my tax dollars and not on my block,’ these people were at one point taxpayers,” said longtime resident Dennis Payne. “As far as ‘not on my block’ — well, they’re already on my block.”

Row homes line Potter and Custer Streets in Kensington.
Row homes line Potter and Custer Streets in Kensington.Read moreMaggie Loesch for Kensington Voice

For the last year, Dana has been sleeping outside and in abandoned buildings in Kensington. The situation wasn’t ideal, but it worked for her until July, when she was assaulted by two men. That was when Dana, who requested her name be withheld for this story, started staying at a shelter whenever she could. But sometimes, the shelter’s limited schedule — which, at the time, required people to leave from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. — wasn’t enough and she found herself, like many of the other people experiencing homelessness in Kensington, walking the streets searching for food, water, and bathrooms until she could return.

Housing struggles are common in Philadelphia, the poorest of the 10 biggest cities in the United States. In 2018, nearly 11,000 people experiencing homelessness were served in the city’s emergency shelters, safe havens, or transitional housing, and the poverty rate hovered at around 26 percent.

Some longtime Kensington residents like Dennis Payne wonder if vacant buildings in Kensington could be converted into housing for the neighborhood’s growing population of people experiencing homelessness.

“When you tell me, ‘Not with my tax dollars and not on my block,’ these people were at one point taxpayers,” said Payne. “As far as ‘Not on my block’ — well, they’re already on my block.”

Between 2017 and 2018, the number of people living on the street in Kensington more than doubled from 271 to 703, and the neighborhood currently has two shelters with a total of 80 beds. In December, the city said it would open 30 more shelter beds in the area by January, but due to pushback from some residents, it won’t be ready because the city cannot lock down a location.

Jamie Moffett, of the now-defunct Kensington Renewal Initiative, just finished renovating a handful of abandoned houses in the 19134 zip code. Moffett’s original goal was to convert them into owner-occupied homes for longtime renters in the neighborhood, but after some trouble refinancing his properties, he is renting them through a property management company instead.

When asked what he thought about converting abandoned homes into housing for people experiencing homelessness, he was skeptical. “I don’t see a way for that to happen unless there’s some magic government money I’m not aware of,” Moffett said.

However, Moffett admits that it’s cheaper to house people in row homes than in shelters, because the average rent in Kensington is less than the cost of sheltering someone for a month. In 2016, the average median gross rent was $812.60 for the five census tracts — 161, 163, 177.01, 177.02, and 178 — Kensington Voice uses for Kensington, according to the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey.

At a meeting on Nov. 27 at McPherson Square Library, Liz Hersh, the director of the city’s Office of Homeless Services, said each shelter bed costs the city $45 per day, or an average of $1,350 a month — well above the neighborhood’s average rent. One person spending a year in permanent supportive housing costs the city about $12,500 each year — about $1,040 a month — which is also more expensive than the neighborhood’s average.

“Unlike some of the West Coast cities where they just don’t have enough housing stock,” Hersh said, “we really do have housing stock, and that could be renovated, rehabbed, or demolished and replaced.”

The Jumpstart Kensington initiative is focused on revitalizing blighted properties to fill some of the needs Hersh mentioned through a mix of affordable and market-rate rentals and owner-occupied homes.

Jumpstart Kensington, which is modeled after Jumpstart Germantown, trains cohorts of developers and provides them with training, networking, mentoring, and loans. Its goals include supporting scattered-site rehabilitation, which entails renovating two or three vacant houses on a given block and improving neighborhood safety by reducing the number of broken-down properties.

A survey in 2017 found that half of Jumpstart Germantown’s loans were for rentals and the other half were for homeownership, which he called “a perfect balance.”

However, funding for initiatives like Jumpstart Kensington, which relies on money from Impact Services through JP Morgan’s PRO Neighborhoods award, can be difficult to secure in the first place.

At Seventh and Somerset Streets, Orens Brothers Real Estate is working on a state-funded project in partnership with Mosaic Development Partners and Veterans Multi-Service Center. They’re converting the remains of Thomas Edison High School into the Edison 64 veteran community — a $10 million project to create a 66-unit apartment complex. A veteran multiservice center on the first floor will provide employment assistance, among other services.

But according to Chad Orens, the assistant project manager of Edison 64, development deals like Edison 64 don’t happen without government funding, which is scarce for nonprofit housing projects. For developers looking to make a profit, Kensington can be a high and risky investment, Orens said.

For this reason, developers look toward more lucrative zip codes like 19123 (Northern Liberties) and 19146 (Point Breeze) for investment.

“For developers, it comes down to someone having the foresight that in 15 years a property is going to be a gold mine,” said Orens, citing the neighborhood surrounding Temple University as an example. Residents like Payne are aware of the foresight Orens described and are wary of wealthy developers with intentions of buying vacant properties and selling to more affluent populations.

“Some of these lots which are only worth $1,200 will have $300,000 homes on them," Payne said. “These buildings are going to be torn down, and they’re not going to be used for the people of Kensington."

Henry Savage, Evan Easterling, and Erin Blewett are students at Temple University’s Klein College of Communication and writers for Kensington Voice, a community-driven news initiative that amplifies traditionally underserved voices, illuminates the neighborhood’s complexity, challenges, and resilience, and explores existing and potential solutions to problems facing the heart of Kensington.