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In gentrifying E. Kensington, affordable senior apartments rise

On a typical day, St. Francis Inn, on the 2400 block of Kensington Avenue, serves 350 to 500 meals to people from the neighborhood.

On a typical day, St. Francis Inn, on the 2400 block of Kensington Avenue, serves 350 to 500 meals to people from the neighborhood.

Most are elderly, longtime residents of Kensington and, said the Rev. Michael Duffy, "come nearly every day to eat because they cannot afford to buy food and to pay for housing and their medicine, too."

Duffy, a Franciscan priest, said many of the seniors "live in hovels, since they don't have the money to keep them in good repair."

Although he is moved by the plight of the younger people whom St. Francis Inn serves, "they have their lives before them," Duffy said. "For the old, there is often no hope."

Yet hope springs eternal, in this case on the site of a former dye factory at Emerald and East Hagert Streets, down the street from St. Francis Inn, that was destroyed in a five-alarm fire in October 2010.

Nearly completed there is St. Francis Villa, which will provide affordable one-bedroom apartments to 40 seniors, with community rooms, laundry facilities, and an outdoor gardening area.

Catholic Health Care Services will provide support services to the apartments' tenants, who must be 62 or older and have incomes between 20 percent and 60 percent of the area median - $32,000 a year or $2,667 a month.

The $12.3 million project, which received $10 million in low-income tax credits from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, is part of the Philadelphia Office of Community Development's 10-year plan for the East Kensington neighborhood surrounding Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church.

St. Francis Villa had its origins in 2009, when Duffy called John Wagner, Catholic Human Services deputy secretary and CEO for assistance.

"I had no idea where to begin," Duffy said.

Monthly meetings followed over the next two to three years, then environmental studies of different sites, then one of neighborhood needs. There were many restrictions, Duffy said.

Another factor, Wagner said, was the "gentrification" of East Kensington and "Father's vision of the needs of people being met to ensure they stayed in the neighborhood."

Evidence of change is visible all around St. Francis Villa, with townhouses and high-end rentals rising in vacant lots and factory conversions a quick walk from the York-Dauphin El station.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia stepped in to get the project moving, and "we put together the development team," he said.

The neighborhood wanted it, Wagner said, citing continued support from the East Kensington Neighborhood Association.

Visitation Parish is focused on seniors, and "we had already made an investment, with 18 units of housing and a community center," Wagner said.

Providing modern housing to seniors of limited means "reduces financial and physical stress," said Kimiko Doherty, the project manager.

In addition, Doherty said, the design of the building, right down to walk-in showers and other "aging-in-place" amenities, is an improvement from needing to climb to the second floor of a rowhouse to use the bathroom.

Though many of the buildings rising in the neighborhood are steel and glass, Nancy Bastian, of Cecil Baker + Partners Architects, said that "this is a rowhouse neighborhood," and that the villa is made of "as much brick as the budget would allow."

The apartments are designed to provide a dignified feeling as well as a high level of comfort, said Bastian, who when interviewed had just arrived from another Baker project, Carl Dranoff's One Riverside.

"We worked with a cabinetmaker to come with an appropriate design," and provided pantry space and large closets, as well as large windows to let in as much natural light as possible, said Bastian.

There is a "senior friendly" video intercom system and 24/7 "Eldercall" in the bathroom and bedroom.

Applicants for the apartments represent the diversity of the neighborhood, said Heather Huot, Catholic Health Care Services' asset manager.

"It will be like the United Nations here," she said.