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Apartment building designed for homeless and low-income families

In a triangular block where Fairmount Avenue merges into Ridge Avenue in North Philadelphia, another milestone for Project HOME is rising.

Bedroom in one of the apartments in the newly built JBJ Homes by Project home at Broad and Fairmont Ave. ( RON TARVER / Staff Photographer )
Bedroom in one of the apartments in the newly built JBJ Homes by Project home at Broad and Fairmont Ave. ( RON TARVER / Staff Photographer )Read more

In a triangular block where Fairmount Avenue merges into Ridge Avenue in North Philadelphia, another milestone for Project HOME is rising.

Workers are hurrying to finish the $16 million JBJ Soul Homes, a 55-unit apartment house for low-income and formerly homeless people.

Project HOME got its start 25 years ago, running a wintertime shelter for homeless men. Now, it's one of the most active nonprofit developers in the city.

Outside the site, two men in a cherry picker seal seams with caulking in the building's vermilion facade. Inside, others sweep hallways, haul away empty cardboard boxes, and mop floors.

One of the workers - 48-year-old Marc Wise - repairs a nick in the drywall. If anyone knows the value of this type of apartment house, it's Wise.

About two years ago, his "home" was a steam vent outside a Chinatown restaurant at Ninth and Vine Streets. He was addicted to crack, and panhandling for money and food.

Today, he's clean, working full time for a builder, and living in a communal residence run by Project HOME. "There are not many places like this," Wise said.

People on the streets, he said, often have a choice between a shelter "or more depressing situations."

The JBJ Soul Homes will give homeless men and women "another shot at a normal life," Wise added.

Not only will rents be low, but the facility will have case managers and support services on site to help people wrestling with mental illness, which often underlies chronic homelessness.

In a few weeks, the first residents will move into efficiency and one-bedroom apartments. Forty units will be set aside for tenants who used to be chronically homeless, with eight reserved for at-risk teens and young adults. The rest will go to other low-income individuals or couples. Rents will top out at 30 percent of a person's income.

Wise wants to reunite with his family in New Jersey and did not apply for an apartment. But five of his friends from Project HOME's St. Elizabeth residence in North Philadelphia did. They learn next week if they were selected.

"I would love to be here," he said. He takes photographs of the building's progress to share with the men at St. Elizabeth.

JBJ Soul Homes is the second residence developed and managed by Project HOME in Francisville. The first, at 1515 Fairmount, faced so much resistance from neighbors and Mayor Ed Rendell when it was proposed in 1990 that the nonprofit's founders, Sister Mary Scullion and Joan Dawson McConnon, had to go to federal court.

With a quarter-century of experience, Project HOME now has a track record - more than 500 units of housing and private donors who have quietly stepped up with major contributions.

Neighbors in the quickly gentrifying community still will be watchful in terms of how the property is managed, said Penelope Giles, executive director of the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corp. But she added, "We're anxious to see it be successful."

Next up for Project HOME after JBJ Soul Homes:

The Klein Wellness Center, a health, fitness, and medical center in North Philadelphia being developed with Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals Inc. and the YMCA.

A 94-unit, nine-story affordable housing complex at 810 Arch St. The partner is the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp.

An 88-unit, five-story apartment house at 2415 N. Broad St. The Philadelphia Housing Authority has agreed to provide $2 million in construction financing, plus operating subsidies.

Most of the financing for JBJ Soul Homes was raised from investors, who got federal tax credits in return for pledging $11 million for the low-income housing project. The rest of the money came from private donors, including the rock star whose initials are in the name - Jon Bon Jovi, a longtime Project HOME supporter.

Roberta Cancellier, deputy director of policy and planning in the city's Office of Supportive Housing, which deals with the homeless population, said JBJ Soul Homes would help reduce the gap for high-quality housing and services for the homeless.

But the need is enormous: City officials estimate that it would require 3,400 units of affordable supportive housing to accommodate all the homeless and disabled single men and women.

The Greater Exodus Baptist Church, located around the corner from JBJ Soul Homes on Broad Street, provided land for the project. In return, its economic development nonprofit, People for People Inc., will handle the leasing of 12,500 square feet of retail space on the ground floor.

The Rev. Herb Lusk of Greater Exodus said the church assembled the land in the triangular lot one dilapidated house at a time. The former Eagles running back said that before Francisville became a hot real-estate market, the neighborhood was filled with crack houses and abandoned properties. Today, one-bedroom luxury rentals start at $1,700.

"We knew we could have made more money if we sold it to someone who wanted to turn it into market-rate housing," Lusk said. "But we didn't think it was the right thing to do."

JBJ Soul Homes, Lusk said, "speaks volumes to the underserved."

215-854-5659 @j_linq