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Perseverance pays off with senior housing

Among the dozens of housing projects built in Philadelphia this year, a new residence for senior citizens at 23d and Oxford Streets in North Philadelphia has a special story.

Among the dozens of housing projects built in Philadelphia this year, a new residence for senior citizens at 23d and Oxford Streets in North Philadelphia has a special story.

It's about friends who refused to give up on the old neighborhood.

It's about seeing beyond the shortcomings of the present to the possibilities of the future.

It's about tenacity, unbridled hope, and the blessing of inexperience.

It begins on a winter Sunday in 2004. Faye Wilson was driving her friend Lillian Dixon from their homes in Mount Airy to Haven Peniel United Methodist Church in the neighborhood known as Sharswood.

Wilson, 57, and Dixon, 65, both grew up in the neighborhood, around Ridge Avenue and Oxford, and still felt a strong attachment, especially to their 130-year-old church.

From the time Dixon was a girl, she had sung in the church choir and played piano at services. The community was close, she recalled.

Every night when she practiced the piano at home, women would gather with their children on the steps outside to listen to her playing Handel's Messiah and hymns such as "Olivet to Calvary."

"We had great respect for each other," she said.

But the race riots of 1964 upended Sharswood. Middle-class black families like hers began moving to other neighborhoods.

The area still bears the scars of their flight. Though street-light banners declare "Ridge on the Rise," Sharswood remains pockmarked with derelict buildings and overgrown lots. Two in five people there live below the poverty line, according to government statistics.

In its heyday in the 1950s, Haven Peniel had more than 2,000 members. Today, there are about 200, many of whom, like Wilson and Dixon, do not live in Sharswood but remain loyal to the church.

Wilson, a financial and accounting expert, and Dixon, a retired employee of the city's court system, were lamenting money matters on that Sunday drive.

The women, who are church officers, were discussing ways to build membership when they passed a new public-housing apartment house for seniors near Ridge and Midvale Avenue.

Dixon turned to Wilson and asked, "Why can't we do something like that?"

It wasn't just chitchat.

Dixon thought of all the aging members of the parish. Pressing her point, she noted to Wilson that the parishioners had the talent to make it happen.

"We have an architect, we have expertise in accounting and administration," Dixon told her friend. "Why can't we put together a team?"

Perhaps if either had been through the rigors of launching an affordable-housing project, the conversation would have ended there. But they didn't know better, and thought, "Indeed, why not?"

Before they had even taken off their coats at church, they had sought out the then-pastor, the Rev. John Lewis Sr.

He liked the idea, as did the other church officers. They gave the pair the green light. The church owned a triangular, vacant lot across the street that was used only for Sunday parking. Could that work?

It would, decided another friend, churchgoer and architect Joseph P. Young. Young, 67, grew up with his parents and seven siblings within walking distance of Haven Peniel. Within a week, he had drawn up preliminary plans for a five-story building.

Wilson next reached out to the local office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which awards competitive grants for developing low-income housing for seniors.

Wilson, who at the time was working for Philadelphia University, was familiar with grant writing. So for several months, she would come home from work and attack the HUD application for a Section 202 grant until after midnight.

The grants are reserved for senior housing. This year, HUD will spend $765 million nationally on the program. When Wilson printed out her application, it was three inches thick.

Members of the church donated $10,000 to pay for land surveys and other costs associated with the application. They raised $15,000 more through fund-raisers such as concerts and trips.

Through the church, the neighbors established a nonprofit community development corporation. They submitted their HUD application in 2005 and were turned down. HUD said they lacked the management skills to develop the project, and suggested they team with a group that had them.

Wilson rewrote the proposal, adding North County Conservancy Inc. as a cosponsor. The owner of that Philadelphia nonprofit, Ted Robb, was a former regional director for HUD who had experience in building low-income housing for seniors.

Wilson and Dixon were driving to the church on Nov. 3, 2006, when Wilson got a call from HUD. The project had been accepted. The group would receive $8 million.

"I started to cry," Dixon said. "I cried for two weeks. I couldn't stop."

The city Office of Housing and Community Development added $1 million to fill the funding gap. Deborah McColloch, director of the office, said Philadelphia has an aging population, which is why her office is backing projects to add 300 residences for older people.

"Many seniors are concerned about their ability to remain in the communities in which they've spent their lives," McColloch said. "Developments like Haven Peniel and the nearly 300 homes in our pipeline offer hope to our senior citizens and new beginnings for our neighborhoods."

Construction of the Haven Peniel residence began in fall 2008. The first tenants moved in this month.

The 54-unit residence, run by Community Property Management Co., is reserved for low-income people, who pay no more than 30 percent of their fixed incomes to live in one-bedroom apartments. HUD subsidies cover the rest of the costs.

Lewis Crump, 67, who used to work at a vacuum cleaner store, is one of the new residents. He, too, grew up in the area, but had been living with his daughter in Northeast Philadelphia since a heart-valve transplant five years ago.

"The vibes I get from these people are so wonderful," Crump said of the church team.

A ministry from the church provides some social services to residents, such as a free lunch program, computer training, Bible study, movie nights, and other social activities. Dixon called the project their legacy to the church.

The Rev. Misty Fuller, now pastor of Haven Peniel, said the church and its new project speak to the neighborhood's potential. "It's a church that says, look to the future. We want better and we're going to do better," Fuller said.

On a recent tour of the building, which is almost fully rented, Young, the architect, gestured out a window that looked onto vacant lots on Ridge Avenue.

Like the others, his mind was clicking.

He saw something more in the empty lots and buildings: "Phase Two of the Haven Peniel residence."