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Norristown shuns apartment dwelling

The Schuylkill Overlook Apartments - with 49 proposed, professionally managed rental units - sounds like just the type of housing complex many struggling communities would welcome in the midst of the current economic downturn.

The Schuylkill Overlook Apartments - with 49 proposed, professionally managed rental units - sounds like just the type of housing complex many struggling communities would welcome in the midst of the current economic downturn.

Or so developer John Randolph thought.

Not so in Norristown, where some officials have not exactly brought out the welcome wagon.

The $12.3 million project, backed by government low-income tax credits, would require tenants to make less than 60 percent of Montgomery County's median income - or $54,000 annually.

And that is just the type of income-restricted property Norristown is trying to limit within its borders, said Council President William Caldwell, a Democrat.

"It probably would be a nice project, but I don't buy that it's a good thing for Norristown," he said. "I don't think it pushes our goals at all in deconcentrating poverty within our community."

Randolph, whose Cherry Hill-based Ingerman Group is behind the project, is used to this resistance from local leaders.

But more and more, he is hearing it from the communities that have historically accepted the affordable-housing developments in which his company specializes.

Municipalities such as Norristown, Upper Darby, and Coatesville have taken on a disproportionate share of the government-sponsored low-income housing stock over the last decade, and they are increasingly loath to welcome any more.

These growing pockets of poverty create a cycle that traps certain communities on the lower end of the development scale while allowing more affluent ones to flourish, Caldwell said.

"Morally, this country has a very large problem with economic segregation," he said. "You have rich communities, you have poor communities - and there's very little mixing in between."

Just two communities in Montgomery County - Norristown and Pottstown, where median incomes are about $34,000 below the countywide average - account for more than 60 percent of county residents who rely on federal housing vouchers.

The program, popularly known as Section 8, is designed to help low-income residents bridge the gap between what they can afford and market-rates prices.

Similar concentrations of low-income housing have sprung up in Upper Darby in Delaware County and Coatesville in Chester County.

How this economic segregation developed turns into a chicken-and-egg debate.

Municipal officials in the depressed townships and boroughs say zoning restrictions in more affluent communities limit possibilities for affordable-housing developments there.

Those in charge of countywide planning argue, however, that the circumstances developed by happenstance.

Affordable-housing vouchers are pegged to a certain percentage of regional rent rates. For example, a housing voucher in the Philadelphia market - which includes Montgomery, Chester, Delaware, and Bucks Counties - can buy you up to $800 in rent and utilities for a studio apartment, said Joel Johnson, executive director of the Montgomery County Housing Authority.

Voucher holders look to communities where they can find rent rates in line with what their vouchers can buy, which more often than not are in the lower end of the region's income scale, he said.

"It's more of a function of where those people choose to live," he said. "Given the market realities, there ends up being some communities that attract more voucher holders."

But that is not to say that housing officials have not taken steps - including slightly increasing the value of vouchers - to extend their reach to the rest of Montgomery County's 62 municipalities.

No matter the explanation, the effects of this concentration of affordable housing are hard to ignore.

Norristown's Main Street - once populated equally with mansions owned by factory owners and more modest homes that housed their workers - now features the types of pawnshops, low-end fast-food joints, and vacant shop fronts that tend to scare larger retailers away.

"It's a cycle," said Caldwell, the Norristown council president. "Our residential-housing market is depressed. It depresses the commercial market, so we can't rely on the commercial tenants to pay for those things that attract better residential development like other townships do."

Pottstown, in the midst of a revitalization push, still struggles to register and check up on its low-income landlords, said Borough Manager Jason M. Bobst.

But Johnson said he believed some communities might be confusing the issue. Government-backed affordable-housing programs include a strict screening process at both the tenant and landlord level that stabilizes the low-income housing market.

"It enforces certain standards on the low-income properties there," he said.

Randolph, developer of the proposed Norristown Schuylkill Overlook project, is confident he can convince the municipality's leaders of that. His project, while still a government-financed, income-controlled rental property, is a step up from the federal housing-voucher units they are worried about.

To qualify, tenants would have to make between $23,600 and $54,000 annually - and that can hardly be described as low-income, he said.

"That's the challenge that developers like us face when we go and speak to councils that have a vision of radically changing what their town is," he said. "We can raise the bar for affordable housing in Norristown."