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In Chester County, luxury apartments for some, lost homes for others

As Phoenixville has risen, transforming from a rough-and-tumble former steel town to a hot destination for dining and drinking, working-class folks have struggled to keep up — and often been priced out or driven to homelessness, experts say.

Joseph Giron, 63, a formerly homeless veteran who experienced firsthand the lack of affordable housing in Phoenixville, is shown here near the river where he lived outdoors under a bridge when he was homeless, in Phoenixville, November 27, 2018.
Joseph Giron, 63, a formerly homeless veteran who experienced firsthand the lack of affordable housing in Phoenixville, is shown here near the river where he lived outdoors under a bridge when he was homeless, in Phoenixville, November 27, 2018.Read moreESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Under the Gay Street Bridge, just a block from the breweries and restaurants of Phoenixville's newly enlivened downtown, Joseph Giron went about his nightly routine. He steadied an old mattress atop jagged rocks, positioning it just right so he could curl up and get some sleep. Cars drove on the roadway above, and a creek flowed a few yards away.

For nearly a year, this outdoor perch was Giron's home.

"I was a mess," he said. "I didn't know where to go. I was getting scared."

The 63-year-old veteran was laid off from his job as a brickmaker in 2015. For the first time in his life, the former Marine was unable to take care of himself. Because of his age, employers did not want to hire him, he said. No longer able to pay rent, Giron found himself homeless in a town he had called home for three decades.

As he struggled, moving from the bridge embankment to several shelters, Giron said he met many others, including lifelong residents, who could not afford the borough anymore.

Officials and experts in the area say it's a trend, a product of the area's commercial and residential rebirth.

Twenty years ago, Phoenixville was a downtrodden, former steel town where few wanted to hang out. Today, the borough is bustling. On Friday and Saturday nights, the dozens of bars and restaurants along Bridge Street fill with people, and folks flock from out of town to visit the renovated Colonial TheatreMillennials and baby boomers are moving to the area in droves, leading developers to build high-end apartment complexes within walking distance of downtown.

"Nobody expected Phoenixville to go from a working-class town to such a hot commodity," said Kris Keller, executive director of Orion Communities, a nonprofit that helps struggling people like Giron. "It slowly started to occur to folks that there were other issues. … It was working well for folks who could afford these luxury apartments, but wasn't working so well for middle-income people."

Gentrified cities and towns across the country have seen this trend before. But it is especially striking given Phoenixville's location in Chester County, the wealthiest county in Pennsylvania and the one that is growing the fastest in the Philadelphia region.

In the borough, some have been forced to relocate to lower-income communities like Coatesville or Pottstown. Others, such as Giron, have found themselves homeless — a designation many still associate with cities, not suburbs. In Phoenixville, officials have spent the past several years working to analyze and address the growing economic disparity with an affordable-housing task force.

"It's a really big part of the conversation in Phoenixville," said Mayor Peter Urscheler. "No one else in the county is doing this yet."

The conversation has already spurred action. Over the next several months, an affordable-housing complex, SteelTown Village by Petra Community Housing, is set to open, and the Exton-based Hankin Group may soon begin construction on another such community, Urscheler said. In all, the two projects will bring nearly 100 low-income units to Phoenixville. Urscheler and members of the borough's affordable-housing task force hope the developments will mark the first of many steps toward making Phoenixville more inclusive.

"The community is for everybody and no one should be excluded, and the many of the people who are being excluded have lived here their whole lives," said Janice Biros, a local Realtor and co-chair of Phoenixville's Council on Affordable Housing.

The borough convened the council's predecessor, the affordable-housing task force, about two years ago in response to concerns of some residents, particularly those who work with the underprivileged. While Phoenixville celebrated its revitalization, they told borough officials, it seemed the town had forgotten just how much that success had affected less affluent people.

"It's wonderful to see the prosperity," Biros said, "but it's creating a difficult situation."

Keller has heard countless stories of struggle. At Orion, she helps folks find transportation, shelter, and other essentials when they fall on hard times.

In 2017, the organization helped about 1,100 families, up from 850 to 900 families the year before. This increase may be attributed in part to the rising population in the county, Keller said, but lack of affordable housing also plays a role.

Between 2010 and 2015, she said, rental units in the borough priced at less than $1,000 a month decreased by 80, while units priced at more than $1,000 increased by 750.

In a recent needs assessment, affordable housing was deemed the borough's most pressing issue, said Louis Beccaria, president of the Phoenixville Community Health Foundation and a member of the affordable-housing council.

Keller called it a "crisis."

At times, homeless people live in tent communities along the Schuylkill. Others sleep in their cars.

Giron, for one, said he didn't know where to go for help when he became homeless and was too embarrassed to ask.

"I was ashamed to come" to a shelter or charity, he said. "I'm not used to having people help me."

While officials are aware of and concerned about the problem, Keller said, many who live and work in the borough are not.

"We're amazed at the number of people who say 'I had no idea there were homeless in this area,' " Keller said. "People's lives are full and they don't tune in. They don't notice. They don't know someone in that situation."

The problem is not endemic to Phoenixville. Elsewhere in Chester County, officials are also moving to address the housing gap.

In December, the nonprofit Chester County 2020 and the Chester County Planning Commission will hold a citizens' breakfast in Malvern to discuss the question: "Can the next generation afford to live in Chester County?"

Members of Phoenixville's Affordable Housing Council said that when they speak to leaders in other towns, they hear stories of hardship similar to what they have seen in the borough.

In southern Chester County, folks in Kennett Square are working to address the housing gap in their town, which has an even higher median-household income than Phoenixville, according to census data.

"I think it's one of the impacts of being an attractive county," said David Sciocchetti, an economic development consultant to the Chester County commissioners. "Phoenixville is a very desirable location. As is West Chester. As is Kennett Square."

Sciocchetti said officials have debated many possible solutions, including streamlining the regulatory process for developers (delays often drive up costs) and increasing funding for affordable-housing projects.

Another big component, he said, is appealing to those who oppose the developments moving into their neighborhoods and explaining that those who need these units may already be neighborhood faces — police officers, junior professors at a local university, recent college graduates.

"Part of the conversation that is underway now is 'Do we have housing options available to all spectrums of the workforce?' " Sciocchetti said.

In Phoenixville, Mayor Urscheler said he's hopeful that the borough can someday serve as an example of how a place can blend affordable housing with high-end development.

"I want you to be able to drive down the road in Phoenixville, and I don't want you to be able to say, 'That's affordable housing,' " he said.

Giron, the once-homeless veteran, said the two affordable-housing complexes now under construction in the borough might have helped him a few years ago.

But his story ended happily on its own — just not in Phoenixville.

More than a year ago, with the help of Keller and others at Orion, Giron took early retirement and moved into Whitehall Apartments, a 48-unit affordable-housing complex for veterans in nearby Spring City. The development is run by Mission First Housing Group, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that develops low-rent, energy-efficient housing projects for vulnerable populations.

"I love it," Giron said. "The place is big. People are very nice here."

On a recent Tuesday, he gave a tour of his unit. He showed off his full kitchen, cable TV (he loves to watch The Walking Dead), and more closet and storage space than he could ever fill, he said with a laugh. He has joined the complex's advisory board, where he plans events like Thanksgiving dinner and takes care of his neighbors.

As he entered his bedroom, he asked for a minute to tidy his bed, pulling up a knitted blanket on top of his comforter and fluffing a pillow.

He's happy in his new home. But every morning, Giron takes the bus back to Phoenixville. He stops at Steel City Coffeehouse and the offices of Orion. He says hello to the people who helped him find a home.

Then, he walks the streets, looking for people he can help.