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Steps from Philly’s former heroin encampment along Conrail’s tracks, affordable housing for seniors will soon rise

The senior housing development, called Casa Indiana, will provide 50 affordable housing units to residents who are 62 or older. The project is in Fairhill, where nearly 60 percent of residents live in poverty.

An affordable senior housing project will soon be built on this empty lot at 2nd and Indiana Streets in Philadelphia's Fairhill neighborhood. It is just a block away from the former heroin encampment along the Conrail train tracks.
An affordable senior housing project will soon be built on this empty lot at 2nd and Indiana Streets in Philadelphia's Fairhill neighborhood. It is just a block away from the former heroin encampment along the Conrail train tracks.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

On a stretch of fence in Fairhill, only steps from where the city’s opioid epidemic once surged, bright orange words tell the story of a complicated neighborhood.

“They call this the Badlands, but this is where my memories live.”

“Mama singing in the kitchen, abuelo playing dominoes.”

For nearly eight months, the steel signs have perched atop the rebar barricade, installed when city officials and Conrail finally agreed to clean up the neighborhood’s railroad gulch. The diagonal swath of land had long been inhabited by heroin users, who camped alongside syringes, trash, and hundreds of tires. For years, it was considered the largest open-air drug market on the East Coast.

Since the encampments were cleared, however, Fairhill and the surrounding neighborhood of St. Hugh have been trying to move on — with efforts spearheaded, in part, by HACE (the Hispanic Association of Contractors and Enterprises), the area’s community development corporation. In 2018, HACE’s president, Maria Gonzalez, commissioned the public artwork to reclaim the space. The project’s artist, Marta Sanchez, using poetry by David Acosta for the installation, said her goal was to “acknowledge the pain” of the encampments in order to “move forward.”

“I asked [David] to work with the [local] families to come up with some of their own feelings in a poetic way," Sanchez said. “I wanted to hear their voices. … They wanted to see more progress.”

Already, some is taking shape.

>>READ MORE: Philadelphia shares plan to clear Kensington’s heroin encampments

Earlier this month, city, state, and HACE officials, alongside other partners, broke ground on an affordable senior-housing development, just steps away from where “El Campamento” — the worst stretch of the heroin encampments — once stood. The development, called Casa Indiana and positioned at Second and Indiana Streets, aims to bring 50 units to grassy land that has been vacant for more than 30 years.

The project is the latest development for HACE, a nonprofit organization founded in 1982 to tackle blight and revitalize Fairhill and St. Hugh. HACE’s larger boundaries stretch from Sixth to B Streets and from Cumberland Street to Glenwood Avenue, according to its neighborhood plan, a North Philadelphia swath that the organization has dubbed the “Good Lands.” Roughly 85 percent of the neighborhood’s residents are Latino; the majority are Puerto Rican.

“Our community always suffers from the stigma of being the Badlands,” said Gonzalez, HACE’s president, noting a recent incident in which Google labeled Fairhill the “Philadelphia Badlands” on its maps. “It impedes our ability to leverage more investment in our neighborhoods.”

But challenges have existed beyond just the Badlands name. Fairhill had a poverty rate of 61 percent between 2013 and 2017, the U.S. Census Bureau said last year, compared with a citywide rate of 26 percent. The neighborhood’s median household income hovered below $16,000 a year. Fewer than half of the residents own their own homes, Gonzalez said. And many residents face prodigious health challenges.

“We have great families who live in our neighborhoods, who, through no fault of their own, sometimes are not able to do better for themselves and their families,” Gonzalez said. “They are struggling but working hard. They are struggling to provide a roof over their head.

“They have challenges, like in most neighborhoods,” she continued. "They don’t deserve to be stigmatized.”

The neighborhood problems have been exacerbated in recent years by the opioid crisis, which gripped Fairhill, St. Hugh, and Kensington. Open-air drug markets flourished along Gurney Street. In 2017, more than 1,200 people died of overdoses in Philadelphia, more than three-fourths of which involved opioids. That year, city officials and Conrail finally struck an agreement to clean up the site.

>>READ MORE: The city’s heroin encampment plan is a proving ground for how we move forward | Mike Newall

Opioid use in the neighborhoods has not stopped. In place of “El Campamento,” heroin camps are now scattered. Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez said this week that drug sales on the streets have increased as the weather has warmed.

“If you live there, [you] don’t think that” the encampment problem is over, Quiñones-Sánchez said. “You see people [suffering from addiction] coming through.”

Still, since “El Campamento” was shut down, positive forces have sprouted along the tracks. A greenway has been carved out of the edges of the railway, and public art from Sanchez and Mural Arts has changed the site’s aesthetic.

“We are going there guerrilla-style to brand that space so it doesn’t revert back to what it used to be," Gonzalez said.

She believes that beautification has helped expand economic opportunities.

“When we applied in the last round of [funding for Casa Indiana], our neighborhood wasn’t quite there yet,” Gonzalez said. “The Plaza Allegheny shopping center had not been built [by private developer David Groverman], the Conrail line was a mess with the short dumping and encampments.”

“But now that that has been cleaned up and we have more investments in the neighborhood, it’s an easier sell to … funders, to say we have all these investments in the neighborhood and we are building upon what’s already there, rather than creating the market,” she continued.

HACE has completed multimillion-dollar streetscape improvements to El Centro de Oro, the neighborhood’s commercial corridor, and has developed more than 400 units of affordable rental housing, half of which have been targeted to seniors. Another 150 units of housing have been sold by the group.

Even so, putting together funding for affordable housing remains a growing challenge for HACE and nonprofit developers. Government funding has dwindled. Competition for what remains, including low-income housing tax credits, remains fierce. HACE said it had to apply four times for tax credits from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency before they were awarded for Casa Indiana.

Meanwhile, the organization’s wait list for senior housing is three years long.

To make Casa Indiana work, HACE received $1.8 million from the state’s PHARE funding program, $2 million from Philadelphia’s Housing Trust Fund, as well as low-income housing tax credits. A city spokesperson said the land was sold to HACE by the Philadelphia Land Bank, which is holding a 41-year mortgage on the parcel with a balloon payment in 2060. As a result, the spokesperson said, the parcel was sold for a “nominal price.” The transaction has yet to be publicly recorded.

HACE expects to complete the one-bedroom units in a year. They will be available to seniors 62 and older who make at or below 50 percent of the area median income, meaning, for a single person, $31,550. The development will include a computer library and peace garden. Gonzalez said seniors would pay, on average, $200 to $300 monthly, depending on their income. Seniors can contact HACE at 215-426-8025.

“Once we started the major Gurney Street cleanup, we knew this [parcel] needed to be a major priority,” Quiñones-Sánchez said. “We obviously knew the challenges that existed."

But, she continued, "We knew we had to do something significant and impactful here.”