The structure being dedicated Wednesday represented another important step toward that goal of security through a program called ACHIEVEability.
Since 1981, ACHIEVEability, with headquarters in the building’s basement, has helped at least 3,000 families (10,000 people in all) "break the generational cycle of poverty," as CEO Marcus Allen put it in a recent interview, through completion of two- and four-year academic programs to become nurses, social workers, teachers, and computer specialists. Many attend Community College of Philadelphia, then transfer their credits to other colleges. Financial aid is available because the participants are low-income, thus reducing the chance they will get their degrees but also be left with backbreaking student-loan debt.
The century-old structure, with its California Mission-style facade, was designed in 1912 by a New York architect for neighborhood nurseryman/developer/banker Walter C. Smith. Now known as Lawson Residences at the Von Louhr, the building actually has been providing such housing since 1989, when the organization, then called Philadelphians Concerned About Housing, acquired an abandoned apartment house.
This time, Allen said, work was done to make the building more comfortable for tenants and ACHIEVEability’s staff.
"The building was costing us a lot of money," said Allen, who has been CEO for 2?½ years, succeeding Jack Ferber. "We needed to make it more energy-efficient," which included overhauling the heating/ventilation/air-conditioning system and individually metering each of the 24 units.
The apartments were insulated and got new Energy Star appliances and energy-efficient windows, and an elevator to accommodate disabled tenants has been added.
To finance the 1989 renovation of the building — which Smith named the Von Louhr, for reasons the Preservation Alliance’s John Gallery said he has yet to determine — the organization was able to combine low-income and historic-rehabilitation tax credits.
That was possible because the Von Louhr is in the Haddington Historic District, created in 1988. Peter Kaplan of PNC Bank, which has a $5.5 million equity investment in the current $7 million renovation, said it is probably the first time such tax credits were mixed in this way.
This time around, the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency also has provided funding and low-income tax credits for the project.
ACHIEVEability receives most of its operating budget from individuals and through fund-raisers, although a "little bit comes from the city and from the state," Allen said. (Lawson Residences are named for longtime board member and fund-raiser Joel S. Lawson 3d.)
The building is one of 154 locations throughout the Haddington and Cobbs Creek neighborhoods where the people ACHIEVEability serves live while they are in school.
"Education is the most important piece, [but] to facilitate this, there has to be stable housing first," said Allen, a Temple graduate who came to ACHIEVEability from VisionQuest, a nonprofit that works with at-risk teenagers.
Those eligible for the program, which typically takes 24 months, pay rent up to 30 percent of individual incomes.
"We have to meet certain guidelines," Allen said. "Income levels of the program participants can’t exceed 60 percent of the area median income of $40,000."
Applicants’ living situations must meet the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of homeless shelter or transitional or substandard housing. In addition, participants must have children, since the program is designed to battle cycles of family poverty.
"When I talk with them, I’ll say, ‘There are four things you have to do to be poor and homeless, and that is be black, a woman, have no education, and have babies out of wedlock,’?" said Allen, who grew up poor and homeless himself. "Where we intervene is in the only thing we can change: formal education in two-year and four-year schools, informal education in personal development, helping them overcome past emotional and drug problems."
The next step is the "ACHIEVEability 101" course held over several Saturdays to see whether applicants meet the program’s rigorous requirements, followed by an interview with a panel of staff members "to make sure that the applicants are not motivated just by the housing."
Most of the participants are single women with children, Allen said; 96 percent are African American, with 60 percent to 80 percent homeless because of domestic abuse.
Some participants had been economically stable previously but lost their jobs, he said. Others have simply had hard luck.
"People need a hand up, not a handout," Allen said.
Last year, 170 families encompassing 465 individuals participated, he said, and there is a waiting list of 30 to 40.
ACHIEVEability’s board hired Allen to grow the program, he said, and that means finding more housing in the target areas — 50 units is a goal — and expanding to other parts of the city as well as even nationally.
"If you are not growing, you are dying," Allen said. "You just don’t know it."
Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, email@example.com or@alheavens at Twitter. More information is available at www.achieveability.org.