Home Economics: Agency gets those in need into affordable apartments

Teena Watson (left), with daughter Nakeya Watson-Edwards, 2, cuts the ribbon to open the units at Walnut Hill West, joined by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. Watson and her family live there.
Teena Watson (left), with daughter Nakeya Watson-Edwards, 2, cuts the ribbon to open the units at Walnut Hill West, joined by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. Watson and her family live there. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 27, 2012

Teena Watson, a single mother of two now back in Philadelphia after living in Erie, saw a homeless shelter as her only option.

"I came back to go to school, get a job, and try to get a better life for my children," Chanel, 7, and Nakeya, 2, Watson said. But everywhere she turned, nothing appeared to be available that she could afford and that could accommodate her disability - she is hearing-impaired and told her story through interpreter Crystal Blue, of the Society for Helping Church.

But that was before Watson, 29, learned about CPM Housing Group and its Walnut Hill West, 32 affordable apartments at 56th and Walnut Streets in West Philadelphia.

CPM, which has acquired and rehabbed 366 units of rental housing occupied by city residents since 1994, targets its resources, in the words of Brian A. Hudson Sr., executive director of the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, "to people most in need."

People like Watson and her children. Like Kenny Herder, 45, diagnosed, he said, as bipolar in 2008, who spent two tours in homeless shelters before finding a one-bedroom apartment at CPM's 34-unit building at 8020 Ditman St. in Northeast Philadelphia.

Herder - who credits Back on My Feet, a program that uses running to teach critical work and life skills, with bringing him back from the brink - has been living in his apartment since July 23, paying just $96 a month.

"When they told me about this place, they asked me if I was interested. I said, 'Let me ask the 75 other guys in the homeless shelter what they think,' " Herder, who is on disability, said with a laugh.

What's special about these apartments, besides subsidized rent, is that they offer a choice to low- and moderate-income people, most of them disabled, that they couldn't find elsewhere.

"When the bottom comes up, the top has to rise," Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell observed at this week's ribbon-cutting at Walnut West.

In the eight years before she left for Erie, Watson said, she was unable to find public housing that met her needs and her budget.

Indeed, affordability is growing more problematic for all low- and moderate-income people, with the Census Bureau reporting in September that 20 million renter households across the United States, or 53 percent, faced a housing-cost burden in 2011.

In other words, last year 600,000 more people paid 30 percent or more of their income toward rent and utility costs than did so in 2010.

Creating affordable housing for disabled people adds considerably to project costs, said David Hahn, CPM's director of construction, who oversaw the seven-month effort to make a 1920s-era garden-apartment-style building with "lots of interior structural issues" livable.

"The gut rehab of this building" - one of six comprising 32 units along slightly more than a block of 56th Street - "cost $165,000 per unit," Hahn said. "We figure that to meet the needs of physically disabled tenants, we have to add $40,000 to that."

In total, the project cost $10.96 million, funded by an equity investment from PNC Bank, generated by low-income-housing tax credits from the state Housing Finance Agency.

Four of the 32 units are for the physically disabled. Light switches are lower, as are cabinet and kitchen counters. Each unit has a roll-in shower arrangement that allows someone in a wheelchair to enter and close the door - the entire bathroom, in effect, becomes "a wet room."

The apartments' paint and lighting are designed to accommodate the visually impaired. Watson's unit has a "bed-shaker" that causes the bed to vibrate when the phone rings or someone presses the doorbell.

There are horns and strobe lights to warn of fires, and wiring has been installed to accommodate items used by the disabled.

Every apartment has an intercom system that allows a tenant to press a button to let visitors in after establishing their identities. Watson's intercom is attached to her TTY (text telephone for the hearing-impaired); she lets visitors in by tapping a keypad.

Hahn said CPM believes that finding ways to reduce operating costs without affecting tenants' quality of life will make the apartments more affordable.

Helping CPM along is a $3 million grant it won from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Energy Innovation Fund this fall to increase energy awareness among tenants and reduce costs by 20 percent.

For Walnut Hill West already, energy conservation is a huge deal, part of its effort to become LEED-certified as well as keep its tenants' electric bills as low as possible. Most tenants pay the CAP (Customer Assistance Program) rates for qualifying electric consumers.

"We've done extensive air sealing and have sprayed foam insulation to create a tight envelope" while ensuring maximum indoor-air quality, Hahn said.

Paint without volatile organic compounds enhances indoor-air quality. Though such paint tends to be costlier than varieties with VOCs, buying in large quantity from the same supplier boosts the price of a 5-gallon container "by about $1," Hahn said.

"Within this tight envelope is high-efficiency heating and cooling, with the goal that the resident dollars saved will be spent on supporting neighborhood businesses," he said.

Other money-saving strategies include plumbing fixtures that exceed water-conservation requirements, and high energy-efficiency windows and doors, appliances, and lighting.

On the roof are photovoltaic cells that supply 70 percent to 75 percent of the electricity for the common areas and the laundry, Hahn said.

"We would have liked to have increased the number of panels, but there wasn't enough roof for it," he said. The cost of solar energy remains high, and CPM was able to get some breaks from the panel manufacturer.

All this effort has helped create a product that makes life better for Watson and Herder.

"No matter how hard things get," Herder said, "if you keep believing and keep your faith, things will come through."


Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com or @alheavens at Twitter.

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