Philly Housing Authority to increase units via partnerships

The Philadelphia Housing Authority will spend more than $1 million to renovate this vacant apartment building on Queen Lane into 29 units. RON TARVER / Staff Photographer
The Philadelphia Housing Authority will spend more than $1 million to renovate this vacant apartment building on Queen Lane into 29 units. RON TARVER / Staff Photographer
Posted: March 10, 2013

The landscape of public housing in Philadelphia dramatically changed in the last decade, as decrepit high-rise projects were demolished and replaced with more appealing new homes.

But the rate of replacement housing never kept pace with the number of eliminated units.

The pressure to fill the supply gap of affordable housing is prompting the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) to launch an ambitious plan for creating 6,000 additional units of public housing in five years, said Kelvin Jeremiah, the agency's interim executive director.

And, in a break from previous practice, PHA will try to achieve much of that goal by partnering with other developers and community groups, Jeremiah said in an interview.

"For far too long, PHA was in this alone," Jeremiah said. The agency had been operating in a "silo" with little interaction or cooperation with city agencies, nonprofits, and community developers, he added. "We did things our own way and on our own."

Under the new approach, PHA would direct an annual contribution to a project in return for a developer's setting aside housing for clients.

"We cannot solve the issue of affordable housing by ourselves," Jeremiah said.

With a budget of $380 million, 90 percent of which comes from the federal government, PHA is one of the most active developers in the city. The agency maintains 15,260 units of public housing. In addition, it manages federal rent vouchers, currently going to 19,882 households.

More than 80,000 people live in public housing or homes subsidized with rent vouchers. Currently, 140,000 families or individuals are waiting for housing or vouchers - equal to one in six households in Philadelphia.

In 1999, PHA had 21,739 units of public housing. Today it maintains 15,690 conventional units. That number is critical to PHA's funding level, since the federal government uses it to calculate how much money it contributes annually.

Jeremiah said the authority hoped to finalize 17 proposed partnerships this year that would create 546 units of housing for PHA clients.

One of the groups is Project H.O.M.E., which is constructing a 55-unit apartment house at Broad Street and Ridge Avenue. If the PHA partnership is approved, the authority would refer 15 tenants and provide an annual subsidy of $110,000.

PHA began collaborating more with other developers two years ago. Sister Mary Scullion, cofounder of Project H.O.M.E., a nonprofit developer that focuses on helping the homeless, said the current administration "has taken it to a whole new level."

The authority, she said, "is willing to collaborate on a deeper level."

Jeremiah said PHA would give priority to "at-risk" populations, including veterans, homeless individuals and families, people with disabilities, and youth aging out of foster care.

He added that the agency was looking for opportunities where its participation could make a development proposal viable.

PHA has been under the control of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development since March 2011. Its five-member board resigned in the wake of the 2010 termination of Carl R. Greene, the executive director who steered PHA during its construction boom of the previous decade.

The agency expects to add 755 units of public housing in the year ahead through a combination of new construction (155), renovations of scattered sites (100), and partnerships (500).

Jeremiah said the development work would cost the agency about $60 million.

Last month, PHA's sole commissioner, Estelle Richman, approved the acquisition of a vacant apartment building at 500 W. Queen Lane in Germantown, as well as two stand-alone houses nearby. The agency will spend more than $1 million to renovate them into 29 units. All but five will have lower, subsidized rents.

Richman also approved moving ahead with a $26 million project to build 76 affordable rental units in the Strawberry Mansion and Oakdale sections of North Philadelphia.

The construction of six units in West Philadelphia, Phase Three of the current Markoe development, is also planned for this year.

One project that remains stalled is the demolition of the empty Queen Lane towers in Germantown. PHA wants to replace the vacant high-rises with rowhouses that include 55 units.

Archaeological work at the site to pinpoint the location of a former burial site for African American slaves must be completed before the project proceeds, Jeremiah said.


Contact Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @j_linq.

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