33 affordable rental homes named for Point Breeze hero Mamie Nichols break ground

Built on formerly vacant city lots, the housing will be earmarked for families earning less than $50,000 and veterans.

A rendering of the Mamie Nichols Townhomes

A 2017 rendering of the Mamie Nichols Townhomes (Image courtesy of Max Weisman)

Rochelle Nichols-Solomon, daughter of the late community organizer Mamie Nichols, stood at the townhomes’ groundbreaking, named after her mother, and spoke directly to the crowd.

“If she were here today, she would be so proud of this work,” she said. “She would smilingly say it’s all just hard work at the core.”

Nichols was a community organizer in Point Breeze who played a pivotal role in fighting for affordable housing and other community amenities in the neighborhood south of Washington Avenue. She rightly forecast gentrification in the area as she helped establish resources like the Point Breeze Performing Arts Center on Point Breeze Avenue, a historic commercial corridor where conflicts over redevelopment continue to play out.

Now her name will adorn a development to rise on once-blighted city lots on the 1400 block of South Taylor Street and a nearby area bounded by Wharton and Reed streets, 22nd and South Capitol street. After years of community meetings and negotiations over the publicly funded project, its 33 rental townhomes and apartments are to go to families earning less than $50,000 a year and veterans with disabilities. They are to remain permanently affordable through a community land trust created by developers Women’s Community Revitalization Project (WCRP), and Citizens Acting Together Can Help (CATCH). The rentals represent the second phase of the development, which also includes permanently affordable home-ownership units.

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“Mamie Nichols believed in the power of ordinary people to do extraordinary things,” Nichols-Solomon said.

Construction on the rentals is expected to be complete by this time next year. When the first tenants move in, they can expect to have a washer and dryer, air conditioning, and window treatments. The complex as a whole will have nine wheelchair-accessible homes. A mix of one- to three-bedroom apartments and townhomes, 22 of the units will be set aside for families, while the other 11 will be for veterans under a plan that took five years to create. Supported by Low Income Housing Tax Credits, the development will offer monthly rents ranging from $153 to $800, plus utilities. A family of four can’t earn more than $48,300 per year to be eligible, which is 50% of the area median income.

There is a racial component to the affordable housing crisis in South Philadelphia. From 2000 to 2016, South Philadelphia’s Black population decreased by 30%, and white people living in the area increased by 17%. Nora Lichtash, the executive director of WCRP, links that demographic shift to redevelopment trends that have driven up rents and home prices faster than incomes, pushing out existing residents. Even the pandemic has not stopped the pace of redevelopment in the area. Homes continue to sell briskly and at increasing price points.

The project marks a step forward for an affordable housing strategy gaining traction in the city as Philadelphia grapples with the growing gap between property values in gentrifying areas like Point Breeze and income levels in those same communities. Under the community land trust model, a renewable 99-year ground lease guarantees that rental housing built on the property stays affordable.

“The point of the land trust is you don’t want to invest all this morning in affordable housing, and then at the end of some compliance period, you lost it because it can go to market,” Lichtash said.

The land trust model made its way into recent agreements between city and Philadelphia Housing Authority leaders and the leaders of the homeless encampments that took over the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and properties on Ridge Avenue through the summer and fall.

Lichtash’s group worked with Councilman Kenyatta Johnson’s office to help secure the land.

“It’s truly an honor to have an opportunity to participate in this project that will continue to provide a level of affordable and workforce housing in the Point Breeze community,” Johnson said Tuesday. “It makes sure that affordable workforce housing in South Philadelphia is not here temporarily.”

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