Affordable housing development replaces nuisance motel in North Philly

Be a Gem Crossing offers deeply discounted rents in a neighborhood where the median household income is roughly half of the city’s.

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The exterior of the Be a Gem Crossing apartment building

The Be a Gem Crossing apartment building on Germantown Ave. in North Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Kenya Scott’s life changed last month while she was standing in a suburban ShopRite.

Scott, a home health aide, was grocery shopping with one of her clients when she got a call she thought would never come. It was the property manager of a new affordable housing development in North Philadelphia. A three-bedroom apartment was available if she was still interested.

“I froze and a tear came down,” said Scott. “I was ecstatic.”

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The news came nearly two years after Scott lost her only brother to gun violence, a tragedy that pushed her into a deep depression and drug use. She got the phone call on her final day of rehab.

When Scott broke the news to her oldest daughter, they both cried tears of joy. During her time in recovery, her three children lived with their grandmother. Now they would have a place of their own.

“This is a big blessing — something that I prayed for,” said Scott.

Be a Gem Crossing opened last month where a nuisance motel once stood. On Friday, nonprofit North10 Philadelphia will cut the ribbon on the project, an approximately $20 million development in Hunting Park. Scott is on the speaker list for the afternoon ceremony.

The four-story property on Germantown Avenue has 41 apartments and a ground-floor commercial space that will become the home of a yet-to-be-formed community organization. Most of the units have two or three bedrooms. All of them are heavily subsidized through the Housing Choice Voucher Program administered locally by the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

Under the program, residents pay no more than 30% of their adjusted monthly income. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development makes up the difference between those payments and the full contract rent within certain limits.

The median household income in the 19140 ZIP code, which contains the development, is just north of $30,000, according to the U.S. Census. That’s nearly half the citywide figure.

“The term affordable is all relative based on what your income is. We really did try our best to make this affordable to the average income,” said Joshua Klaris, North10’s executive director.

Like Scott, nearby neighbors are also grateful for the project, located across the street from Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School.

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For nearly two decades, residents fought in vain to shut down the Liberty Motel, a rent-by-the-hour establishment that became a haven for drug use and prostitution at all hours of the day. Residents say the business also had its share of shootings, some of them fatal.

The city shut down the business twice for fire code violations, but each time it reopened after a few days. The motel didn’t permanently close until 2018, when North10 bought it and four adjacent properties. The sale came shortly after the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections temporarily shut down the motel for the second time in two years.

“Be a Gem Crossing is the best thing for our community in a long time,” said block captain Arletha Pickens. “Hopefully, now this area will encourage merchants to come to this area to provide the most needed services to our residents.”

The project was publicly funded. It’s one of the first visible pieces of a larger effort to revitalize this section of North Philadelphia. The area runs roughly between Sedgely and Hunting Park avenues, and between 9th and North Broad streets.

North10 has installed a new playground and created a community park on Bethune’s grounds.

This summer, the organization expects to break ground on a new primary care facility. The development will fill the former home of Carman Gardens Roller Skating Rink on Germantown Avenue. The vision, informed by community conversations, is a one-stop shop for physical and mental health care. That includes dental care and lab services.

“We are thrilled to bring this to fruition, we are thrilled to open these doors, and we are still digging in our heels and continuing to push this boulder up a mountain,” said Klaris.

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