‘It’s a blessing’: Affordable housing to replace nuisance motel in North Philadelphia

North10 Philadelphia is building "Be a Gem Crossing" at Westmoreland Street and Germantown Avenue. It will replace a motel that neighbors have tried to close for two decades.

A rendering of the affordable housing development, Be A Gem Crossing

A rendering of the affordable housing development, Be A Gem Crossing. (Courtesy of North10 Philadelphia)

These days, block captains Arletha and Clayton Pickens are feeling a bit more cheerful about their corner of North Philadelphia.

For years, the couple lived up the street from the former Liberty Motel, a rent-by-the-hour establishment at the corner of Westmoreland Street and Germantown Avenue that became a haven for drug use and prostitution — day and night.

Arletha Pickens said shootings were routine, and that she often saw ambulances pull up to the motel. Her husband said he once saw police remove three dead bodies from the property, which sat directly across the street from an elementary school.

The city shut down the motel twice for code violations, but each time it reopened after a few days.

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“Never in our wildest dreams did we ever think we would come to this pleasant ending with the fight to close this wretched hotel,” said Arletha Pickens. “It just seemed like we were on a treadmill going nowhere.”

On Wednesday, nonprofit North10 Philadelphia will break ground on Be A Gem Crossing, an approximately $20 million affordable housing project that will stand where the nuisance motel once stood.

The four-story property will feature 41 apartments and a ground-floor community health clinic.

Most of the units will have two or three bedrooms, and be heavily subsidized by housing vouchers from the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which require people to pay no more than 30% of their monthly income.

“The median income of this neighborhood is about $21,000 a year. It struggles with a lot of intergenerational poverty. And so keeping apartments as affordable for folks in this neighborhood as possible was absolutely a goal,” said North10’s executive director Josh Klaris.

North10, an organization rooted in the philanthropy of H. Chase Lenfest, purchased the Liberty Motel and four adjacent properties in 2018, not long after the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections temporarily closed the motel for the second time in two years over fire code violations.

The motel was then permanently shut down, an outcome nearby neighbors like the Pickens had wanted for nearly two decades, but were never able to see happen, even with the involvement of city and elected officials.

Be a Gem Crossing will be the first visible piece of a larger effort to revitalize this section of North Philadelphia, which runs roughly between Sedgley and Hunting Park avenues, and between 9th and North Broad streets, said Klaris.

Construction on the publicly-funded project is expected to take approximately a year.

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“If I look 10 years from now, we have a cleaner, greener neighborhood. We have a much more active and successful local elementary school. We have more active after-school programs and education programs. And we’re providing more direct services for health care,” he said.

For now, Arletha Pickens is grateful that the children at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School no longer have to pass by the Liberty Motel.

“They will have a safe route to school. They won’t have to worry about being snatched off the street or approached by a drug dealer or a prostitute,” said Arletha Pickens.

“It’s a blessing,” she said.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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