Stalled affordable housing project in North Philly gets new life

Vacant lots on the 1600 block of Page Street. (Google maps)

Vacant lots on the 1600 block of Page Street. (Google maps)

City Council President Darrell Clarke has reintroduced a resolution needed to complete a contested affordable housing project in his North Philadelphia district.

If passed, Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia can move forward with its plan to build six single-family homes on a row of vacant lots on the 1600 block of Page Street. The measure would authorize the transfer of city-owned land to Habitat, which has first-time buyers waiting to move into the proposed properties.

The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority’s board approved the amended project during a meeting last week, a requirement for the land transfer.

“Our vision is a city where everyone has a decent place to live, and my hope is that our next step towards that vision is to bring Page Street to life,” CEO Corrine O’Connell told council on Thursday.

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Clarke reintroduced the resolution more than four months after public comment seemingly swayed the council president to hold the measure, an unanticipated decision that stalled construction and garnered criticism from housing advocates.

Opposition to the by-right project, which does not require any zoning variances, centered on a paved lot that some neighbors have used informally as a parking lot. During a council session at the end of October, a handful of residents testified that Habitat’s plans would cost them a much-needed amenity, which sits across the street from a completed Habitat development.

“They wanna take away this parking lot, kinda like with a brain-dead kind of behavior,” said neighborhood activist Queen Judith Robinson. “The mission of Habit is one we all respect, but this here is adding insult to injury.”

Council rules permit another member to make a motion to pass a resolution, but none of Clarke’s colleagues took action, largely because of councilmanic prerogative. The long-standing practice effectively gives council members the final say over development in their districts.

O’Connell said she expects the resolution to pass this time around. After Clarke held the measure last fall, she said Habitat spent time discussing the project with stakeholders, including Clarke’s office, homeowners, and neighbors who opposed the development.

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The talks resulted in Habitat downsizing the project from seven to six single-family homes, which will leave a section of the paved lot in city hands.

“The neighbors who vocalized concerns, we’ve worked with directly. And one in particular, at the PRA meeting last week, called in to say she’s on board with this project and really commended Habitat,” said O’Connell, in an interview.

A spokesperson for Clarke said the office will comment on the resolution “once it’s voted upon.”

That’s scheduled to happen during next week’s session of council. If O’Connell is right, construction on the two-story houses will start in June. Families will start moving into their new homes in late fall.

Tenaja Hammond can’t wait.

“There’s a desperate need to become a homeowner — something that I can call my own, that my children can call their own, and never ever have to have anyone jeopardize our livelihoods,” said Hammond, a single mother of five who rents a place at the University City Townhomes in West Philadelphia. The 70-unit complex is scheduled to shutter in early July after the property owners decided not to renew their housing contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

All of the families that move onto Page Street earn 30% to 60% of the area median income. For a family of four, that ranges from $28,350 to $56,700.

As participants in Habitat’s program, they each paid a $3,000 to $6,000 down payment, and completed 350 hours of sweat equity, which includes time helping to build other properties the nonprofit is developing.

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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