At-risk housing plan faces Kemble Avenue neighborhood opposition tonight

A plan to convert a derelict Ogontz apartment building into supervised housing for two at-risk populations is facing opposition from some neighbors and a newly created civic association.

Opponents are looking to block plans to bring formerly homeless transgendered men and women, along with a group of mentally disabled elderly residents, to the Kemble Park apartment building at 5701 Kemble Ave., near Ogontz. They plan to rally at the site at 5:30 p.m. and have hired a lawyer to contest building permits on the site.

Resources for Human Development, a non-profit social services agency based in Philadelphia, along with the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services plans to convert the vacant building into two facilities, Morris House and the Sojourn Program.

In one part of the site, Morris House would provide one-bedroom units for 18 transgendered, homeless men and women, some with drug and alcohol addiction issues. It’s thought to be a first-of-its kind facility to provide housing, services and treatment specifically for transgendered adults, and was developed at the city’s request, RHD says.

“Most of the individuals in the transgender community will not stay in shelters,” which accept people based on biological gender assignment and not gender identity, said Richelle Gunter, an associate director at RHA. “It is not safe to send a transgendered female into a male shelter.”

In a second building on the site, the Sojourn Program would bring 40 adults — aged 58 through 70 and with mental-health disabilities — from a high-rise building in Germantown, Gunter said. Some of the residents are also medically fragile and would require on-site care.

While the Morris House facility would provide stable housing for residents, it is not an independent-living home. RHD would secure required licenses to provide addiction services and other treatment at the site, Gunter said. Sojourn Program residents would stay longer-term, but those in Morris House would be expected to graduate into transitional living at some point depending on their ability.

The building is zoned R15, for multifamily residential, and opponents say building permits issued for work to create 50 apartments aren’t accurate. RHD calls Morris House a treatment facility, and would have staff on site around the clock, though residents would care for themselves within their own units.

Members of the newly-formed civic group, A Concerned Community Association (ACCA), say the only community input RHD has garnered came from a small group of people, including Eight District City Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller’s office, a local Democratic ward leader and a few members of a mostly defunct civic group called Ogontz Area Neighbor’s Association.

They say the four community meetings the company held, along with a few site visits to other RHD facilities, included only a handful of people. According to a letter from ACCA, opponents gathered at a meeting Sept. 22 expecting to be joined by city representatives, who abruptly cancelled their appearance.

ACCA recently hired lawyer Yvonne Haskins, who is contacting both RHD officials and the city’s department of Licenses and Inspections regarding building permits for the project.

“Several city departments are involved in promoting this project with full knowledge that the actual intended use is a drug and alcohol residential treatment facility,” she wrote in an email Tuesday to city officials. “There is absolutely no legal basis for a building to be completely retrofitted with public funds and public contractual responsibility under a bogus zoning permit.”

Concerns about the RHD project on Kemble Avenue also include security, and opponents point out the site’s proximity to a nearby elementary school, as well as Central High School, Philadelphia High School for Girls and the LaSalle University campus.

Gunter said RHD would secure the site, and pointed out that the company provides mental health and counseling services within the local elementary school already. Also, she said, the company agreed to clean up and manage an adjacent vacant lot for community use.

“We believe that being there will create visibility that has not been there in the past,” she said.

Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com

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