Sharonel Monroe felt like she was living under a heavy rock.
It was 1999 and her family was sharing a dilapidated house in North Philadelphia with relatives. Space was more than tight and mold in the basement had her routinely rushing her kids to the hospital for asthma attacks.
Then something big happened. The Monroes moved into a brand new apartment in North Philadelphia. The rock was lifted.
“I had the freedom to be able to do so much more,” said Monroe. “I could live in my house and do the extra things. Purchase a car. Upgrade the furniture.”
The Monroe’s apartment, their new lease on life, came thanks to the work of the Women’s Community Revitalization Project, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary tonight.
It is the first and only women-led community development corporation in the city.
The nonprofit is part developer, part advocacy group — all of it in the name of bringing more affordable housing to Philadelphia, one of the poorest big cities in the country.
“WCRP is an organization that willingly shares their power. They believe that people who live in the community are already leaders — that we have a lot to learn from each other,” said Staci Moore, who co-chairs the nonprofit’s board of directors.
When it launched in 1986, Philadelphia was a different place. Especially near Fishtown, where the organization held its initial meetings and still calls home today.
The neighborhood, now a growing hotspot for private development and millennials, was crumbling, as the factories that once fueled it were packing up and leaving for good.
“The jobs were starting to leave the community and had been actually had been for a little while. The neighborhood was becoming poorer and poorer and more and more disinvested,” said Nora Lichtash, who directs the organization.
Along with a few others, Lichtash jumped in even though they didn’t have all the economic development know-how at first. They just knew they wanted to help families in need, particularly struggling mothers, many of whom weren’t technically homeless, but living dangerously close.
“There were a lot of renters who were not earning enough to really pay their rent and buy their kids sneaks and keep their utilities on,” said Lichtash.
To date, the organization has built nearly a dozen townhome developments comprising close to 300 units. All of them are in North Philly.
On average, rent runs between $250 and $450 a month.
The average tenant, a family of four, earns less than $30,000 a year.
In the coming years, WCRP is expanding its geographical reach. There’s a project planned for Germantown in northwest Philadelphia. Another is being eyed in Point Breeze in South Philadelphia, though there is some community pushback. It’s also unclear yet if they’ll be approved for the low-income housing tax credits from the federal government the organization relies on to make their project’s a reality.
“I’m surprised that we’re still here, but in other ways it’s just been putting one foot in front of the other,” said Lichtash.
As of 2014, an estimated 83,000 units of affordable housing were needed for low-income families in the city, according to WCRP.