A community venture in Francisville

Mary Mazzoni and Stephanie Mullen
For PlanPhilly
The 1500 block of Poplar Street didn’t look like much two years ago. It was home to a few vacant lots, some abandoned properties and a junkyard one resident called a “horrible eyesore.”

But thanks to Francisville residents, community groups and developers it is now home to Francisville East – a 44-unit affordable housing development.

Built by Community Ventures, a nonprofit affordable housing developer, Francisville East is made up of 17 single-family homes and 27 one-bedroom apartments for seniors.

Francisville residents and local development groups like the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corp. partnered with Community Ventures in the planning and design of the development.

After a little over a year of construction, the townhomes have been completed and all of the units are already occupied. The senior apartment building is in the finishing stages and will be completed by the end of March, developers said.

Community Ventures executives, who have been building in Francisville for more than 20 years, felt strongly about filling the need for inexpensive senior housing in the neighborhood.

“There are a lot of seniors in the North Philadelphia area who are trapped in rowhomes they bought 30 or 40 years ago,” said David La Fontaine, program director of Community Ventures. “They’re falling apart, and they get tough to navigate as people get older.”

After finishing the project, developers hope to rent all of the apartments by early April.

“The fact that the units are selling so quickly speaks to the high demand for affordable housing,” said Stephen Kaufman, executive director of Community Ventures.

Francisville is an economically diverse neighborhood. New homes sell for more than $400,000 while 21.2 percent of residents – mostly longtime residents – are living below the poverty line, according to 2000 census data.

This wide economic spread made the need for affordable housing in the neighborhood even greater, community groups said.

“We wanted [affordable housing] to be a part of the plan because it would help maintain the economic diversity throughout time,” said Penelope Giles, founder and president of the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corp., which was active in planning the development.

As a result of federal, state and city subsidies, Francisville East residents pay their rent and utilities on a sliding scale based on annual income. And unlike in many other affordable housing developments, rent doesn’t increase as income increases.

sp1123planphillyhousing from Philadelphia Neighborhoods on Vimeo.

“Say if someone is living alone and then gets a second income, their rent won’t go up because of that,” Kaufman said. “So, people can stay and have their income grow without being penalized.”

Some Francisville East tenants were already residents of the neighborhood who relocated in search of more affordable and accommodating housing, Kaufman said.

“There’s a lot of bad affordable housing,” Kaufman said. “A nonprofit like ours has a high experience level. Some [developers] don’t want to provide their residents with as good of service.”

In addition to providing elevators for easy accessibility, Community Ventures will also provide social services for seniors, families and residents with disabilities in partnership with the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.

Social services will be provided by the Philadelphia Senior Center, which serves people of all ages at Francisville Village, another Community Ventures development at 17th Street and Ridge Avenue.

Most in the community agree that affordable and service-oriented housing is a step in the right direction for the neighborhood. But the project almost never began, residents said.

Some new residents expressed concern about what Kaufman called a “high concentration of affordable housing.”

Community Ventures and local development groups like the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corp. eventually won the skeptics over, Kaufman said.

But that wasn’t the only problem developers faced.

“Part of the land [Community Ventures] needed was being used by a neighborhood demolition company for 30 years,” Giles said. “The business was poorly run, and the land just looked like a junkyard.”

Giles organized a community meeting, and the fate of the land was left up to neighborhood residents – who ultimately chose the construction of Francisville East.

After residents weighed in, Giles had to testify to the legitimacy of the vote in a local court before the process could finally begin. 

After all the roadblocks, the end result was well worth it, developers said.

“We were able to maintain the affordable part…maintain integration and strengthen the neighborhood by getting rid of the worst blight,” said La Fontaine.

And Francisville residents agree, pointing to the development’s attractive exterior and functional design.

“It’s beautiful,” Giles said happily. “It’s an example of good quality design. It is low-income housing that will blend in with the area and will not deter market-rate developments.”

The fact that the development blends so well with the community was not an accident, Kaufman said.

Francisville East was specifically designed to disrupt the neighborhood as little as possible. Off-street parking is concentrated in lots rather than separate garages to avoid excessive curb-cuts that could disrupt pedestrian traffic.

The development also features a garden and permeable sidewalks to help the community combat its stormwater runoff troubles.

“We really like this project,” Kaufman said. “We think these are some of the most attractive – if not the most attractive – homes in Francisville.”

Contact the reporters at tub74106@temple.edu

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