Philadelphia hoping to attract and keep best teachers with discount housing

A Philadelphia developer wants to house dozens of young, energized teachers in the same building in Kensington. Despite how it sounds, it’s not a new reality TV show. It’s part of a plan to try to draw new teachers to the city and get them to stay.

Oxford Mills isn’t much to look at right now. The old brick walls are full of the sounds of construction workers cutting, drilling and fixing brick work.

Gabe Canuso, Oxford Mills’ Philadelphia developer says in about a year he hopes the old buildings will be full of teachers. He says there will be about 114 apartments and 60 percent of the units will be reserved for teachers. That includes Philadelphia educators from all types of schools public, private, parochial and charter.

To sweeten the deal, Canuso says the teachers will get a 25 percent discount on rent.

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“We thought that passing that on would help support the industry and help attract and retain good teachers to the city of Philadelphia and help with the city’s efforts to improve education in the region,” Canuso said.

Canuso, who’s with the company D3 Real Estate Development, is helping replicate a teacher-focused housing experiment that’s seen success in Baltimore.

An idea is born

Developer Donald Manekin’s original idea was born out of an observation.

“Having been on the board of Teach for America, you know they bring in 100 new corps members a year and we’d sit at the end of these board meetings and say wouldn’t it be great if there was a great place to live for teachers new to the city,” said Manekin.

So with his company, Seawall Development, he set out to create a great place for teachers to live.

Manekin says living in a community of educators helps them celebrate after good days. When teachers have a challenging day they have 75 other teachers to lean on and discuss new approaches.

Good reviews in Baltimore

Baltimore teacher Zaid Abuhouran says he’s benefited from living among educators, including his neighbor. “She’s come over to my apartment often and just had a cup of tea and discussed classroom management strategies, how she teaches her class.”

But this isn’t the first time someone thought to construct teacher housing. In at least one case, the San Francisco teachers union president says educators there were turned off by the idea of going home from work only to be surrounded by more teachers.

In Philadelphia, federal tax credits are helping finance the $37 million project. The new development in Philly will also offer office space for education nonprofits.

D3 Development’s Greg Hill says it’s a challenge to give the old industrial structure new life, but there are also some benefits to working with such an old place. “You’ll see throughout that we’ve really tried to take advantage of this old historic structure as our interior finishes,” Hill said. “You’ll see the wood floors will be restored. The heavy timber beams and columns have been sand-blasted and will really be featured as architectural elements in the finished finished design.”

In creating Oxford Mills, the Philadelphia developers say they’re trying to do civically minded work that honors and takes advantage of the building’s history, while still creating pleasant spaces. “By really trying to have clean lines, open space, we feature the original elements of the building — the structural elements — as our architecture, and I think if we’re successful at that we enjoy this great history and at the same time enjoy modern living spaces,” Hill said.

Developer Donald Manekin says this project and the ones in Baltimore are the only mixed-use projects he knows of that support teachers and nonprofits.

In Baltimore, he says, the teachers like living together. He hopes Philadelphia teachers will too and that they’ll be attracted by amenities including a cafe and a copy center.

Manekin hopes another perk of the buildings will draw residents.

“You’ve got these incredible sort of courtyard areas that are just sort of hang-out places,” he said. “So, we’ll use them for events, to be able to bring the teachers together for keg parties on Friday afternoons.”

These are difficult times for many Philadelphia educators, with the public school system struggling through layoffs and school closures.

School District Superintendent Dr. William Hite supports Oxford Mills, as does a charter-school operator who points out that, while teachers may work at different kinds of schools, kids are kids.

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