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Philly apartments give teachers cheaper rent and colleagues as neighbors

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There’s a new housing project especially for teachers in Philadelphia. Oxford Mills opens this week in the South Kensington section of the city. The developers used federal tax credits to preserve an old lamp factory and morph it into a massive education experiment.

From lamps to learning

Renters at Oxford Mills will be surrounded by the past. Developer Greg Hill kept the old brick walls and worn wooden floors that date back to the late 1800s and once served as home to the Quaker City Dye Works.

“It ultimately became the Pieri Lamp Factory,” Hill said. “So when we took over there were tens of thousands of light fixtures throughout the facility.”

All those light fixtures have been replaced by construction workers who are putting the finishing touches on the housing complex. Hill’s D3 Real Estate Development is partnering on the project with Seawall Development Company. Hill said in this project it was important to him to maintain the building’s industrial heritage.

“We love the exposed brick, the heavy timbers, as you can see these wooden floors have about a century of heavy industrial use and rather than completely sand them smooth, we’ve tried to retain a lot of the individual texture,” he said. “We’re not trying to take an old factory building and create a suburban garden apartment.”

This beautiful old structure will house a education melting pot at Front and Oxford Streets.

Thre are more than 100 apartments and 40,000 square feet of office space which will be filled by education nonprofits including Teach for America’s regional headquarters, a charter school organization called Scholar Academies and the Health Federation of Philadelphia, which runs an early childhood head start program.

Developer Gabe Canuso said the nonprofits will be able to save money by sharing space instead of paying for extra conference room space they only need occasionally.

“We offer four conference rooms that they can sign up for at any time and they can actually open up into one large training room for 125 people,” Canuso said. “It allows those nonprofits to eliminate some of those conference rooms and spaces from their floor plan and save money and put those funds toward their programming.”

Canuso said a common kitchen and lounge areas may also give the education organizations the chance to cross-pollinate ideas and brainstorm solutions to the day’s big education conundrums.

Colleen Hiban is happy to have a place at Oxford Mills. She said it would have been great to have colleagues next door when she worked at a North Philly charter school.

“It was so difficult from a behavioral standpoint and I didn’t have people to turn to that could help me brainstorm different problems or help me to recognize that, you know, the things that weren’t going right could be solved,” she said.

This fall, Hiban will be commuting from her one bedroom apartment at Oxford Mills, to a charter elementary school in South Philadelphia. In other cities that considered teaching-specific housing projects, some questioned whether it would be healthy or pleasant for teachers to leave school only to run into even more educators at home.

But Hiban, who’s just getting her start in the field, said she’s looking forward to drawing on the wisdom of her neighbors.

“Teaching can be a very taxing profession,” she said. “While teaching is so incredibly rewarding and you get so much from it, it can also be horrifyingly difficult.”

Teachers get a discount

Educators who live at Oxford Mills get more than just neighbors who understand their pain.

Developer Greg Hill said teacher get a 25 percent discount on rent too. Which means a two-bedroom unit would cost a teacher $1,500. In this gentrifying area close to Center City, a teacher could get a one-bedroom apartment for less than $1,000 a month. Hill pointed out that offer is good for all teachers, whether they’re at a private, parochial, charter of traditional public school.

Katie Ocheltree, a recent Millersville University grad, will be moving in and realizing a lifelong goal: becoming a teacher.

“This is my actual first year with my own classroom which I am so excited about!”

Ocheltree will be working as a special education teacher in a Philadelphia school. Before that, she and her fiancee are moving into a one-bedroom at Oxford Mills from Exton in Chester County.

She said it was the combination of the reduced bill and the benefit of having colleagues she can bounce ideas off of, that really sold her on the specialized housing.  

“All being in one complex where we all have the opportunity to interact in public places is such a fantastic opportunity that no other building offers in Philadelphia,” she said.

Ocheltree said it will refreshing and motivating to be surrounded by other people who have the same aspirations.

The developers of Oxford Mills believe the Philly project and two other similar ones in Baltimore are the only teacher-specific housing complexes in the country.

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