Taking on gentrification with a community land trust in Point Breeze

A rendering of future affordable housing in Point Breeze (Women's Community Revitalization Project)

A rendering of future affordable housing in Point Breeze (Women's Community Revitalization Project)

This story originally appeared on Billy Penn.

The Women’s Community Revitalization Project is taking a step to slow some of the quick turnovers in Point Breeze by establishing a kind of community land trust for five homes there.

It’s a development the neighborhood will likely welcome. Several residents are wary of the gentrifying change that’s happening fast and furious in the area.

If you’re strolling through for the first time, don’t be alarmed to find Theressa McCormick yelling at you. When the new kids on the block don’t respond to her neighborly greetings — a “hello” or “how are you” as she passes on the sidewalk — she’ll repeat the words, louder.

“You have to say it real loud and kind of embarrass yourself,” said McCormick, vice president of the Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze RCO. “It’s not the same. We were a family.”

This summer, WCRP will break ground on five low-income houses in the area. Though small in the number of properties it will provide, the project is unlike any other in the neighborhood.

These houses will stay affordable for the foreseeable future.

WCRP apartments in North Philly. (Michaela Winberg/Billy Penn)

Building equity to break the cycle

How can a property be kept “affordable”?

WCRP is following a model called community land trust. A group acquires housing, then offers a longterm lease (in this case, 99 years) to a person or family bringing in income on the lower end of the scale. But both parties treat the lease like homeownership. The residents are responsible for upkeep and maintenance and can renew/pass on the lease for their heirs.

There’s also a resale formula, which guarantees the resident at least a portion of the profit when the house sells — to the next low-income resident.

All the while, because an independent group owns the land, it can dictate the price. In this case, WCRP will only offer leases to people who make only between 50 and 80 percent of the Area Median Income. It’s a regional guideline determined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development — one that critics say distorts affordability by lumping Philly households in with their wealthier suburban counterparts.

“A lot of folks still get to build equity, although maybe not as much as the regular market,” said Christi Clark, WCRP’s organizing director.

It’s an approach that’s growing in popularity here in Philly and across the country. WCRP already has 36 rental units in Port Richmond in a similar model, where tenants have the option to “purchase” (enter into long-term lease agreement) after 15 years of good residency. Also in the works are 33 more units in Point Breeze and 35 in Germantown.

“This really is exciting, to think about permanently affordable housing,” Clark added. “It just is not something we see in Philadelphia. It really feels like one of the only tools to combat displacement in neighborhoods that are rapidly changing.”

Five brand new houses

First up on WCRP’s list are five units in Point Breeze, on the 1300 block of South Capitol Street. The land was acquired by the Redevelopment Authority, which transferred ownership for a nominal fee with a letter of support from District 2 Councilman Kenyatta Johnson.

The affordability goal for these units is in contrast with another deal Johnson recently supported. In that case, he helped a childhood friend-turned-developer secure several publicly-owned properties through the city’s opaque and easily politicized land disposition process. The friend then flipped them for a cool $135k — and plans now call for building market-rate housing. (Johnson didn’t make any money on this reported deal.)

Available for about $150,000, the WCRP homes in Point Breeze will be 2- or 3-story new construction with up to three bedrooms, two baths and energy efficient appliances only. One of the five homes will be fully wheelchair accessible.

They’re right across the street, said Clark, the organization’s director, from homes that are selling for half a million dollars.

It’s an exciting prospect for McCormick, who said there are only three original neighbors left on her block. Point Breeze, she said, is in dire need of more affordable housing.

“Why is it that this area we can’t make it happen?” she said.

Officials expect to start construction by this summer and have them ready for move-in by the end of 2019.


WHYY is one of 22 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.

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