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The Philadelphia Housing Authority held the grand opening and ribbon cutting for the new Queen Lane Apartments in December, 2015. Shown are PHA President and CEO Kelvin Jeremiah (left), Councilwoman Cindy Bass and Mayor Nutter (holding scissors with…

PHA in 2015: 88 units for $35 million, and the dawn of Sharswood

It was a big year by all accounts.

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It was a big year by all accounts.

PHA cut the ribbons on 88 units of affordable housing in 2015, representing a $35,000,000 investment. Broken down, each unit cost the agency about $397,000. Here’s a cursory look at the three new development sites:

  • Queen Lane Apartments: 55 affordable rental units, $22 million development. About $400,000 a unit. Opened mid-December, 2015, in Germantown. Replaced a 1950s-era highrise. PHA received over 5,700 applications for these units.

  • Oakdale Apartments: 12 units, $4.6 million dollars. About $380,000 per unit. Opened July, 2015, in Strawberry mansion.

  • Gordon Street Apartments: 21 walkup and townhome units, $8.4 million. Opened in September. About $400,000 per unit. PHA received “hundreds” of applications for both the Oakdale and Queen Lane apartments.

While the agency has a few more units than it had this time last year, the startling number of Philadelphians in need of affordable housing has not changed.

PHA’s wait list — which hovers around 100,000 people — has been closed for over two and a half years. About 400 units of housing are available for reoccupancy every year, according to the Authority’s CEO Kelvin Jeremiah, but that doesn’t begin to put a dent in the overall need.

Part of the issue remains tangled up in policy. One example Jeremiah cited is that there are no limits on how long someone can stay in public housing. The other, of course, is that demand far outpaces supply.

“You have families who are in public housing for two or three generations, in some cases 70-plus years,” Jeremiah told AL DÍA back in a July interview. “As a result, because folks are not leaving, it is taking approximately 10 years to find the public housing units. Families who applied for public housing in 2004 are just being tapped to come in. There is a huge demand for affordable housing in the city. That is part of our effort to expand affordable units.”

This may create some context for the biggest PHA news of 2015, which was a far cry from ribbon cutting.

In August, the Authority broke ground on a massive, 10-phase, $675 million project that will change the face of North Philadelphia indefinitely. The first phase — outlined in this most recent plan that the agency released last month — is to demolish the problem-riddled Norman Blumberg apartment complex, and construct 57 affordable rental units on three parcels of PHA-owned vacant land next door.

By completion, the Sharswood redevelopment project will boast 1,203 new units of affordable and market-rate housing for a grand total of $530 million. That’s an estimated cost of $440,500 per unit.

So far, only the first phase has been financed.  But that hasn't stopped Philadelphia City Council and PHA from planning ahead. Back in June, they signed off on a massive eminent domain bill, allowing the Authority to seize 1,300 properties in the neighborhood which will ostensibly be developed over the next decade as funds become available.

Part of the ambitious plan also entails building a multi-million-dollar commercial corridor along Ridge Avenue. (PlanPhilly has the latest details that have emerged.) So far, the Authority's plans have been met with skepticism from various stakeholders in the community. For its part, PHA addressed a lot of criticism. "This is not the same PHA" of the past, Jeremiah said on several occasions throughout the year. 

Perhaps the unanswered questions 2016 will tell.

PHA is the nation’s fourth largest public housing authority, with an annual budget of $371 million. Of course, only a fraction of that goes to building houses. Last year the Authority also made strides in other areas, according to spokeswoman Nicole Tillman:

  • In July, at HUD’s request, PHA became the largest housing agency to approve a smoke-free policy for all of its developments.

  • With five new hires last year, the agency also moved closer to its goal of adding ten qualified PHA residents to PHA Police Department, according to PHA spokeswoman Nicole Tillman.

  • The agency increased its contracts and subcontracts with minority-owned and women-owned businesses. As of Sept. 30, 2015, PHA reported that 57 percent of its contracts were with minority-owned businesses, while 33 percent were with women-owned businesses — far above the federal standards of 20 percent and 10 percent, respectively.

  • PhillySEEDS, Inc., a subsidiary of PHA, awarded $219,000 in scholarships to 55 PHA residents who are seeking college degrees. In its third year, the PhillySEEDS program has now given out more than $579,000 in scholarship awards.

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