Talmadge Belo narrowed his eyes under the shadow of his baseball cap, his gaze zeroed in on something across the street.
“That used to be the nicest house on the block,” said Belo, the vice president of the Brewerytown-Sharswood Civic Association.
But that house is boarded up now. A torn mattress tumbled out the back door of what might have been a porch decades ago. Decaying leaves floated in murky, stagnant water that sat in empty plastic buckets.
The house is located on the 2400 block of W. Sharswood Street, which won the Clean Block Contest in 1996, beating out every other block in the whole city. But things aren’t like that anymore.
A lot has changed in Sharswood since 1996 – and a lot more is going to change. Three years ago, the Philadelphia Housing Authority identified the neighborhood for the Choice Neighborhood Transformation Plan, providing $30 million dollars from the U.S. Department of Urban Housing and Development for redevelopment.
Sharswood was chosen for a “whole host of reasons,” said Kelvin Jeremiah, the president of the housing authority. The Sharswood Blumberg Apartments was the worst public housing site in all of the city, Jeremiah said, nestled in what was once a bustling, working class community.
“But today, over the past several decades, that community changed in some significant ways because of the distress,” Jeremiah said.
Dwindling industry, high poverty and crime rates, and low educational attainment positioned Sharswood well for redevelopment, he added. But that’s all about to change – or so PHA hopes.
A PLAN FOR SHARSWOOD
“This is not PHA’s plans,” Jeremiah said. “We started before December 2015 with the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative and met with residents. We heard the residents.”
According to Jeremiah, PHA held more than 40 meetings and community sessions over the course of two years. Each meeting involved community-based organizations like the Brewerytown-Sharswood Civic Association. By the end, PHA and the community had created a plan for redevelopment in Sharswood.
“In fact, the neighborhood came up with a vision for the community,” Jeremiah said. “They had an opportunity to weigh in, to review the draft plan and the final plan itself.”
The old Blumberg Apartments were riddled with crime, Belo said, but some of its residents clung tightly to the community they found there. On the morning of March 19, two towers at Blumberg were imploded, going up in a cloud of dust and smoke. Families occupying the units were relocated in advance to “various PHA sites,” Jeremiah said. Some are living throughout the city, while others have moved to places like the suburbs or even other states like Delaware.
Next, the PHA will build 57 affordable housing units, which are already under construction along Jefferson and 24th streets. The units are expected to be finished in December, Jeremiah said. A second phase will consist of 83 replacement rental units, culminating in a total of 140 housing units. Ninety-six existing senior units in the remaining low-rise building at Blumberg will be renovated.
“In five to seven years, we’re looking to have all the affordable housing components completed,” Jeremiah said. “We’re working with private developers to build market rates and market-rate rental and ownerships. We’re moving aggressively.”
For every public housing unit demolished, another one will be built, he added. Residents have a “right to return,” meaning families who have relocated from Sharswood to other public housing sites can return to the community “once the development and housing is rebuilt,” he said.
The PHA also hopes to boost the commercial corridor, particularly along Ridge Avenue, with a strong focus on small business. All of this development requires acquisition of public and private properties through eminent domain. Of the 1,300 properties targeted, about 500 are owned publicly and 800 are private, according to the Sharswood Blumberg website.
About 30 owners filed requests for adjustment reviews, meaning they’ve contested the appraisal made by PHA that determines the amount offered for the sites. Jeremiah said some offers might have been lower than owners liked because not everyone allowed the independent appraisers inside their homes.
The appraisers do not account for the appreciation in homes, he added, but are instead looking at current value.
“Folks have properties that they believe is worth far more than it actually is,” Jeremiah said. “In the process, they can contest that value and they would not incur any of the costs.”
The plan itself, and the way PHA will move forward with it, is a community effort, Jeremiah said, taking into account “the concerns that we’ve heard from residents who we’ve asked to wait for some 20 plus years for something to happen.”
“They no longer have to wait,” he said.
‘A COMMUNITY PLAN,’ BUT SOME RESIDENTS ARE SKEPTICAL
For Rasheedah Phillips, managing attorney of the housing unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, PHA isn’t always what it appears.
“They have this great website that says they do all these great things,” Phillips said. “Every time you see Kelvin Jeremiah in an interview, he’s saying how great it all is. But when you talk to residents, you do not hear that same story. You do not hear how great it is.”
Phillips started working with Sharswood residents when her office heard about relocating Blumberg tenants, and later became involved with the eminent domain cases. Most of her work has been advocating for residents and spreading information, she said.
The impact of eminent domain can be serious, she said, particularly in Sharswood.
“In this case, poor- and low-income people’s main source of wealth or intergenerational wealth is being taken from them,” Phillips said. “And then they don’t have options, or they don’t have many options. These people don’t know they can challenge it. … You have a lot of panic.”
Even though PHA relocated residents in Blumberg and offers a process for those living in sites acquired through eminent domain, there are still issues – as seen in the ripple effects of the Blumberg Apartments demolition.
“Some of the issues were, ‘Where am I going to put my kid in school?’” Phillips said. “You have that issue and then, ‘I work, and this is the bus I catch.’ These issues may just be a blip on the screen for someone like you or me, but for someone else, that’s a world-ending thing.”
For Belo, redevelopment was always going to happen in Sherwood – it was only a matter of time.
“I kept saying, this is the last cheap housing on the East Coast,” Belo said. “Where we’re located, we’re just a few minutes from Center City, and when we’re discovered, watch out. And that’s what just happened. And now people are screaming and hollering, ‘Oh, it’s gonna do this,’ and I said, ‘What’s the alternative?’”
In the past two years, Belo has seen his block go from having 14 empty buildings to five or six, he said. The problem, he said – echoing Phillips’ sentiments – is how that redevelopment is happening.
“There’s contractors building these sites and the fact is, not a lot of people from this neighborhood are getting these jobs,” Belo said. “That’s going to be one issue.”
Belo also worries about being able to afford the taxes on his home, and others being able to keep up with rent increases.
“What happens to the people that are already here?” he said.
“We really need to think about who the long-term plan impacts,” Phillips said. “It’s usually not positive for the most vulnerable people.”
THE FUTURE OF SHARSWOOD
There’s one thing Belo, Phillips and Jeremiah agree on: Something needs to change in Sharswood. Seventy-three percent of the population 25 and older have their high school degree or higher, as compared to 84 percent for the city. The median annual household income in Sharswood is a mere $15,071 – not even half the citywide income of $34,957. Single women with children make up 29 percent of the population in Sharswood; they’re only 14 percent of the entire city.
According to the Sharswood Blumberg Choice Neighborhood Development Plan, the ultimate goal is a “revitalized neighborhood” driven by homeownership, which creates long-term investment and a stronger commitment to the community’s future. In addition to PHA’s construction, there will be an additional 352 mixed income homeownership units.
“We believe that we can create a community of choice where families can thrive with all the amenities that we’ve come to expect from contemporary living arrangements,” Jeremiah said.
But Phillips worries that input from the residents – despite PHA’s claims to the contrary – has not been strong enough.
“You need input from community members and people most impacted from this,” she said. “You need to do more than what’s required when you’re dealing with vulnerable people. We’re reaching a point where it’s going to be too late to have any meaningful input into this.”
Belo worries about how long he and his wife’s fixed income can make up the difference in new taxes. He owns the house next to his main domicile as well, and said he’s seen a jump already.
“In the last three cycles, it’s gone up four times,” Belo said.
Belo would love to see a “real grocery store.” He would love to see businesses come back to Ridge Avenue, where he recalls walking up and down as a young adult, looking for jobs. Nearly every storefront was hiring back then.
“It’s going to change,” Belo said. “For the better? I don’t know. … But something has to change.”
– Text, photos and video by Paige Gross and Victoria Mier