Philadelphia Tries New Approach for Housing

Four years ago, Evelyn Martinez, a resident of Philadelphia public housing, was raising three children in the dangerous, drug-infested community around 16th Street and Erie Avenue . The house was in poor condition and space was so limited that Martinez was forced to park on the sidewalk.

Evelyn's old neighborhood near 16th Street and Erie Avenue.
Evelyn's old neighborhood near 16th Street and Erie Avenue.

Now, when returning to her new home, Martinez parks in her private driveway, lets her children run into the family’s spacious backyard and enters the four-bedroom, three-bathroom home she owns at 11th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue.

Martinez is one of thousands of city residents who have taken part in the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s overhaul of traditional public housing, replacing dense and outdated highrise buildings with detached and semi-detached housing that more closely resembles what one would find in a suburban community. Green front lawns, front porches and grassy medians have replaced trash-strewn lots and abandoned vehicles.

“The federal government decided in the late ’80s that the old-style high- rise public housing, the densely populated, even low-rise projects, where you had a lot of people tightly living together weren’t working. They were incubators for crime and anti-social behavior and the determination was made that they had to go,” said Kirk Dorn, general manager of communications for PHA.

Evelyn's new home
Evelyn's new home

Cambridge Plaza at 11th and Brown streets is one of the agency’s renovated sites. In 2001, it demolished the complex’s two high rises , replacing 372 units with 174 semi-detached houses.

Funding for these projects come from a variety of sources, with the federal government footing a large portion of the bill. In the case of the Richard Allen development at 11th and Poplar streets, more than half of the $89.6 million in financing came from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s HOPE VI  funding–money set aside by Congress to renovate the nation’s worst public housing.

Dorn said the results of these changes are immediate and obvious. The crime rate in these areas has fallen and residents are developing greater pride in their communities, forming neighborhood watch groups and beautification committees.

That makes perfect sense to Melvin Smith, a research analyst for 5th District Councilman Darrell Clarke.

“When you have a neighborhood that’s complete, you got people that are living in these vacant properties and these vacant properties are being treated and rehabbed, you are breathing life back into these communities,” Smith said.

But not everyone is pleased with the housing authority’s actions. According to Margie Pierce of the West Poplar Neighborhood Advisory Committee, the aesthetic improvements to the community have attracted private developers, drawn northward from Center City by the area’s low housing costs. She worries that gentrification has already begun in North Philadelphia and soon residents who have lived in those neighborhoods for many years will be forced to move by rising housing costs.

Kirk Dorn agrees that the area has attracted developers and acknowledges that homes selling for upward of $300,000 are being built next to authority sites. He does not, however, view it as the fault of the housing authority, or even a concern for anyone.

“There are 100,000 abandoned houses [in Philadelphia ] – there’s plenty of spaces for everyone,” Dorn said. “What we do at PHA is build affordable houses. We’re not building housing for the gentrifications. When we build our stuff the gentrificators build around us but there is plenty of space for affordable housing and the new high-class housing.”

Residents of the new housing agree. Evelyn Martinez recognizes that her new neighborhood has problems of its own, referring to it as “the ghetto suburbs,” but for her, the benefits of the improved community outweigh any danger of gentrification.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for me. It was a huge blessing,” she said. “I prayed for this for a long time. I mean, just being on a waiting list I thought it could never happen. It wouldn’t happen to me, little old me. You know, a single mom raising three children, but you know, a lot of prayer and holding on to His word. It’s a struggle. It’s a constant struggle, but it’s mine.”


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