Be persistent is the motto that 24-year-old Marquita Irby lives by. She offers this motto to anyone who asks her for advice regarding obtaining affordable housing. Irby’s path to owning her own home was long and stressful. But now it seems it was well worth her effort. “It took me four years to get this house. I called the Office of Housing and Community Development like 50-million times, I would walk to the building every week, I even went to every seminar. Now my family can be happy,” said Irby, fighting to hold back the tears that started forming in her eyes.
Irby is one of the inagural residents of The Evelyn Sanders Townhouses. Phase I of the Sanders project has transformed the image of the 3100 blocks of North Percy and Hutchinson streets in the Hunting Park section of Philadelphia. These 40 new two-and-three story townhouses, eight of which are wheelchair accessible, will be equipped with two to four bedrooms, central air with washers and dryers in every unit. More importantly, these townhouses offer the opportunity for many people to start their lives fresh. The Women’s Community Revitalization Project (W.C.R.P.), an all-female organization that is committed to developing housing, providing support service, and honoring leadership within communities, has spearheaded this housing effort. The W.C.R.P. had help from many sponsors, including the City of Philadelphia, National Equity Fund, and the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency. This $13 million project is named after Evelyn Sanders, who was a major advocate for affordable housing and neighborhood improvement. Sanders attracted the attention of then Mayor John Street to start supporting affordable housing for this area of eastern North Philadelphia. Sanders died in 2005, but her name will live on in the new tenants’ hearts forever.
Marquita Irby’s old living conditions consisted of her, her two children, and her mother living in a one room apartment where the rent was $360 per month. Now with the help of the W.C.R.P., Irby has three bedrooms, a kitchen, a dining room, and a living room, for only $387 rent per month. Irby joyfully describes the emotional transition from having almost nothing to now being able to live properly by her standards. “You feel like you can’t do anything at all when you don’t have a comfortable house. Now my family will be able to eat dinner together at a table for the first time. I have seen a difference in my son, he seems more active, and smiles a lot. I am just so happy.”
Tenants eligible for the Sanders Townhouses are low-income families, most of whom have experienced homelessness, been deprived of housing because of ethnicity, and lived with family members with physical disabilities. Family income must be below $20,000 a year; typically the range is between $4,000 and $12,000. Also, families must pay more than 50 percent of their income on housing expenses in order to qualify. The “Phase I” in the project title means there is a “Phase II” on the way. Phase II is scheduled to begin construction during the spring of 2010. The second phase includes a proposal to add 31 units of housing very similar to that of Phase I.
A dedication of the Phase I townhouses was held on Wednesday, June 3rd and was open for all neighbors and the public to attend. Among the guest speakers were Philadelphia City Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, Mayor Nutter’s wife Lisa, and some prospective tenants. Lisa Nutter, a board member of the W.C.R.P., was the facilitator for this event. “The people already living in this neighborhood were really supportive throughout the whole project. This development is just a drop in the bucket, people will still be without low-income housing, but this is more than a start,” said a hopeful Nutter, celebrating this accomplishment.
This new housing development has changed large vacant lots once filled with only trash and dirt. With the new townhouse, more people will be moving into this area, which will make it safer for all community members, but especially young children. Children will have clean surroundings to play in and more children their age to play with. With the increasing number of people in this section of Hunting Park, the small businesses will have more customers to keep their companies running. It is hoped that this increased spending with neighborhood businesses will also increase the investments being put back into the neighborhood.
More than 1,000 families sent in applications for this new, low-income housing. Although only 40 of those families were able to have their wish granted, it is a small step in the right direction. With persistence, government aid, and the motivation to live comfortably, family stories that were once tragic will turn into stories of future success. Not everyone receives a fairy tale benefit in their lives, but new Sanders Townhouse tenants such as Marquita Irby have been given the foundation, literally, and the ability to take control of their lifestyle and make the best of it.