West Kensington: APM Leads the March in Economic Development

Home-owning can be a challenge for those living in the 19122 area code in Philadelphia, where the median income was $23,509 in 2013, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey. Just 40 percent of homes in the Temple University area were owned that year, a number that could be deflated because of university students and professors renting.

However, just a block north or east of this zip code, in West Kensington, which is 19133, the median total household income was $14,185 in 2013, and 47.3 percent of all families owned their home. Despite the higher percentage of home-owners in West Kensington, the median value of these homes was only $50,700 in that year.

Asociacion de Puertorriquenos en Marcha (APM) is a health services and community development nonprofit that has been addressing home-ownership barriers in these poverty-stricken zip codes for the past 20 years. APM provides affordable renting units as one approach to home-ownership and revitalizing these areas.

Vice president of community and economic development, Angel Rodriquez, says this process builds wealth and stabilizes the community.

“On Berks Street, we built 150 units that are worth $50-150,000, which added property value to many existing homes,” he said. 

APM address the economic issues in the community through a holistic approach, making health a number one priority.

The organization stabilizes the neighborhoods by starting with the well-being of its residents. APM provides mental health, education, and family services that address the core problems of the community.

In 2009, APM addressed the food desert in the area by opening Borinquen Plaza, a 44,000 sq. ft. center that features Cousin’s Supermarket. 

Once the residents’ basic needs are met, APM works on increasing economic development by demolishing vacant lots and filling them with affordable housing.

“Vacant lot maintenance and stewardship is important because they carry tires and rodents which carry disease and affect the air quality and living in houses in the community,” Rodriguez said.

The next step is to provide upkeep for those affordable housing units and local properties through system repair. APM has repaired more than 100 homes with its basic system repair program. Property owners can come to APM with requests for home repairs including new roofing, siding, grab bars, and ramps.

APM’s newest affordable housing development, Paseo Verde, is located on 9th and Berks Streets. The building is sustainable and features mid-rise apartments and town houses.

According to Rodriguez, these activities contribute to the community’s market value, which attracts for-profit developers. APM is sure to involve the community in these decisions though, as it convenes with residents regularly to inform them on development plans and receive input.

“Through the North Advisory Committee, we educate the community about who’s building in the area,” he said. “People in the community have a say. We do not want to displace community members and residents and instead we want to educate them and inform them on the importance and benefits of staying.”

Senior Vice President of Community and Economic Development, Rose Gray, says the history of Philadelphia plays a role in how APM interacts with the community and develops solutions.

“During the start of APM, what it saw going back into the community was that the residents were living in an extremely blighted area,” Gray said. “This was part of an urban renewal process, and although I believe in urban renewal, what was done in the ’70s wasn’t done appropriately. Things were taken down but there was no vision of what could go back.”

APM started in 1970 as a social service agency that provided access to mental health services for disenfranchised populations, specifically the Latino community. Once industrialization declined and local factories shut down, including Stetson Hats, poverty spread throughout the areas. 

Gray stepped in during the ’90s and took charge of APM’s community and economic development.

Rather than displacing residents and taking down community buildings, she used quality of life plans which gaged future growth in the community. Gray and APM board members sat down with residents to create plans that included a grocery store, restored street lights, better financial services, and more affordable housing.

In January 2014, APM opened Paseo Verde, a sustainable, mixed income housing complex on 9th and Berks Streets. The $48 million project is the only triple-Leed platinum certified building in the country, which reflects APM’s mission of building a healthy community.

“What we focused on were health-related businesses, and that’s how Paseo Verde was developed and built,” said Rodriguez. “It is a triple-LEED platinum property and we have triple-LEED platinum designation for neighborhood designation, mid-rise designation, and town home designation.”

The roof of Paseo Verde houses solar panels that provide energy for the building. Paseo Verde is affordable and healthy; a project that spoke to the community’s needs.

Triple-LEED means that the building is sustainable. It  has green roofs and blue roofs to contribute to store water management, solar panels, and high air quality with low-emission building materials, which minimize health conditions like asthma.

Gray and Rodriguez both look forward to planning and funding a senior housing project. The inter-generational housing will be located on 8th and Berks Streets.

“If what we get out of this is that we can say in Philadelphia people can live in harmony, that children can thrive, people can feel good about themselves, find self-worth; then that’s what matters,” Gray said optimistically.

The development means nothing, you can tell me this building is great, but if people don’t come here for services, if the people across the street are hungry and we haven’t addressed that, then we’ve done nothing.”

– Text, images and video by Lauren Brown and Caitlin O’Connell.

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