Strawberry Mansion: Property Developers Strive To Improve Neighborhood

When walking through Strawberry Mansion, you may notice an overabundance of vacant properties and abandoned houses. It was not always like this.

Due to redlining, a racist collusion between banks and city government, where people of certain races were prevented from buying homes in certain sections of the city, the historic neighborhood on the edge of Fairmount Park was neglected by its residents and the city. Over time, the properties fell into despair.

Pennrose Property Management has been investing in Strawberry Mansion since 1985. One of their most prominent developments is the Brownstones at Diamond Street. Using tax credits and financing provided through the city, Pennrose purchased the properties with the intent to develop them for low income housing.

When Pennrose started to work on the Brownstones, many of the properties were in extremely poor condition.

“We’ve removed a lot of blight from this neighborhood,” said Ryan Bailey, a senior developer at Pennrose who overlooks the development. “We’ve really stabilized a lot of these buildings. We really brought them back to the way they were.”

Pennrose Senior Developer Ryan Bailey has worked in Strawberry Mansion for nearly a decade refurbishing homes on Diamond Street.

Bailey believes that restoring vacant homes can have a tremendous effect on the community.

“There’s a bunch of vacant property that are collecting trash and have long grass,” he said. “Building a nice apartment building there is going to pull the street back together again.”

Not only does the development contribute to the image of Diamond Street, it also puts taxpayers back on the city’s books and can help reduce crime.

“Crime is a business and if you can make it ten percent harder for them to do their business,” Bailey said, “the blocks you’re operating on, they’ll move away.”

The tax credits used to pay for the properties have a 30 year restriction tied to them, so for the next three decades, the properties can only be leased to individuals who qualify for the program. How much each individual pays is based off of the area’s median income. Certain units are only open to individuals who make 20 percent of the area median income, while others are open to people who earn 50 to 60 percent. In order to maximize the number of residents, Pennrose reconfigured the single family homes into multi-unit apartments.

The housing stock in Strawberry Mansion has caught the attention of small businesses and private owners as well.

Christopher Darden, the owner of Black Diamond Construction, is currently working on refurbishing five blighted properties in the neighborhood.

“This is a good transition area,” Darden said. “This is where the contractors are spending a lot of their money at, so we’re going where we’re going.”

Developers and residents are not the only ones seeing a benefit from low income tax credits. The workforce is too. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, Philadelphia saw an increase of 2,800 construction jobs between August 2016 and August 2017.

Contractors working on a home on Diamond Street

Gregory Reaves, the owner of Eastern Lofts, an apartment complex on Cecil B. Moore Avenue, hired locally when developing his building. The block-long development was once a factory that shipped products via the train station next door. Today, it holds over two dozen housing units and commercial space.

“We tried to put together a program that hires folks from the community to do trade related work,” Reaves said. “If we’re hiring out to work, we go into the local community and bring people in here.”

The city has also worked to develop housing on it’s own. Last March, the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) began construction on a 55-unit affordable housing development in the southwest corner of Strawberry Mansion. PHA anticipates that the $23.6 million project will be finished this winter. Private investors have contributed $11.66 million through purchasing low income tax credits. In 2014 and 2015, PHA constructed two affordable housing developments, one on Oakdale Street and another on Gordon Street in Strawberry Mansion.

Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation (PHDC) provides services to low income households that are in need of repairs. The Basic Systems Repair Program provides free repairs to single resident homes with an income of $18,090 or less. Households with additional residents must bring in less than $6,270 per individual in order to qualify. Individuals with permanent disabilities that make less than $29,150 annually can take advantage of PHDC’s Adaptive Modifications Program which provides and installs modifications to homes in order for residents to live more independently despite their disabilities.

– Text, images and video by Matt Rego.

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