The Philadelphia Housing Authority will seize nearly 1,300 properties for a major urban renewal project in the city’s Sharswood neighborhood. The plan includes the demolition of two of the neighborhood’s three high-rise public housing buildings — the Blumberg towers — that will be replaced with a large mixed-income development. The new buildings will increase the neighborhood population tenfold with the majority of the new units to be affordable housing.
The majority of the 1,300 lots slated for eminent domain are currently vacant. At a City Council hearing on Tuesday, Philadelphia Housing Authority CEO Kelvin Jeremiah testified that the redevelopment plan furthers the agency’s efforts to replace high-rise housing projects with lower-density units. However, PHA’s plan misses the forest for the trees. The benefits of demolishing the two towers are immediately undone by creating an entire neighborhood of public housing, effectively increasing the concentration of poverty in Sharswood.
Adam Lang has lived in Sharswood for 10 years, and he posted about the plan in the Market Urbanism Facebook group. Adam has raised concerns that the PHA does not have an accurate number of how many of the 1,300 properties in the redevelopment territory are currently occupied. Adam’s primary residence is not under threat of eminent domain, however he owns four lots that are. He uses two lots adjacent to his home as his yard. The other two are a shell and a vacant lot. He purchased them, ironically, from the city with the plan to turn them into rentals.
Adam’s concern about the inaccuracy of PHA’s vacancy statistics stem from the method that PHA employees used to create their estimate: driving by homes to see if they look occupied or not. Adam’s own property was on the list of vacants, and he said that he’s aware of other properties in the neighborhood that PHA identified as vacant but are actually lived in. Nichole Tillman, Executive Vice President of Communications for PHA disagreed:
PHA entered into an interagency agreement with the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) in March 2014 to perform eminent domain services on behalf of PHA. They are very skilled in these matters.
The overwhelming majority of parcels are vacant land or structures. The PRA projects that approximately 70 structures, or 6% are occupied, and the occupants include homeowners, renters, and businesses.
Sharswood is adjacent to the neighborhood of Brewerytown, a rapidly gentrifying area. Sharswood, however, retains many blighted properties and as of 2008 its median income was about 20-percent lower than Brewerytown’s. Adam posits that Sharswood’s prevalence of abandoned properties relative to Brewerytown is driven by the presence of run-down PHA properties and their attendant crime and poverty. “Sharswood hasn’t gentrified so much because of PHA and other subsidized housing, much of it blighted,” he said. The PHA’s redevelopment plan, if realized, will result in a large population increase in the neighborhood, with 83-percent of the new housing designated as affordable units, according the Jeremiah’s testimony.
Adam supports the PHA plan to demolish the high-rise housing projects. Based on his experience visiting residents of the towers, he said, “it’s amazing that the government would house human beings in there.” However, he’s also against the drastic increase in public-housing in the neighborhood that would further concentrate low-income housing in Sharswood. “It will look like it’s done a lot of good,” he said “because new buildings always look better, but the issue will be over time because PHA has an atrocious maintenance record.”
In recent years, PHA has demonstrated a proven track record of success in developing and maintaining, low density, cost effective, and energy efficient units that are consistent with the respective neighborhoods. PHA has a large and effective maintenance program. Challenges that face PHA in regards to maintenance are largely due to funding and considerable large aging housing stock.
Sharswood’s redevelopment will be financed with a combination of local money and funds from HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grants. The first Choice Neighborhood grants were awarded in 2011 for city agencies to undertake redevelopment studies. Now HUD is giving much larger implementation grants to cities across the country, including $30 million for redevelopment in North Philadelphia where Sharswood is located. In the first phase of the project, the Inquirer reports that construction will begin on 57 affordable rental units at a cost of $21 million, or nearly $370,000 per unit in construction costs alone.
Jane Jacobs would have called this arrangement “cataclysmic money” because a large influx of cash from the local and federal governments will finance rapid redevelopment. If redevelopment happened from the bottom up, with residents gradually purchasing homes and businesses and fixing them up, the neighborhood would house greater diversity, which, Jacobs argued, was crucial for a healthy neighborhood. The plan will result in many new housing units, all built in quick succession, and many for a specific income level. This is not the diversity that will allow for the neighborhood to age successfully, nor will it facilitate a diversity of uses. This type of cataclysmic public housing development has a long, failed history in the United States.
Tillman said that PHA’s plan are a departure from disastrous slum clearance efforts of the past:
Many of the failures that are chronicled revolve around the federal model of public housing high-rises constructed during the 50’s and 60’s that isolated neighborhoods and residents, making it hard for them to get to work and to receive services, and also make them vulnerable to criminal activity. Post World War Two, there was a housing shortage that affected everybody. High-rises were an efficient way to build modern apartments for families in need, very often on relatively small footprints, but other times over superblocks.
While just about any urban observer would support PHA’s plan to demolish the Blumberg towers, their tabula rasa plan to redevelop the neighborhood from the top down robs the neighborhood of the chance to develop sustainable market-rate affordable housing. Any city-led redevelopment spanning an entire neighborhood and relying on hundreds of millions in federal funding will fail to create the diverse, organic neighborhood that Jacobs espoused.