As afforable housing developments age, managing and preserving them, both physically and financially, while neighborhoods change and energy costs rise is becoming a key concern for community developers. Here’s a look at how the Women's Community Revitalization Project is taking on those challenges in Eastern North Philadelphia.
The Adolfina Villanueva Townhouses stand in the shadow of the burnt-out and largely demolished Thomas A. Edison High School in Fairhill. The surrounding blocks are rough but this tidy cluster of townhouses stands out as a bright spot where some of the neighborhood’s truly low-income families have quality affordable housing.
Like Villanueva, the Women’s Community Revitalization Project (WCRP) built the Johnnie Tillmon Townhouses in South Kensington in the 1990s using federal affordable housing tax credits. These days Tillmon is a bulwark of affordability as the neighborhood’s real estate market has started to simmer, bringing a new wave of market-rate developer and homebuyer interest.
Both Tillmon and Villanueva had become dated and were becoming increasingly expensive to maintain. So last spring WCRP embarked on an ambitious housing preservation project to rehab all 77 two-, three-, and four-bedroom units at both sites using a fresh round of affordable housing tax credits. Now, after eight phases of construction and a giant tenant shuffle, renovations are nearly complete.
The rehab project is an opportunity for WCRP to fix flaws in the original construction, make energy-efficient upgrades, and freshen up each unit with remodeled kitchens and bathrooms. But the work is about more than shiny new appliances and fresh coats of paint.
It is also about WCRP recommitting to an earlier generation of housing – one a bastion of quality in a tough neighborhood the other a toehold of affordability in a sea of change – and to the women and the families they house.
If WCRP were a different sort of an organization, it might have considered just patching the holes or cashing in on a few units after the tax credits’ 15-year period of required affordability had expired. Instead they doubled down.
At both Tillmon and Villanueva mounting maintenance demands, aging systems, and dated appliances meant it was time to overhaul these tired units. If not, keeping them up was going to become a more costly, difficult proposition for WCRP.
“We were finding ourselves doing a lot of roof repairs,” WCRP’s development team coordinator, Paul Aylesworth, explained. “We have maintenance reserves, but those won’t cover major system breakdowns.”
Plus, at Tillmon, the prefabricated stucco system on the rear walls was failing. It had been constructed without a way for moisture to escape, which led to a variety of problems, particularly around the windows and inside the walls.
WCRP secured affordable housing tax credits from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency in 2012 to do rehabilitation work on the 77 units at Villanueva and Tillmon.
The $8 million construction budget for the rehab project comes principally through affordable housing tax credits. WCRP also received $499,000 from the City of Philadelphia through a combination of sources, including Community Development Block Grant money, HOME, and the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
“The capital infusion came at exactly the right time,” Nora Lichtash, WCRP’s executive director, explained. It gives WCRP the opportunity to do major upgrades that improve the quality and efficiency of about 30% of their rental portfolio.
Now both complexes (renamed Tillmon-Villanueva as a result of the project) have new roofing systems and energy-efficient appliances, there is central air-conditioning for each unit, and every kitchen and bathroom now feature new cabinetry, flooring, and counter tops. In addition, the rear walls of Tillmon’s 23 units were rebuilt.
WCRP took on the Tillmon-Villanueva preservation project with as much sensitivity as possible to its tenants, who would need to be shuffled in and out of their homes in eight phases.
“It was like a big chess game,” Aylesworth described.
In May 2012, WCRP started moving groups of tenants into its own temporary housing to make way for construction at Villanueva. After an average of 10 weeks people were able to move home again. Since May 2013, the project has been in its final two phases, focusing on Tillmon at 4th and Master streets.
“The relocation part was going to be a pain in everyone’s neck and we knew it, but we wanted to have resources so that we could soften the negative effects,” Lichtash said. WCRP worked with a relocation specialist to help coordinate each tenant’s move, from temporary changes of address to the movers and cleaning services.
“Everything was paid for and there was a lot of support to help people understand the process, pack, store anything that couldn’t go into a temporary unit, and move back,” Lichtash said.
Every tenant that chose to remain with WCRP – and most did – moved into WCRP housing, and a majority of tenants moved back into their original units.
“It was great that all we had to do was pack . . . no lifting heavy boxes, no getting a van,” said Jacqueline Harris, a WCRP tenant at Villanueva for 12 years.
Harris was appreciative that she was able to stay in the neighborhood, moving down the street temporarily as part of the first group in the great tenant shuffle.
The hassle of living out of boxes was made all worth it, Harris said, when she walked back into the apartment she shares with her 23-year-old daughter.
“It was like a brand new place, like moving into it for the first time,” Harris said of her renovated two-bedroom unit. “It is truly a blessing.”
The refreshed units feel as though they could easily be market-rate rentals. Harris is quick to say she has always appreciated what she had living at Villanueva. But, she concedes her apartment needed updating after 12 years of living there.
Across Franklin Street from Harris, Elizabeth Moran was able to move into an accessible first-floor unit as a result of the rehab project. Moran, who has lived in WCRP housing for several years, lives with her granddaughter.
Speaking through WCRP case manager Haydee Amill, who served as my Spanish translator, Moran said she believes the new unit has even helped her health because it is easier to keep clean. Her first WCRP unit was a three-bedroom unit, but the carpet made her allergies worse and was expensive for her.
Moran also says that she’s noticed a difference in her utility costs because of the energy-efficiency upgrades WCRP made during construction. Energy efficiency is especially important, Aylesworth noted, because tenants are responsible for their own utility bills often paid through utility allowances, so every dollar counts.
When I visited Jacqueline Harris at home, it was a thick Philadelphia morning and she was enjoying the comfort of her new central air conditioning. It is by far her favorite feature of the rehabbed unit. But she says she also really likes the updated kitchen. “I just want to keep it the best. I just love it,” she said.
Harris has seen her share of hard times. She is a recovering drug addict who bounced between her mother’s house and a shelter with her daughter before finding her home with WCRP. The shelter, she said, helped her turn her life around and got her to apply for Section 8 housing. When she found the apartment with WCRP it was the day before her voucher would have expired.
“I’m glad it was this place. I was ready to take anything,” Harris recalled.
Harris does have one gripe: She’s starting miss the maintenance guys because she doesn’t see them around anymore. There’s nothing small to fix these days.
For Lichtash and others at WCRP it was not a question of whether to renovate Tillmon-Villanueva’s 77 units, but how. And the value of their continued affordability was never in doubt.
In Fairhill, where the need for quality affordable housing remains high, Villanueva’s renovation affirms WCRP’s long-term commitment to the community. In rapidly appreciating South Kensington, Tillmon sits on the edge of the once-gritty-now-gentrified Northern Liberties. And as South Kensington changes, protecting sustained affordability takes on a new importance.
“People really value their place [at Tillmon] and in the neighborhood and have a certain amount of pride in it,” Aylesworth said.
Lichtash acknowledged that the 23 units at Tillmon could have yielded a handsome profit for WCRP if they’d been sold off.
“For us it wasn’t a hard decision even though it would have brought in a lot of income,” she said. “I think the issue of fighting displacement and making sure that the neighborhood stays diverse is such a high value to us that the other opportunities didn’t seem worth it.”
WCRP maintains a waiting list to fill its vacancies, and it recognizes how enormous the need is for quality and truly affordable housing for low-income families throughout Philadelphia.
“Once people have housing that they can afford, that’s safe, that isn’t falling down, people make enormous changes in their lives,” Lichtash said. “Our tenants lease up and within four years their median income goes up 80 percent.” From there, lives can change course.
For Fatima Dubose living at Tillmon for the last few years has provided stability for her and her four children, aged 5 to 12 years old.
“I used to be stressed out a lot, yelling at my kids when they didn’t even do anything,” Dubose said describing the strain on her family life because they had to move around a lot. “Right now it’s stable for us.”
Dubose’s three-bedroom unit has enough space for family time and a bit of privacy, her kids like the quiet street, and she likes her neighbors. It’s begun to feel more like home.
Ashley Hahn is an independent writer with a background in historic preservation and city planning. She started Eyes on the Street for PlanPhilly in 2011 and was PlanPhilly's managing editor from 2015-2017. Ashley has lived in 12 zip codes that she can think of, including neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and New York. She is a Philadelphian by choice.