It’s Not too Late to Rescue Sharswood From PHA Eminent Domain Plan

Why PHA plans for Blumberg Apartments could reconcentrate poverty in the neighborhood — the exact opposite of what the community has been working toward.


“Plan, or be planned for.”

This was the mantra community activists in Philadelphia’s Mantua neighborhood adopted in their efforts to regain control of the neighborhood’s future from the institutions that threatened to overrun it from the south.

On the other side of the river, a number of Sharswood residents thought that what they were engaging in with the Philadelphia Housing Authority was planning: a joint process by which they and the PHA would together determine the neighborhood’s future course after the authority demolished the Norman Blumberg Apartments at its center.

Then, as the final plans were still officially months away, the PHA revealed its hand: Sharswood was being planned for.

The agency already had its plan in place: Acquire some 1,300 parcels of land around the Blumberg site and build new housing on it, housing that it — not the owners of the parcels or the developers they might have chosen — will control. About two-thirds of the 1,200 units the PHA proposes to build — more than double the number being eliminated at Blumberg — will be affordable, and most of those will be rental units.

These stats suggest that, if the PHA should complete the 10-year, 10-phase project it will embark on starting this summer — a far from certain outcome, according to some who testified before City Council’s Rules Committee last week — instead of deconcentrating poverty, one of the stated goals of the Sharswood/Blumberg Neighborhood Transformation Plan, it will instead reconcentrate it.

Moreover, the parcels will be acquired by eminent domain if, as just about everyone expects, City Council approves the bill allowing the PHA to proceed on Thursday. This has many Sharswood residents upset, as it means that African-American property owners will be denied an opportunity to cash in on their biggest asset.

This was one of the main points local real estate agent Judith Robinson made in her testimony against the bill. Instead of allowing those in the community to identify developers who could build on the land and get the best price possible from them, the PHA, working with the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, will instead seize the land from these owners for “fair market value” and turn it over to the PHA’s favored developer…

…which will then build inexpensive homes at enormous cost. The figures the PHA has given for its first phase work out to more than $300,000 a unit. As Sharswood resident Adam Lang has pointed out, the authority could save money by simply giving the families it plans to house in these affordable units Housing Choice vouchers instead.

It could then put the money saved into repairing its current inventory of dilapidated apartments instead, and cut down its 10-year waiting list for public housing that way. It might even be able to build some more housing on land the city already owns or controls, assuming City Council members are willing to surrender their prerogative and release the land for rebuilding. Council President Darrell Clarke‘s plan, announced yesterday, to sell city-owned lots in Francisville for next to nothing to developers who promise to build affordable housing on them is a creative approach to the issue, and it’s appropriate for red-hot Francisville, which has seen an influx of private market-rate development. But that’s not the problem in Sharswood, where an abundance of affordable housing already exists, including some of the properties the PHA wants to take.

What almost everyone in Sharswood understands is that the neighborhood is turning ripe for private reinvestment, as not only Francisville to its south but also Brewerytown to its west and the area around the Temple campus to its east are all experiencing a flood of new construction. (Clarke has refused to allow the sale of those vacant Francisville lots on the grounds that the neighborhood would simply be flooded with Temple students if they were developed.) Now, when the local Registered Community Organization is seeing developers come before it, seeking zoning variances for private construction, the PHA is coming in to short-circuit the whole process.

The hope is that the result might be close to what happened in Hawthorne when the PHA demolished the Martin Luther King Plaza towers and replaced them with rowhomes. The neighborhood around the former project took off after that happened. So might Sharswood with housing that’s easier to patrol. But will it with more, not fewer, low-income residents?

A growing body of research suggests that poor families do better when they live in better-off neighborhoods, and more recent studies have found that the better off pay no real price for the presence of the poor as well. The residents of Sharswood had, and still have, an opportunity to create just such a neighborhood where they live now. But to do that, the PHA has to let them plan the future instead of planning a future for them.

There is still time to produce this outcome, but it will take pressure on Council to do it. Your City Council member holds the power to alter the course of this development in his or her hands. Even if you live in Clarke’s district, if you agree that Sharswood deserves the opportunity to shape its own future, you should let your Council member know. Especially if you live in Clarke’s district.

Follow Sandy Smith on Twitter.