Updated 10:45 a.m.
In the midst of Philadelphia’s affordable housing crisis, there’s a set of apartments spread across the city where tenants pay just $95 per month. The highest rent the landlords at these homes have accepted is $950. Moreover, economically challenged residents who start living there often see their income double within four years.
Where do these seemingly magic properties come from?
To find their origin, you have to go back more than three decades, to when handful of North Philadelphia women decided to do something about an issue they observed in their neighborhood: the constant struggle for a good place to live.
Forming a loose coalition, the women took on First Fidelity Bank and challenged its lending practices. The lawsuit, which successfully argued the bank had violated the Community Reinvestment Act, resulted in a $50 million settlement.
Boom, they had the foundation for a new organization. In 1986, the Women’s Community Revitalization Project was born.
More than 30 years later, new construction is booming in Philly, but many complain it’s contributing to the still-extant dearth of permanent, inexpensive homes for longtime residents.
Leaders are desperately searching for solutions. Just last week, the City Finance Committee put forth a controversial bill that would attempt to ameliorate the problem by levying a 1 percent tax on all new construction, with funds going toward affordable housing in Philly. Mayor Kenney does not support the bill, however, and even if it did pass, its effects are uncertain.
Currently, WCRP offers 282 units in North Philadelphia, Kensington, Port Richmond and Fairhill — and is working on building 67 additional units in Germantown and Point Breeze.
“We don’t build and leave,” said Christi Clark, WCRP’s organizing director. “We’re a developer that sticks around and builds longterm relationships in neighborhoods.”
More than just women
Logistically, there are some rules that regulate WCRP apartments and help the project maintain its track record of success. Residents must:
- Make $40,000 or less per year.
- Have dependents under 18 years of age (children, grandchildren, etc.).
- Apply for the housing at WCRP’s office at Fourth and Diamond, with an application process that requires a home visit and interviews.
If you make it past that process, you’ll likely be accepted to live in a WCRP apartment. That’ll grant you some perks. Your rent is flexible based on your income — it usually won’t get higher than 30 percent of your total income.
To operate, WCRP draws funding from independent sources, as well as the city’s low income housing tax credits. At first, WCRP only accepted women tenants, but it has since expanded to allow men and families, too. (However, most residents are still women, and its board is still made up entirely of women.)
Since it started developing 30 years ago, WCRP has seen relative success in uplifting the lives of residents.
On average, tenants earn between $8,000 and $12,000 annually when they move in, per data from Clark. After four years, nearly 70 percent of residents have seen their income rise to $20,000 per year.
Clark attributes this to WCRP’s incorporation of various services. The project doesn’t only offer affordable housing, but also a supportive services team to help residents stay in their homes.
They’ll regularly host clothing drives and set up appointments with residents to create monthly budgets and resolve family issues. Staff also provide help with organizing, advocacy efforts and community engagement to help residents solve their own neighborhood problems.
A community land trust
This philosophy is most evident in WCRP’s community land trust, Clark said.
Established in 2006, it aims to prevent the displacement of its members who can’t afford rising property values. WCRP conducted interviews with 300 neighborhood residents and found they were concerned primarily with three issues:
- There are dramatic increases in housing prices
- New developments don’t address existing community needs
- Meanwhile, there are too many vacant lots and abandoned buildings
In response, WCRP launched its land trust, which brings residents together — some from the housing projects, some not — to develop independent plans to address these problems. Basically, WCRP acts as a partner and facilitator to help people address their own concerns.
“On a neighborhood level, it might be a planning process for a neighborhood, identifying neighborhood-specific concerns, working with neighbors to build power and identify solutions,” Clark said. “We look at what are solutions on a neighborhood level.”
‘You actually see results’
Tashia, a WCRP resident and a mother of five children, has lived in a property at Fourth and Master for 11 years. She was referred to WCRP after living in a homeless shelter.
And it works for her. Tashia said WCRP is the most secure form of housing she’s been able to access in her adult life. With its supportive services team, she feels comfortable saying she’ll be able to afford living there for many more years to come.
“If things happen, you can report it to the rental office and you actually see results,” she said.
Her apartment is nice, she said. Plus, she’s formed a bond with her neighbors — on nice days, she sets up a lawn chair in her driveway, watching her kids play and chatting up fellow WCRP residents on her block.
“There are a lot of longterm residents who have been through the ups and downs of the city and stuck it out in their neighborhoods,” Clark said. “We believe the people should be able to stay in the place they call home.”