Workforce Housing Rises At the Edge of Northern Liberties (6/6/2017)

Source: The Spirit of the Riverwards
Byline: Max Weinstein
Date: 6/6/2017

13 housing units in East Poplar, specially earmarked for people of moderate income, were unveiled in a May 24th dedication ceremony.

The homes are a result of the City Council’s Workforce Housing Initiative, a program which will see a total of 2,000 middle income units erected across Philadelphia.

“We look forward to a very aggressive push for Workforce areas,” said Council President Darrell Clarke, who spearheaded the initiative.

Clarke explained that the program came about because of an underrepresentation of middle income housing construction in Philadelphia relative to both affordable and high end housing. “People who work for the city of Philadelphia are more often than not over qualified for affordable housing. But most are not qualified from their income to spend $500,000,” he said.

The city does not subsidize Workforce housing, which would create more regulations that the developer must comply with, and is difficult to approve anyway, as the national government is only decreasing affordable housing assistance. Instead, Philadelphia contributes publicly owned parcels of land to the project.

In exchange, the private developers that the city works with must cap their prices at 120% of the median income of area residents.

The East Poplar development, which is located on the 900 block of Marshall Street, had a sales price of $229,000. This is despite abutting Northern Liberties, which is seeing burgeoning growth.

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“I am excited to be on the border of such a fun area in the city! I’m walking distance from some of the best restaurants and bars in Philly,” said Sara Reister, a soon to be resident of the block.

Reister, who is a Public Relations Account Manager, said that rental prices in her old neighborhoods of Fairmount and Graduate Hospital were ticking up relentlessly. “Renting for one in the city has become so expensive,” she said.

In addition to her more affordable unit, Reister will receive a ten-year tax abatement for being a participant in Workforce.

According to Council President Clarke, Marshall Street did not used to have so much opportunity and promise. In fact, its old life was as a fading commercial corridor. “Businesses became vacant, properties became vacant. Ever since, it was a block where there was not a lot of positive activity,” he said.

“Now we’re looking at a very significant contribution to the community,” he added.

Lawrence McKnight, a partner at BMK Properties, the company selected for the development, agreed, citing the large yards, energy efficient appliances and customizability of the 1,100 to 1,200 square foot homes.

McKnight said that his parents, a police officer and teacher, “would never have been able to afford new construction,” in such a nice block of the city, where he counts a whopping seven other multi-unit construction projects.

“This is kind of my homage to giving back in their honor,” he added.

About two years ago, McKnight and BMK responded to the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority’s request for proposal (RFP) to develop Marshall Street.

Greg Heller, Executive Director of the Authority, said that “the strength of their proposal, their bid price, and track record,” assured BMK the spot.

BMK committed to dispensing at least 20 percent of their contracts to minorities – their ultimate figure was closer to 30 percent – and, with private funding, “we were able to turn around these homes fast,” McKnight said.

Five of the units are settled already with residents to be, with the remaining eight to be settled imminently, McKnight said.

There is a “long list” of people who qualify, according to McKnight, and 10 to 15 percent of applicants were actually rejected because they didn’t meet the income thresholds.

Interested parties might be too late for the East Poplar development, but they shouldn’t be too upset. According to Council President Clarke, new units are already in the works in South Philadelphia, West Philadelphia, and Kensington.