SEPTEMBER 9, 2015
Last week, on a sweltering Friday evening in Port Richmond, the congregation of Firm Hope Baptist Church, the Women’s Community Revitalization Project (WCRP) and three elected officials processed in song from Firm Hope on Auburn and Tulip streets to an adjacent football field-sized lot. There, they cut the ribbon on a new affordable housing project called Grace Townhouses, which will bring 36 homes to the neighborhood.
During the ceremony, Nathaniel Brooks, a member of the church, held a poster-sized 1988 newspaper clip that featured activist Dorothy Johnson and Marie Patterson standing in the future home of the Grace Townhouses. In 1988, Johnson and Patterson successfully organized to get an abandoned rug factory that used to occupy the lot torn down. The factory was known for debilitating drug and crime activity. This burden on the neighborhood continued after the demolition and the lot left behind became a dumping ground.
Richard Harris, Firm Hope’s pastor, conveyed his optimism to the crowd about the homes.
“We deserve this,” he said. “Grace means a gift and that is what these homes will be.”
After five years of diligent planning, successful zoning and funding hearings and securing a community lands trust, 36 additional homes will fall into the fold of WCRP’s existing 250 units by fall of 2016.
“The top of the scale is $40,000 for a family of four but the bottom of the scale is that people have some income. That income can be public benefits like SSI, it can be a minimum wage job,” Nora Lichtash, Executive Director of WCRP, said. “People are not turned away because of their income.”
The two to four bedroom houses will be rent-to-purchase properties between $450-$650 per month. The houses will include amenities like central air and washer/dryer units. Credit and criminal checks are required and the exclusions are few: the tenant must be clean for at least a year, not be harmful to themselves or others or have serious past rent delinquencies.
“I think we really get to know our applicants. We select the applicants who need it the most and are really be able to use it, ” Lichtash, who has many tenants of her own through WCRP, said.
State Representative Mike O’Brien and City Councilmen Mark Squilla were in attendance at the ribbon cutting and subsequent rally in the lot next to Firm Hope. Both appeared to relish in the community’s hope and promised a certain level of follow through, which is vital for a catalytic project like this.
“As the progress goes on we ask them for updates, we will then give that to our office and disseminate it through the [Registered Community Organization] and the neighbors. At the end of the day we will have a full house of people, new residents living at the Grace Townhouses,” Squilla said.
Squilla also has his eyes on the playground across the street from the Grace Townhouses plot and the future of rebuilding the neighborhood, saying that “If we need to do some more subsidies or infrastructure help to entice private development, we will do that.”
It is fitting that an organization focused on women and displacement would take on a project like this. Port Richmond has the city’s third largest poverty rate at almost 50 percent, according to Shared Prosperity Philadelphia in 2013. Additionally, 28 out of every 100 Philadelphians live below the poverty line and 11 of those are children.
“I think when you serve women you serve everyone,” Lichtash said. “It’s often a woman’s responsibility to take care of us as children and then we take care of our kids. We want it to be open to anyone but we really understand the nature of being poor which often overlaps with being women and women of color and women with kids.”
Lichtash continued, “The buildings are a drop in the bucket compared to the need. We need to build our voices, our power to speak out, power to fight for things we know as women, especially those of us who need affordable housing.”