Philadelphia Housing Authority CEO Kelvin Jeremiah has a bold vision for the future of the Sharswood neighborhood. He hopes it isn't clouded by a Donald Trump administration.
As is the rest of the country, Jeremiah is waiting to see to how Donald Trump leads—and specifically, what kind of budget he will have for the city's public housing initiatives.
“We do not yet know President-elect Trump's agenda for housing,” he said Tuesday. “I’m looking forward to see what budget he sets for the Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD]. Who he selects as secretary will tell me a lot about that agenda.”
Jeremiah joked, “Maybe I'll join the Trump administration and help them out with that.”
On Wednesday, the PHA is holding the grand opening at 24th and Oxford streets of phase one of Jeremiah’s ambitious Blumberg-Sharswood Neighborhood Transformation Plan—57 new low-rise public housing rental units.
Replacing the units from a high-rise, old-school housing project nearby, the slate-and-brick designed exteriors of the new units are already a bright spot in a neighborhood full of deteriorating and abandoned properties.
“The change is downright incredible in my view,” Jeremiah said of the new townhomes, duplexes and triplexes. “The Blumberg high-rise that existed there represented on so many different levels a failure of public policy. … I wanted to build homes that any family of any income level would be proud to live in, and those are the homes we built.”
Jeremiah referred to the entire neighborhood plan, which calls for 1,000 new units total, plus the relocation of PHA’s corporate offices to Ridge Avenue to participate in the regeneration of an economic corridor in the struggling neighborhood, as representing his “life’s work.”
“I fully intend to deliver on it,” he said.
But the PHA, a roughly $371 million-a-year agency, gets 93 percent of its funding from Washington.
Trump promised a hiring freeze on federal agencies in his “contract with the American voter” to start slashing budgets. And public housing is a popular target for fiscal conservatives who say billions spent on public housing fail to lift people out of poverty.
To some extent, Jeremiah, a registered Republican, agrees.
“Ronald Reagan said there was a war on poverty, and it looks like poverty won,” he said. “After we spent $20 trillion, we're still losing that war.”
As Jeremiah sees it, many PHA tenants are struggling with obstacles in multiple areas of life. Tenants face chronic unemployment as high as 65 percent, school attendance by youngsters is low, and educational opportunities are slim.
According to Jeremiah, an adult working a full-time minimum wage job in Philly would earn roughly $16,000 a year, but an out-of-work adult in the city can pull in twice that, about $29,000, in various social welfare support programs. That "de-incentivizes" individuals from seeking employment, he said.
“Work does not pay in the U.S. anymore,” he said. “You have to think critically about the minimum wage. What is the wage where they can support themselves and their families?”
Regardless of those factors, to achieve any kind of success, people always need housing first, he said.
“You cannot be transient and have any kind of stability,” he said. “Ultimately, for me, Kelvin Jeremiah, housing is about human decency.”
But will Jeremiah be able to pursue that objective under HUD led by a Trump appointee?
“I’m looking forward to seeing what his housing agenda is. I am cautiously optimistic,” he said of Trump. “I'm hoping that it will be representative of a kind of a leadership that uplifts the people I serve.”