After taking an undercover stroll through the city's most notoriously dangerous housing project last year, the man heading up the Philadelphia Housing Authority decided he had to act.
PHA Executive Director Kelvin Jeremiah opted for jeans and a baseball cap that night. Jeremiah wanted to see the real Sharswood/Blumberg housing facility, sans sugar coating, and to do that, he had to leave his signature suit and tie at home.
“I immediately encountered someone who – ostensibly – I call them the underground entrepreneurs,” Jeremiah said.
“He approached me thinking that I was looking to buy something. I didn’t quite understand the street slang that was being used. I saw clearly that he had a gun, and basically said to me, I needed to get the F out of there. Otherwise, you’re dead.”
That was at this moment that Jeremiah realized the housing project his organization oversaw was in dire need of a major overhaul. His plan willl, hopefully, soon become a reality. Early this Saturday, PHA takes a major step towards that transformation by imploding the Norman Blumberg Apartments – the two giant high rises that Jeremiah says have served as the cesspools of crime, blight, abandoned property, vacant parcels and targets of dumping for decades.
“Blumberg is one of the most distressed neighborhoods in the city – without a doubt – and by far the most distressed development that PHA owns,” said Jeremiah.
“I left that night like a bat out of hell, angry, but more than that, determined to do something different.”
Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded a $500,000 Choice Neighborhood Initiative (CNI) Planning grant to PHA, enabling them to move forward on a two-year planning effort that’s now yielded a transformation plan that was just this week accepted by HUD.
The Sharswood/Blumberg Transformation Plan consists of 10 phases and will yield more than 1,200 total housing units with a mix of affordable and market-rate, rental and homeownership units. Those who were forced out by eminent domain – 96 families total – will have first dibs at coming back.
Rupert Alston is one such man. He had lived in the Sharswood/Blumberg neighborhood for more than 30 years and in the senior housing complex the last five. He said he’d seen everything from drug deals to shootings in that neighborhood, but still calls it “home.”
In October, PHA relocated him to Wilson Park senior housing in South Philly when the transformation really started to pick up speed. He said he looks forward to going back.
“I was up in that area for so long that it's home. I had no problems up there. I just learned to look the other way. You just got to mind your business,” he said.
“I’m looking forward to seeing those buildings come down. It cuts down on a lot of riff raff by getting rid of the two high rises, and I can’t wait until it gets finished so I can move back.”
Jeremiah said that studies he’s solicited show that the unemployment rate at Sharswood/Blumberg is at 80 percent, with a literacy rate among adults at 3rd and 4th-grade levels. It falls within the 22nd police district, where rapes and murders are reported two or three times higher than the city average. A drive through streets in the neighborhood often reveal boarded up windows and doors or those with homes with no lights on at all.
Altogether, roughly $525 million will be spent on the housing – money coming from PHA’s reserves, from capital funds, grants, from low-income housing tax credits and from public-private nonprofit partnerships.
The restoration of the Ridge Avenue commercial corridor is also a major goal of the plan, and Jeremiah said he was so personally affected by his summertime experience at Blumberg that he’s decided to consolidate and relocate PHA’s main headquarters right on Ridge Avenue so he can have better oversight of the neighborhood in the future.