Subsidized housing sold off in gentrifying Spruce Hill
A subsidized apartment building is changing hands, raising new concerns about affordable housing in West Philly.
Tenants of a subsidized West Philly building are all bracing to leave the street that they have called home, on Osage Avenue near 46th Street, just a few blocks from bustling Baltimore Avenue and Clark Park in the Spruce Hill neighborhood.
Some have lived in this property, The Arvilla, a 16-unit building at 4537 Osage Avenue, for decades, others just for a few years. Some are fine with leaving by the deadline of Jan. 31, but others are not.
"We wanted to live there because it was a nice neighborhood and our neighbors were nice," said former Arvilla tenant Wanda Levan, 48. "But when they wanted to sell it, they just up and threw us out."
Levan herself left the building voluntarily a few months ago after three years there, but she said the situation wasn't voluntary for her former neighbors. "That was devastating to hear that. You've been here all your life, and pay your rent on time, and its affordable housing, and up! You gotta go. And not only you gotta go, but you lived under the conditions they have."
Some of the issues mentioned by tenants who organized together to oppose the sale included issues with lack of heating, bug infestations and unfixed leaks as among those tenants had to deal with.
But these conditions are also a big part of why Mission First Housing Group, a nonprofit dedicated to affordable housing, says it has no choice but to sell the Arvilla. "The costs to modernize and preserve affordable housing in this building are higher than Mission First can cover with its limited resources and current outside funding," Mission First says in a statement on their website explaining the sale. They say proceeds from the Arvilla sale will go toward developing more affordable housing units elsewhere in the city.
But nonetheless, as news of the sale and tenant relocation from this diverse but rapidly gentrifying section of West Philadelphia spread, neighbors began organizing on behalf of the tenants.
"The more we talked about the situation, the more angry I got about how the residents were being treated," said Mary McGettigan, a neighbor who helped organize the Protect Arvilla Residents group (which posted their own point-by-point rebuttal of Mission First's explanation of the sale online). "Some of them were given as few as six weeks to move out. That's the type of treatment you expect from a slumlord, and not from a nonprofit that says it's supposed to be taking care of these people."
Mark Deitcher, senior VP of Business Strategy at Mission First, said the organization "made some mistakes in communication." But they later extended the timeframe for residents to move, provided relocation assistance and moving costs, and helped all tenants find new home, while repair was not financially possible, Deitcher said.
Deitcher said Mission First sought funding to repair the Arvilla through a development plan that included 24 new affordable housing units at 46th and Spruce. But after that project was sunk by a neighbor's threats of legal action, they lost all the funding and were not able to fund necessary repairs to the Arvilla, he said.
But that explanation still doesn't justify the sale, some say.
"I think it is appalling," said Dennis Culhane, a UPenn professor of social policy and practice. "It is contrary, totally contrary, to the founding mission of that organization and the reason that those properties were purchased in the first place."
Culhane pointed out that 1260 Housing Corporation, the real estate development arm of the Philadelphia Mental Health Care Corporation, paid for the Arvilla in the early '90s as subsidized housing for people with mental health issues using state funding issued in relation to the deinstitutionalization of Byberry Mental Hospital in Northeast Philadelphia.
"They intentionally sited those buildings so that they would offer maximum community integration and that means socio-economic integration," Culhane said. "It's fine if they want to go out and add to the supply and purchase new units, but they should not be removing affordable units. ... I think it's an abrogation of their mission and their responsibility and the public purpose for which they were founded. They aren't 'mission first.'"
But Deitcher defended the organization's choice as ultimately contributing to Philly's affordable housing stock.
"I understand the concerns of the community, I understand why they don't want to lose this particular building as affordable housing," he said. "But we are also looking at this in the context of an incredible affordable housing need in the city of Philadelphia, and we are growing to meet that need. In this case, we may agree to disagree, but we think the best decision to support the mission of affordable housing in the city of Philadelphia is to sell this building and do other work that we're doing to preserve and build anew."
All told, Mission First controls 1,850 affordable housing units in Philadelphia, 1,050 of which are for tenants with mental illnesses who receive subsidized housing through the city's Department of Behavioral Health. Those include 60 units at the Mid-city YWCA in Rittenhouse Square, and 16 at Freedom Village in Francisville.
"I'm sure they're doing a lot of good things for a lot of of people, but some things seem to be falling through the cracks, in terms of their operational model, and this building is one of them," said Jean-Jacques Tiziou, a neighbor who participated in community organizing efforts at the Arvilla. "The Arvilla should never have been left in such disrepair and so neglected."
A copy of an original letter to an Arvilla tenant notifying them of the planned sale. The deadline to move was later extended to Jan. 30. (Courtesy of ArvillaOrganizing.org)
Tenants leaving Arvilla had mixed feelings about the move. Some said they were okay with being relocated and appreciate the help Mission First is providing in finding new homes.
"The place over there is beautiful, it's been painted, has brand new furniture, everything is real nice," said Jerry Weldon, 55, a former Arvilla resident who grew up on the block. "We were supposed to move out Nov. 30, but everything worked out at the end, especially when everyone got involved. At first they was just saying get out, but then they found us a place, they helped out, and movers are coming here to help us. I'm happy to move. It's time for a change, 2019."
But others, less satisfied with their new quarters, said they felt jarred by the sudden news of the relocation.
"I wasn't happy with what happened. ... From what I hear from other tenants, they were unhappy too," said Jay Tembo, 39. "I think it's unfair for the residents who've always lived at Arvilla, especially for a longer period of time. Because the time which they gave them to leave was very short."
Of the new apartment he is being relocated to, Tembo added, "It's not terribly bad, but its a smaller space than what I had at Arvilla."
Neighbors and activists organizing with Protect Arvilla Residents had previously visited City Hall to speak to elected officials about trying to stop the sale somehow, but at this point, with everyone in agreement to move out, the fight is essentially a moot point, officials said.
"All those people who were involved on both sides of the issue did everything they could, and this is where we are. The people agreed to move in to the various locations," said City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who met with the Arvilla residents. "The neighbors and Mission First have come to an agreement and it's just time to move on. We've been fighting this thing for months, so we tried."