Note: This post is quite long, but very important. The background required is significant, which is why this thing is gonna read like a novella. Sorry in advance.
The 1100 block of S. 20th St. runs between Washington Ave. and Federal St. and is totally atrocious right now. On this stretch, the gateway to Point Breeze Ave., 9 vacant lots are owned by the City of Philadelphia, 2 vacant lots are owned by a church, and 2 vacant lots are owned by private developers. Another half dozen buildings on this stretch are in shell condition, or just a step above. On the northwest corner of 20th and Federal Sts., a local developer owns a multi-unit building that will soon have a coffee shop on the first floor.
The same developer is doing everything he can to purchase three vacant lots from the City of Philadelphia across the street from the future coffee shop. These parcels, along with two adjoining lots, have been vacant for decades. The three lots 1145, 1147, and 1151 S. 20th St. are located between Annin and Federal Sts. in the Point Breeze neighborhood. He has been trying to purchase them for six years, winding his way through the bureaucratic mess that comes with trying to undertake this task, and waiting out other parties who had expressed interest in the preceding decades.
A few months ago, he was finally at the top of the list and believed that he was on his way to acquiring the lots and breaking ground. Days before he was scheduled to go before the Vacant Property Review Committee, the required step before the city will sell any property, he received a disturbing call from Council President Verna’s office, informing him that he could not go before the VPRC without a letter of support from the community. This was disturbing to him because he wouldn’t have gotten on the VPRC agenda in the first place without help from Verna’s office, and it seemed that the Council President had suddenly changed her mind at the last moment and decided to involve the community.
According to their website, South Philadelphia H.O.M.E.S. Inc. is “a community service rehabilitation organization, a community development organization and neighborhood action council.” Somehow, it also fills the role of a civic organization in Point Breeze, hearing zoning matters for the community and receiving absolute clout in Anna Verna’s office. Also per their website, SPH is “a non-profit organization dedicated to the creation of quality affordable housing and improving the quality of life for residents” in Point Breeze. As we reported last month, SPHINC is currently partnering with Community Ventures Inc. to develop 11 units of affordable housing at a cost of $3.8M.
So we’re clear: the organization that is supposed to represent the community on the matter of whether this private developer can purchase these lots from the city is a potential competitor for the same lots for their own projects. Seems like a conflict of interest, no?
The developer initially reached out to SPHINC on May 10th and despite several emails and numerous messages left, received no response until June 9. At that time, he was informed that he would be on the group’s agenda for June 27th. You may remember a post from a few weeks ago, detailing John Longacre’s presentation at the same meeting, which was immediately followed by him being assaulted. The developer, who presented before Longacre, was only verbally assaulted and then stonewalled.
On the site, the developer proposed four duplexes to be offered as market-rate rentals. The goal of the meeting was informational with regard to the planned buildings- the developer was there solely to receive support or opposition from the community for the acquisition of the land from the City.
The reaction that he got from a couple of individuals at this meeting was, to put it gently, hostile.
Tiffany Green of Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze was a sharp critic of his proposal, insisting that the community was only interested in affordable housing in Point Breeze. Comments like “Why don’t you go to a neighborhood where they’re interested in market rate housing? Why are you coming to Point Breeze where you know everyone can’t participate in that housing?” and “We all know who you are, we’re not fooled by that. Let’s be real here. We know exactly who you are, and want to know why you’re focusing on Point Breeze” or “According to the census, the median income is 26K, and that doesn’t allow people in this community to get a mortgage because they only give you three times your salary, therefore you are not building for the area.”
SPHINC’s Executive Director Claudia Sherrod was more to the point. She said, “I personally with the organization and the people in this community, we want to put affordable houses there. That’s what we want there. And that’s why we cannot support you.” When a person in the audience said that Ms. Sherrod can’t speak for the community, she responded, “I can speak for the community. Don’t you ever tell me what I can speak for and what I can’t speak for… I will bring the people here to back me up.”
Notably, Ms. Sherrod also stated “If everything goes well, we’ll be building on that strip as well.”
The developer explained that because of the City’s likely asking price for the land, neither he nor any other developer could offer affordable housing on those lots. When the developer stated that affordable housing units being built in Point Breeze each cost $384K in tax payer dollars for properties being sold for $160K, Ms. Green retorted, “What’s wrong with that? You’ve got your ten year tax abatement.”
After debate and discussion and after Ms. Sherrod left the room, the moderator of the meeting asked for a show of hands of people who live within three blocks of the lots, and was satisfied that the community was appropriately represented, and announced that a vote would be held. Ms. Green’s reaction was “There should be no vote. If that’s the case, we will hold our own meeting. A lot of the residents who lived here for many years are not here. I declare this vote void. We’ll have our own separate vote with our own people.” The sense in the room was that the community would support the developer’s acquisition of the lots.
After perhaps a third of the people in the room had voted, Ms. Sherrod returned and announced that there would be no vote, and said “The first issue was just for hearing, it was not for zoning. The reason is because I did not agree to that. We only agreed to let him be heard. If you need a vote, come back next month and I’ll make sure the community know about it. We’ll go into a bigger place if we have to. This was a presentation to stimulate the interest or non-interest in this project. If you really want to vote, come back next month, just make sure that’s what you want. We will make sure the community is abreast.”
The developer’s response was, shall we say, undiplomatic. “I’ve been on this calendar for 45 days, why would you not inform whatever constituencies or residents that you thought should be here and let them know that they should come today? Because it’s my sincere belief that you don’t like the complexion of this room to take a vote right now.”
Ms. Sherrod called the police, who escorted the developer out of the room, chatted with him for a few minutes, and then allowed him to return to the room where Mr. Longacre was presenting, fuming that the vote that was required of him by Council President Verna’s office would be delayed by a month.
Fast forward to July 13th. The developer received a letter from SPHINC stating there will be no hearing and no vote on this issue, and that SPHINC won’t “entertain hearings for the purpose of acquisitions for land” in the future.
Are things starting to stink around here or what?
To summarize, a developer hoped to purchase long-vacant land from the cash-poor City of Philadelphia for a fair market price and turn these four large lots into viable housing units. At the last minute, the district councilperson insisted that the developer go before the community, whose primary mouthpiece back to the government, SPHINC, is a body without published bylaws that also happens to be a developer of “affordable housing.” While the community was voting, the Executive Director, who stated twice at the meeting that she is interested in these lots, stopped the vote with a promise that a vote would take place the following month. A couple of weeks before the promised vote, SPHINC sent a letter to the developer claiming that they never vote on this sort of thing.
The implication here is that Ms. Sherrod personally doesn’t support the developer, doesn’t care whether the majority of the community agrees or disagrees with her, and might just think that by stonewalling the developer, she might eventually come by these lots for her own development efforts. But Ms. Sherrod does not always do what she says and say what she does. How else would you explain the listing of this vacant parcel in Point Breeze, ready to be developed for a buyer at market rate? And guess who owns it???
Full disclosure, the developer referenced in this post is a principal of OCF Realty, the parent company of Nakedphilly.com