The New Kensington Community Development Corporation has finished leasing its affordable housing units at the Orinoka Civic House, ending a months-long tenant search that was hindered by both financial restrictions and neighborhood instability.
NKCDC, the $17 million Orinoka project’s developer, received more than 600 residential applications back in March. Nonetheless, it took the nonprofit until the end of October — on the final day before a funding deadline — to fill the last of the rehabbed textile mill’s 51 apartments.
In a city starved for affordable housing, what was the holdup?
Part of the problem was the affordability of so-called affordable housing in Philadelphia and other major metro areas.
Orinoka is subsidized by $1 million in tax credits from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency. Under housing subsidy guidelines, NKCDC had to price the building’s one- and two-bedroom rentals based on Area Median Income, or AMI. But defining “affordable” by this metric, which lumps Philadelphia together with its wealthier suburbs, has long frustrated housing advocates. In Philadelphia, a family of four earning roughly $41,000 annually, or 50 percent of AMI, is more well-off than the average family seeking affordable housing.
As a result, Orinoka’s six units at 20 percent AMI were leased in a heartbeat – and some 400 people remain on a waiting list for the next one to open up. But the bulk of units at Orinoka were reserved for those making 50 and 60 percent of AMI, at between $600 to $800 in monthly rent per unit, and these units took until the eleventh hour to fill.
According to Barb Varela, NKCDC’s director of real estate and finance, interested tenants often didn’t have the proof of income needed to be eligible. Others were turned away for making too much money – even if was just a few dollars outside of the income restrictions.
“We had people who made $15 over the allowed income,” Varela says. “It’s that stringent.”
But affordability wasn’t the only factor that created the boondoggle.
NKCDC’s search for tenants coincided with a glaring transition for the neighborhood. Over the summer, city officials closed a long-standing encampment along the Conrail train tracks that run through the neighborhood along Gurney Street. “El Campamento,” as it was known, offered an out-of-sight refuge for many of the neighborhood’s numerous homeless drug users.
Almost overnight, the extent of Kensington’s already visible homeless population was forced out of the shadows. El Campamento’s closure has been attributed with displacing legions of addicted persons onto busy sidewalks beneath several overpasses, as well as into other vacant properties nearby.
“When Gurney Street closed, that population that used to be there spread throughout Kensington, and people were apprehensive about that,” Felix Torres-Colon, the NKCDC’s new executive director, told Philly Weekly.
Orinoka has long been seen as a bellwether for development that will attract attention from rapidly gentrifying adjacent neighborhoods. But the first wave of new residents, Torres-Colon says, must be prepared to deal with the hard realities of the neighborhood.
Orinoka’s new tenants come mostly from Philadelphia, and include a number of veterans, organizers said. Despite concerns, some renters have now joined Somerset Neighbors for Better Living, a local neighborhood watch group, according to NKCDC organizers. Torres-Colon hopes that increased civic engagement will bring more action from the city.
“I think what’ll happen is Homeless Services will get a call every day, multiple times a day, the Council people will get complaints,” he says. “Sometimes the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
Not all the neighbors are in sync with NKCDC’s vision of community engagement, however.
Over the summer, Last Stop, a no-frills recovery house for heroin addicts, moved from its longtime location on Kensington Avenue into a rundown building adjacent to Orinoka. Somerset Neighbors for Better Living received complaints about outdoor activity around the recovery house, according to Torres-Colon. (The group did not return calls for comment.)
NKCDC has also delayed plans to move its headquarters into the Orinoka building until next spring. In the meantime, it still needs to find a small business to occupy the building’s other commercial space for about $750 a month. That search, too, has been hindered by the shifting realities of the neighborhood since this summer. Officials are still hoping to secure a coffee shop or similar “community asset” that could be utilized by the building’s residents as well as the surrounding neighborhood.
Beyond Orinoka, NKCDC is continuing outreach in its newer service area that stretches from Aramingo to Kensington Avenue, between Lehigh and Clearfield. Torres-Colon says his team has been looking to implement a “Trauma Informed Care model” to increase its access to harder-to-reach pockets of the community.
They’re still fleshing out the details of how this approach will work on the ground.
“It’s a neighborhood where people see terrible things,” Colon said. “It’s not because the neighborhood is damaged or the people are damaged, it’s just about how best to approach people on the ground.”