‘Affordable housing for vets’ under scrutiny by Philly civic group [NEast Philly]

The site plan for affordable housing units at a former Northeast Philadelphia convent. Image/Columbus Property Management
The site plan for affordable housing units at a former Northeast Philadelphia convent. Image/Columbus Property Management

This is a story I wrote, collected sound and took photos for and published to NEast Philly, the hyperlocal news website I own/edit in Northeast Philadelphia.

The Holme Circle Civic Association is doing everything it can to prevent Columbus Property Management’s plans for affordable housing for veterans at the site of an old convent. Why? Because veterans aren’t a protected class of citizens, and the HCCA worries that if too few vets apply for residency, the units will be made available to the general “affordable housing” population, which neighbors fear will attract irresponsible tenants.

The full story is below and originally appeared on NEast Philly with audio commentary and an embedded list of documents related to the project.

The Holme Circle Civic Association stuck fliers in about 1,200 doors advertising Wednesday night’s meeting as part of a renewed effort to grow the membership.

It worked. The line to sign into the meeting was out the door as HCCA board members scurried to add more chairs to the St. Jerome School hall to accommodate the roughly 200 people who attended the meeting.

They were there to talk about The Stella, the affordable housing units planned for the old convent on the Nazareth Hospital property at 2723 Holme Ave. When the HCCA last met in November, Columbus Property Management shared plans to turn convent into 44 affordable housing units for veterans. CPM submitted its application to the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency prior to that meeting and subsequently revealed at there that because veterans are not a protected class of citizens under the law, CPM could only “target” vets for the units, but not guarantee all the units would go to former service members.

The tenant selection board described at that November meeting was supposed to be the compromise. CPM would fill the board with community members, including representatives from the offices of Pa. Rep. Ed Neilson and Pa. Sen. Mike Stack, to review applications to The Stella and screen tenants.

If there was any patience for CPM in November from the community, it had disappeared by Wednesday’s meeting. The HCCA, backed by four other civic associations and several local politicians, has since issued a formal request to the PHFA that the application for The Stella stipulate that units be given to seniors only, and that that be a 99-year binding agreement. Seniors are a protected class under state law, meaning applicants considered too young would not be allowed to live in the old convent.

According to Denise Mallon, Stack’s legislative aide, CPM Director of Business Development Mark Deitcher has since written to the PHFA requesting that plans to make 23 of The Stella’s 44 units available to veterans be changed so that all units are targeted at vets. That still would not make being a vet a requirement to live in The Stella.

But the HCCA has been informed it cannot request amendments to the application CPM has already submitted. The PHFA is expected to make a decision in mid-March, and while responses to the community’s concern indicate the agency will take the letters of opposition into consideration, the application will either be accepted or rejected as-is.

“We concluded that  100% veterans housing projects make sense on an operational and services basis,” an email Deitcher sent Jan. 7 to the PHFA reads. “Therefore, as we mentioned on the site visit, we have changed the targeting from 23 of the 44 units for veterans to all 44 of the units targeted to veterans and the preference would be spelled out in the Tenant Selection Plan.”

The response reads: “Thank you for providing the supporting documentation for now giving a preference to veterans for all 44 units. The pages have been inserted in the appropriate places in the Application.”

Deitcher confirmed to NEast Philly by phone Thursday that CPM is still intent on developing housing for vets, saying CPM feels its has a “moral obligation” to provide housing for service members.

“There is no funding source out there but tax credits,” he explained, and assistance from the state is mostly likely to be provided for veteran, not senior, housing. The alternative, he said, would be a vacant building on the Nazareth property.

No one from CPM attended Wednesday’s HCCA meeting and Elsie Stevens, the association’s new president, said the HCCA had not heard from the property managers since December. The group is also still waiting to hear from the Sisters of Nazareth, which is based in Illinois and currently owns the property. A new convent is being built elsewhere on the property. Nazareth Hospital, which shares the property with the convents but is unaffiliated, has not taken a position on the issue, saying it has contacted its owner, Mercy Health System, for guidance.

Per suggestions from meeting attendees, the HCCA board said it will now look assistance from other  parties that may have interest in the property, including Holy Family University, whose president, Sr. Francesca Onley, is part of the Sisters of Nazareth.

Should the PHFA approve The Stella application in March, Deitcher said work is expected to begin on the convent around September.

Regardless of whether the PHFA approves the application, Deitcher said he plans to meet with the HCCA again around March, but would “be happy to” talk with the members sooner if they’d prefer.

Deitcher said the offer still stands for Holme Circle residents to tour other CPM-managed properties in the city.

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Shannon Wink

Shannon Wink is a Philadelphian and experienced reporter, editor, community manager and content marketer.

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