The impending sale of an 80-year-old West Philadelphia apartment building has united the fight against losing affordable housing in the city. As the deadline approaches for all 19 residents to vacate the building, the city government and community members are working together — believing that Penn can help in the future with promoting affordable housing.
The Arvilla, located at 45th and Osage streets, is a 16-unit apartment building that housed primarily low-income residents. On Oct. 18, some Arvilla residents were notified that the building would soon be sold to for-profit developers, terminating their leases.
At a City Hall meeting on Jan. 16, councilwomen Jannie Blackwell and Helen Gym hosted a joint meeting with the affordable housing nonprofit Mission First Housing Group — which owns the Arvilla and terminated the residents' leases — and the community group Protect Arvilla Residents, also known as PAR. The decision to sell the apartment has sparked intense backlash, prompting PAR to campaign to create more low-income housing in the city.
“I think [the meeting] went well,” Blackwell said. “Most people had the same mission [with the Arvilla] but it didn’t really work out that way, so going forward we’re going to work together a little more closely.”
The decision to sell the apartment was made because Mission First lacked funding to renovate the Arvilla, Mission First Director of Business Development Mark Deitcher said. The building, he notes, was in desperate need of renovation. He stated that rising incomes in Spruce Hill disqualified the building from receiving certain, important tax credits
Mission First Senior Project Manager Kevin Smith added that the group has worked with residents throughout the relocation process, covering moving costs and working to get the residents preferred housing.
Still, the decision to sell the apartment has come under fire. Over the past three months, PAR has organized a prolific campaign to help Arvilla residents, garnering support and attention from the press, including through community zoning meetings and social media.
Although many Arvilla residents have already vacated the building, PAR organizer and 2002 College graduate JJ Tiziou said the group remains committed to their goals.
“It seems like it’s maybe now too late for [the Arvilla]," Tiziou said. "But it seems that the tune has changed and there are conversations to be had in the future.”
Both members of PAR and Mission First said that they were open towards the idea of working together to help provide affordable housing — including involving Penn.
“At the end, one of the members of PAR said ‘hey, let’s work together moving forward,'" Deitcher said, "and we said ‘great, let’s bring the University of Pennsylvania to the table and let's try to build some affordable housing."
PAR member and 1971 College graduate Mary McGettigan said that considering Penn's tremendous impact on real estate values in the city, she thought it was appropriate the University helps try to make Philadelphia more affordable.
Penn’s investments in West Philadelphia, such as the Penn Alexander School and Penn Home Ownership Services for its staff and faculty, have driven up real estate values in some neighborhoods near campus. These recent investments are correlated with the loss of low-income housing units in West Philadelphia.
Tiziou said that by addressing this role, Penn would satisfy the core values it lists on its website.
“President Gutmann stated intentions around 'inclusion and innovation and impact,' that’s what this is about,” Tiziou said. “There’s an opportunity here to have a significant impact on the trajectory of the neighborhood and to find innovative ways to make it more inclusive.”
Tiziou said on Jan. 3 that PAR met with Penn’s Vice President for Government and Community Affairs Jeffrey Cooper to discuss expanding its role in the advancement of affordable housing.
Penn's Office of Government and Community Affairs did not respond to request for comment.
Along with the desire for Penn to contribute, there may also be the need for greater community involvement as a whole. Councilwoman Gym, who is a 1993 College graduate, said that change rests on broader, city-wide involvement.
“Where the conversation goes now actually goes back to the community,” Gym said. “If we’re going to be able to do more, we’re going to need to get communities to organize for the values they believe in.”
Longtime West Philadelphian Mary Battle Cook was a resident of the Arvilla since the first notice of sale was issued. She said that she is looking towards the activism of groups like PAR to help improve the situations that low-income Philadelphians continuously face.
"I'm hoping it helps change things," Cook said. "[So] when we do get placed somewhere else, that it'll be somewhere that we'll want to be."