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A large, new development in West Philly’s Belmont neighborhood would have more than 300 affordable units

Developer Haverford Square presented the ambitious project to a packed neighborhood meeting, noting that they were building houses specifically for those who would be displaced by the proposal.

Aerial rendering of all the proposed apartment buildings from Haverford Square Properties LLC, which would replace some expiring-subsidy affordable houses in West Philadelphia's Belmont neighborhood.
Aerial rendering of all the proposed apartment buildings from Haverford Square Properties LLC, which would replace some expiring-subsidy affordable houses in West Philadelphia's Belmont neighborhood.Read moreHaverford Square LLC

Haverford Square Properties LLC plans to build 1,050 units of multifamily housing across eight apartment buildings in West Philadelphia’s Belmont neighborhood with 30% of the units designated to rent for below market rate.

The proposal would replace 103 units of affordable housing that were owned by the Friends Rehabilitation Program, known as the Sarah Allen Community Homes. Haverford Square acquired the buildings as the nonprofit’s deed restrictions that allows tenants to pay cheaper rent are set to expire, and plans to do one-for-one replacement of the units on nearby city-owned land.

On Tuesday evening, Haverford Square president German Yakubov presented his plans to a packed community meeting at Calvary St. Augustine Episcopal Church in Belmont.

Yakubov said that his company’s proposal would triple the amount of subsidized housing that is being lost by demolishing the existing buildings, and that homes would be earmarked for those living in the existing units. He also promised to fund parking permits, tree plantings, street cleaning, and pocket parks, and noted that Haverford Square has been developing in the area for 17 years.

“In theory, we don’t have to do anything, we just let [the affordability] expire, charge market rate, rent, and live our merry lives,” said Yakubov in an interview after the meeting. “But what we’re trying to do here is help revitalize the community and give back benefits outside of just housing.”

Neighbors react

Much of the land slated for these eight apartment buildings was recently zoned for single family housing, at the urging of neighborhood groups. If the company tries to get approval from the zoning board for other types of buildings, meetings will be required with those same community organizations.

But Yakubov emphasized that Tuesday evening’s presentation was a voluntary gesture of goodwill on his part and that permits have not yet been filed, so this couldn’t count as the legally required neighborhood meeting.

“We wanted to start the process early and see what we could do to come up with a plan that is going to redevelop these sites in an intentional, responsible way that keeps the community in mind,” Yakubov told residents.

Residents had mixed reactions to Yakubov’s presentation, with some intrigued by potential retail or jobs, and others concerned that such a large project would raise their property taxes, make parking more difficult, and potentially displace longtime renters.

“If this is one extra unit of affordable housing, it’s a positive,” said Ted Smith, a neighborhood advocate. “Some of the cons are building that many units in such a short amount of time … and how it would effect the taxes for homeowners and our seniors.”

Neighborhood groups Belmont Alliance Civic Association CDC and West Belmont Civic Association hope to begin crafting a community benefits agreement in future gatherings that would lay out in writing what Yakubov would deliver to the neighborhood in exchange for their support.

Council support uncertain

Councilmember Jamie Gauthier represents the area and says she will be closely watching Haverford Square’s negotiations with the community.

She hasn’t yet decided whether to support the project.

Gauthier could support it before the zoning board or use legislation to change the zoning in a way that allows the project to proceed. But she said any positive action from her would depend on the developer treating existing affordable housing residents “with compassion” and taking the community feedback seriously.

“I was definitely surprised when I saw the proposal’s scale. This would be the densest development in Belmont, by far,” said Gauthier in a statement. “I am pleased the developer is opening with a concept to build more affordable housing on the site than currently exists.”

A ‘huge’ ask for residents

Yakubov emphasized that as the deed restrictions on the current units expire, his company plans to build single family homes — in addition to his proposed apartment buildings — specifically for the people who would be displaced from their existing homes if the buildings previously owned by Friends Rehabilitation Program are demolished. They will be completed before demolition starts, so residents can move directly into the replacement houses.

Most current tenants of the Friends Rehabilitation Program housing have housing vouchers from the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which Yakubov said Haverford Square is working with to convert the rent subsidies to the agency’s homeownership program for those interested. All of the replacement townhouses would be in the neighborhood, within two to four blocks of their current houses, he said.

The rest of the newly built affordable housing would be backed by federal affordable housing tax credit, and would be either adjacent to the new apartment buildings or in them.

Some attendees were skeptical of Yakubov’s proposal, raising concerns that this volume of new construction would drive up prices both for renters and homeowners, through increased property tax assessments.

“We will be paying hundreds of dollars more in property taxes because of this development,” said Park Frost, a nearby resident. “We had the neighborhood rezoned to single family, so he can’t build any of this without us. So for me, there has to be a lot more affordable housing. This is a huge thing you’re asking.”

Yakubov said that the market-rate units will be going for prices like $1,300 for a one-bedroom unit or $1,600 for a two-bedroom, but that they would be much cheaper than the rents in Center City or higher-income areas like Northern Liberties. He said he didn’t believe that new apartment buildings would boost property taxes for single family homes but noted that the city has myriad programs to shield lower-income owners from hikes.

As the meeting wrapped up, Bettye Ferguson of the Belmont Alliance CDC told attendees that it was important they continue coming to meetings, including a sequel without Yakubov in April where the groups would plan their community benefits agreement proposal.

“We need to plan the menu, so we aren’t on the menu,” Ferguson told the crowd.