RAD in Philadelphia, PA Accessible Affordable Housing for our Nation’s Veterans

The Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) is a project of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Multifamily Housing Programs. In 2014, the Philadelphia Public Housing Agency (PHA) began the process of converting approximately 2,000 housing units to Project-Based Vouchers (PBVs). The PHA decided to proceed with RAD for this portion of its inventory to leverage funds that are not available in the traditional public housing program, while ensuring the protection of tenants' rights and preserving long-term affordability.

RAD also allowed the Philadelphia Housing Authority to relocate assistance through a "transfer of assistance" from several existing projects to new, better located affordable housing sites. The public housing assistance associated with this transaction is attached to sites that are unable to be rented out due to their physically obsolete condition. Through the RAD conversion, the PHA has been able to transfer assistance across 14 different transactions to new affordable housing units developed by the PHA and its’ development partners.

One of the sites to which it was able to transfer assistance was an abandoned, historic elementary school called Spring Garden. This project displayed the PHA’s commitment to assisting our nation’s at-risk veterans with their housing needs. Working with the national non-profit HELP USA, the PHA was able to include twelve units that are set aside for homeless and/or veterans with special needs. Additionally, the project has supportive services for the residents, including a neighborhood health center, access to Veteran’s Affairs services, and other senior-related assistance.

This photo essay is about the Lural Lee Blevins Veterans Center—converted from the Spring Garden Elementary building—and its residents.

West Poplar and Center City, Philadelphia

In the 11th Street corridor, the Lural Lee Blevins Veterans Center is located about one mile north of Center City in the West Poplar neighborhood. It is becoming prime real estate, sitting within walking distance of grocery stores, shops, and restaurants, as well as being convenient to the SEPTA subway, trolleys, and bus stops. Also, nearby are key community assets, such as a full-service health center and the PHA's John F. Street Community Center. This has made it a targeted area for providing affordable homes for seniors and veterans. The Housing Authority thought the best use of this historic building was an adaptive reuse to turn it into affordable housing in this desirable neighborhood.

The Poplar neighborhood has recently seen a rapid level of investment, spurred by the neighborhood’s proximity to Center City, the central business district. This trend is demonstrably improving the economic character of the area as exemplified by the Central District Philadelphia 2035 Plan. Despite this commitment, there has been limited affordable housing production in the city to adequately support the target population over the last 20 years. This is evidenced by the high occupancy levels of competing affordable rental housing sites, which remain persistently at a rate between 95 and 100%. Some of these sites include waiting lists, which remain long, with little unit turnover. The new units that will result from this development should be absorbed in the market within 3 to 6 months.

The need for housing the homeless is great within the city of Philadelphia. More than 12,000 individuals a year access local shelters and an average of more than 650 individuals go unsheltered in Philadelphia on any given day. Low-income veterans make up a significant portion of the homeless population.

The site is in an excellent location for future residents who benefit from accessibility to public transportation routes; shopping and retail; entertainment and cultural venues; parks and green space; over ten public recreation and community centers; Temple University Hospital, St. Joseph’s Hospital, and Hahnemann University Hospital; pharmacies; and grocery stores.

The Partnership

The apartments were developed through a partnership with HELP USA, a nation-wide organization focused on housing special needs populations and their families. Founded in 1985, HELP USA has grown to include 43 programs across five states. HELP USA runs homelessness prevention programs, manages emergency and transitional shelters, and builds and operates affordable permanent rental apartments. HELP USA believes that creating and maintaining housing stability is the most important step towards a safer, happier, more productive life.

The Transformation

The Philadelphia Housing Authority adapted the former school building into new residential housing. Within the Lural Lee Blevins Veterans Center, the PHA was able to construct a total of 37 one- and two-bedroom apartment units. These units are available for senior residents and marketed towards veterans, including twelve units that are set aside for homeless and/or veterans with special needs.

Given the needs of the senior and veteran populations, the redevelopment prioritized providing special accommodations. Units are single-level spaces and ensure accessibility with new elevators and interior safety features. The Lural Lee Blevins Veterans Center provides supportive services for the veterans, including a neighborhood health center, access to Veteran’s Affairs services, and other senior-related assistance. In addition to the brand-new apartment interiors, renovations to the building include energy-efficient HVAC, graffiti removal, and a rooftop garden and communal space.

Meeting the needs of an older population, all units allow for aging-in-place through design features such as visitability and wide entrances. Residents have access to the rooftop which includes recreation and gardening space, in addition to panoramic views of the city’s skyline and bridges. Laundry and supportive service space are on the first floor and all units are wired for subsidized internet access.

The development has entered into an agreement with Public Health Management Corp (PHMC) to provide supportive services to all residents, particularly the homeless veterans. PHMC provides onsite medical services and general support in addition to access to over 250 health, education, and vocational services through PHMC Refers. PHMC will also encourage utilization of nearby Veterans Administration social services. These services are provided free to any resident who chooses to participate and are paid for through a combination of a supportive service escrow and project operations.

The Residents

Avon Hargrove

Avon Hargrove needed a change after her mother, father, and twin sister all passed away within twelve months of each other. She heard an ad on the radio about an open house at the Lural Lee Blevins Veterans Center but was unable to attend. But Avon trusted her intuition and called the Center to apply for an apartment anyway. It wasn’t until after she was accepted and received her keys that she even looked at the apartment she had applied for, but she has no regrets.

“I always wanted [a kitchen] island and no steps.” She also appreciates the management staff saying, “they are nice and respond when needed.”

Gary Hall

Army veteran Gary Hall was originally from Philadelphia but moved around a lot with his work. After returning to Philadelphia, he found his savings quickly depleting as he looked for a new job and a place to live. He had to stay in a shelter for a month before he was able to move in briefly with his son. After seeing a flyer from HELP USA about the Lural Lee Blevins Veterans Center, Gary applied and was accepted, allowing him to avoid returning to a shelter.

“Life would have been harder if I had to stay in the shelter.”

Keith Washington & Kim Hadden

Keith Washington, a Coast Guard veteran, found an ad in the weekly community newspaper. As the neighborhoods surrounding the Lural Lee Blevins Veterans Center experience a fresh start from revitalization and new developments, Keith and his fiancée, Kim, are excited to start fresh in their new apartment. They appreciate the location’s nearby amenities, including the health clinic and pharmacy that are less than a block away.

“[Spring Garden is] a real blessing, more than I imagined.” Keith elaborated that “having this nice new place to live will help me in my desire…to make my life better.”

Viola Mitchell

On her bus rides to and from work, Viola Mitchell watched the Spring Garden project “grow” into the Lural Lee Blevins Veterans Center. One day she decided to stop in to apply for an apartment where she could live with her brother. As his caregiver, she needed a home that provided specific accommodations in a safe community. Being new to this area, she was uncertain how things would work out, but her concerns were quickly eased. They now have a perfect two-bedroom apartment that is spacious, does not have steps, and is close to Center City.

“There wasn’t anything to be nervous about. The area is safe and quiet.”

What is RAD?

The Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) is a program of the Office of Recapitalization in the Office of Multifamily Housing Programs at HUD. Authorized by Congress in 2012, RAD allows public housing agencies and owners of other HUD-assisted properties to convert units from their original sources of HUD financing to project-based Section 8 contracts. These new contracts provide a more reliable source of operating subsidy that enables property owners to leverage private capital, such as debt and equity, to finance new construction and/or rehabilitation of rental housing.


Photos by Heather Hill / The Cloudburst Group

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