Socially responsible housing projects

By Erin Arvedlund, Inquirer Staff Writer
Posted: May 19, 2014

If you’re a Philadelphia schoolteacher, here’s a lesson in real estate development: At Oxford Mills, educators can rent two-bedroom/two-bathroom loft apartments for the below-market rate of $1,500 a month.

If you teach anywhere in the city – for the school district or for a private, parochial or charter school – you qualify to rent at Oxford Mills starting June 1. And if you operate a nonprofit affiliated with education, you can lease office space at a reduced rate.

This mixed-use venture is one of several in formerly crime-ridden South Kensington, near Northern Liberties. Real estate agents even gave it a hip acronym: JuNoGi, for “Just North of Girard.” But true progress was agonizingly slow – until now.

Teach for America is the anchor tenant in Oxford Mills’ commercial building and has signed a seven-year lease. Totaling 175,000 square feet, Oxford Mills also has 114 apartments and 40,000 square feet of offices for nonprofits.

Among its nonprofit tenants will be Scholar Academies, which operates three Young Scholars Schools in Philadelphia; ArtWell, an arts program for Philadelphia youth; Education Plus; the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, and a joint venture between Education Design Studios Inc. and the University of Pennsylvania incubating educational start-ups.

Gryphon Coffee, of Wayne, has leased ground-floor space, as have yoga instructors, although apartment dwellers and office tenants can also use the free fitness center, according to Gabe Canuso and Greg Hill of D3 Developers. There’s also free surface parking, electric-car charging stations, and bike parking.

Oxford Mills aims to be a socially responsible development, but why apartments for teachers?

“We’ve steered away from higher-end developments to something more rewarding,” Canuso said during a recent walk-through over original pine and maple floors, amid tree-trunk beams hundreds of years old and massive architectural star bolts supporting the 19th-century factory, once known as Quaker Dye Works.

“It’s inspiring to be around people who don’t just talk about education reform in Philadelphia, but live it,” he said.

Oxford Mills also aims to maintain the history of the 1875 building. The last employee of the Pieri lamp factory will stay on as head janitor. Original cobblestones pave the courtyards, an original elevator motor with massive counterweights hangs like a mobile sculpture, and steel sliding doors grace the interior hallways.

The financials came together as the city was eager to revitalize the area. Oxford Mills made use of the New Markets Tax Credit program and qualifies for federal historic rehabilitation credits. Enterprise Community Investment Inc., a nonprofit that supports affordable-housing efforts, provided $10 million in NMTC allocation. Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. provided $15 million; the National Trust Community Investment Corp. provided $9 million in NMTC allocation.

TD Bank was the equity investor for the full NMTC allocation and provided the majority of the remaining financing, including $17.8 million in term debt and $6.3 million in historic tax-credit equity.

Last month, around the corner from Oxford Mills, Arab-American Development Corp., Conifer Realty L.L.C., and Kensington South Community Development Corp. broke ground for Tajdeed Residences, a 45-unit apartment complex.

The Tajdeed consists of one- to four-bedroom dwellings for income-qualified tenants.

Said Marwan Kreidie, executive director of the Arab-American Development Corp.: “Tajdeed Residences is critical to this area, as we are committed to affordable housing. Keeping housing affordable and creating jobs improves not just this community, but the entire city.”

The total project cost is $14.4 million, the largest portion of which, $11 million, was raised through the syndication of low-income housing tax credits awarded to Conifer Realty by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.

The development also includes solar panels on the roofs, which will generate some power.