Affordable For Who? Community Raises Concerns With Proposed Development in Southwest Cedar Park

Almost 100 residents from the surrounding area of 5000 Warrington Avenue joined a community meeting on Wednesday, February 17th about a proposed “affordable housing” development planned for the location. The meeting was organized in coordination with councilmember Jamie Gauthier and Omni LLC, the development corporation proposing the project, as well as several RCOs (Registered Community Organizations) in the area. Omni presented themselves to the community as developers with “complete transparency” and claimed that they have the respect of both New York and New Jersey, states they’ve had contracts with in the past. The representatives asserted the states praise the company for their “tireless” work creating affordable apartment complexes. 

Omni proposed a complex of 3 buildings ranging from 5 stories to 6 stories for the .77-acre site. These three buildings would contain 174 units, 1 superintendents’ unit, and private security. Omni promised 17,500 feet of green space and at least one parking garage for 50 cars. While this proposal may have appeared spotless to Omni, the community had many criticisms and also gave thoughtful suggestions for creating affordable housing in the area without compromising the living conditions of long-term residents. It is important to note that Omni has only bid on the property at 5000 Warrington and does not yet own it. Before buying the property, they want to make sure that they will be able to get approval, hosting several community meetings along the way. 

Community Concerns with the Proposed Development

The issue of parking was brought up dozens of times in the meeting. A longtime resident wrote in the chat, “You’ll have 144 units, maybe 2-3 per unit with only 55 spaces [in the proposed parking lot]. We’re already parking on top of each other”. Another neighbor chimed in, saying that both she and her 80-year-old aunt live on 50th St.. and they can barely find parking as it is. With the proposed development of 3 new buildings over the next few years, many neighbors pointed out that our neighborhood will be buzzing with new residents who will undoubtedly have their own cars. The environmental effects of adding so many more cars to the neighborhood, along with the increased possibility of longtime residents not being able to find parking near their houses, are sources of stress and fear for community members. 

Community members also brought up concerns about the new development’s strain on the neighborhood’s outdated sewer system. The surrounding blocks have already experienced flooding due to the overwhelmed sewers, and adding hundreds of new units will only contribute to increased flooding and other infrastructure issues in the neighborhood. Additionally, residents are not convinced the site is environmentally viable for new construction as it has functioned more or less as a dump for hazardous waste for years. Community members also wanted assurance that the developers would use local labor to complete the construction so that the proposed development would actually contribute to economic growth in the area. 

Residents of our neighborhood expressed frustration at the prospect of losing the sunlight that currently shines into their homes- if these new five and six-story buildings are constructed, the sun will undoubtedly be blocked. The height of the development brings concerns about how the lack of sunlight will affect their electric and gas bills. 

Not only were community members frustrated by how the development would impede on their day to day lives and safety, but the proposed building, mimicking much of the cheaply made gentrified houses in West Philly, would be built with what appears to be stone and steel. This kind of building would be an eyesore in the midst of old, two to three-story single-family homes and apartments. Residents also made it clear, based on the difference between the proposed development and the structure of the apartments and houses in the area, that it feels invasive for a development company to come into their neighborhood and build a “community within a community.”

Affordable for Who?

Throughout the meeting Omni developers continued to insist that their goal is to bring affordable housing to the neighborhood. The question for community members became, affordable for who?

Proposed rents for the apartments do not indicate that they will be affordable for residents in the 3rd district, where the development would be located. At the end of 2020, Councilmember Jamie Gauthier’s office, in collaboration with Urban Spatial and Reinvestment Fund, released an Affordable housing strategic planning report for Philadelphia’s 3rd district. The results show that the AMI (Area Median Income) of Philadelphia, which includes wealthy suburban areas, is a whopping $87,400. For 3rd district residents, affordable housing is still a cost burden because of low incomes and high housing costs. The district’s AMI for a family of three is just $35,000 per year, yet Omni is using citywide AMI figures to calculate proposed rents for the complex. Before last March when the COVID-19 pandemic began, 43% of 3rd District households were spending at least 30% of their income on housing, We can assume with rising unemployment and the economic crisis that this figure is even higher now. How can Omni claim to be building affordable housing based on a median income of $87,400 when the 3rd district’s median income is only $35,000?

Will Omni Change Their Proposal in Response to the Community’s Suggestions?

Despite the sensible critiques and suggestions made by community members, Omni provided no concrete solutions. On the topic of parking, they refused the suggestion of an underground parking garage or increased space allotted for parking in the development. They didn’t acknowledge the AMI discrepancies. They responded to environmental and sewage concerns by saying they would hire engineers to look into it. Seemingly the only topic they were willing to compromise on was the building’s aesthetic, but the look of the building doesn’t change that under the guise of “affordable housing” another development is set to go up and bring money to an out of state company, leaving the housing crisis in Philadelphia to get worse.

Omni continued to respond to concerns about price and building size by maintaining that they have to bring in a profit from these buildings, and their proposal is the only way to do so. This begs the question: why should affordable housing need to bring in a profit for rich developers? Omni is just another example of a developer coming in from another city without any interest in protecting the area they wish to develop. Omni’s only concern seems to be their own profit margin. Community members aren’t against development, but any development should contribute to the economic strength of the neighborhood and provide truly affordable apartments for residents. The question still remains: will Omni hear the needs of the community and make sure their project benefits us?

When the community meeting on February 17th broke out into breakout rooms, one Omni developer said that if the community doesn’t want the development here in Southwest Cedar Park, they will leave. In response, one community member, summing up the general feeling of all neighbors in attendance, said, “Good.”