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Philadelphia’s Chinatown Gets Locally Sponsored Affordable Homes

An organization in Philadelphia’s Chinatown that got its start defending the community against an encroaching expressway 30 years ago has developed a new affordable housing project that is reuniting and expanding the neighborhood. The new 51-unit mixed-income townhouse project—called Hing Wah Yuen, or “Prosperous Chinese Garden”—provides reasonably priced housing for first-time homeowners in an area that had been left physically divided and bereft of housing by road construction and urban renewal. The project is just the latest successful initiatives undertaken by the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC).

PCDC is a nonprofit organization established in 1969 by residents to fight the extension of Philadelphia’s Vine Street Expressway. The expressway’s construction a few years earlier had damaged the Chinatown neighborhood by literally cutting it in half. The extended expressway through Chinatown would have demolished homes, a Catholic church, and a school. Residents felt strongly that the proposed highway “threatened the survival of the community,” says PCDC Development Director Sophia Pham. PCDC prevailed, and the extension was not built.

In the 30 years since PCDC put the brakes on the extended expressway, the corporation has focused its efforts on preserving, protecting, and promoting the viability of Chinatown’s residential and business communities. By the early 1970s, meeting these goals was already becoming a formidable task. The seven-block area known as Chinatown was growing rapidly, due to an influx of new immigrants, while a quarter of its residential space was being demolished by urban renewal.

To improve housing for low-income immigrants, PCDC embarked on a strategy to replace the demolished housing. During the next decade, the corporation worked with the city’s redevelopment authority to identify available residential sites in the neighborhood. In 1982 the two organizations developed a 25-unit townhouse project for low- and moderate-income homebuyers.

Work on Hing Wah Yuen began in the late 1980s as part of an PCDC plan to “reunite Chinatown and expand it northward,” according to Pham. Hing Wah Yuen is located across the expressway from most of Chinatown’s residential neighborhoods. The project has reconnected the pieces of Chinatown by expanding development across the expressway, says Pham. PCDC’s next project will add 11 townhouse units to the same northern Chinatown neighborhood. The smaller project will be located across the street from Hing Wah Yuen on land the city plans to acquire through condemnation and eminent domain.

The housing project. Hing Wah Yuen, which opened in 1998, features a mix of 36 subsidized and 15 market-rate townhouse units. The subsidized units include two- and three-bedroom duplexes, while the market-rate units feature three stories and three bedrooms. Each unit has central air conditioning, carpeting, and a washer and dryer. Some units also feature a view of the city’s skyline. Residents can walk to shopping and work opportunities in Chinatown and have easy access to public transportation and major thoroughfares.

PCDC financed the construction of Hing Wah Yuen with three grants: a $1.5 million HOME grant from HUD, which the city of Philadelphia administered; a $200,000 grant from the state of Pennsylvania’s Department of Community Affairs; and a $175,000 grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank Affordable Housing Program. Qualifying low-income families, who earn up to 50 percent of the area median income (AMI), were able to buy a townhouse for approximately $61,000; moderate-income families, who earn up to 80 percent of AMI, paid about $84,000. PCDC sold the 15 market-rate units for an average of $154,000.

Families from the local Chinese community purchased most of the townhouses. Due to high demand for the subsidized units, PCDC used a rating system that gave preference to first-time homebuyers and families who were participating in the Section 8 program. In addition to an affordable purchase price, homebuyers received other benefits from PCDC. The corporation worked with PNC Bank of Philadelphia to set up mortgage financing for individual buyers. Buyers also received a 3-year, partial real estate tax abatement that exempts them from paying taxes on their land, although they must pay taxes on their homes. PCDC also helped residents form a homeowners’ association that manages the development’s common areas and teaches residents how to maintain their properties.

Difficult development period. Hing Wah Yuen is fully occupied and maintains a long waiting list, since the project has experienced no resident turnover since its opening. No one is more gratified by this success than those who worked hard for almost 10 years to develop the project.

The first challenge was finding land that would meet affordable housing needs while preserving the character of Chinatown. In the late 1980s, PCDC found several promising parcels, vacant for more than 30 years, that seemed to fit the bill. Philadelphia officials had originally supported a project to build a federal prison on some of the parcels that are located next to the Vine Street Expressway. However, once PCDC convinced the redevelopment authority that Chinatown would be better served by residential development, the two organizations worked together for 7 years to acquire the expressway properties from public and private entities. The redevelopment authority used its power of eminent domain to acquire some of the properties it had previously condemned as “blight.”

With the land finally in hand, PCDC now faced several unique design challenges. The first was expressway traffic noise, which could have made the units virtually unlivable. PCDC reduced this noise by installing triple-pane glass in the townhouses and constructing a landscaped berm along the expressway that serves as a sound barrier. A second design challenge—presented by a railroad tunnel that runs beneath the property—required PCDC to find a creative way to comply with city regulations that prohibit heavy construction on land above a tunnel. PCDC decided to use this area for parking and open space.

Hing Wah Yuen recently won a Fannie Mae Foundation Maxwell Award of Excellence. While Pham concedes that the housing project features a unique design, location, and purpose, she maintains that Hing Wah Yuen’s most significant feature is the fact that it exists at all. “Hing Wah Yuen is unique because it reflects the spirit of the community and the organization to overcome difficulties and challenges to make things happen,” she says.

For more information on the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, contact: Cecilia Yep, Executive Director, Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, 1011 Race Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107, (215) 922–2156.

For copies of The Maxwell Awards of Excellence, Round XI, call (202) 274–8000 or visit the Web site:

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