Response to Mission First’s statement on sale of the Arvilla

In attempting to justify the evictions of the residents of the Arvilla apartments on Osage Avenue and the proposed sale of the building, the non-profit owner, Mission First Housing Group, has offered a distorted and incomplete account on its website.  

Their misrepresentation of the situation at the Arvilla requires a response:

  • Mission First has decided to cash in on the increased property values in the surrounding neighborhood by selling the Arvilla, home to needy Philadelphians who are dependent, with one exception, on subsidies to meet their rent.
  • They are marketing the building as ripe for renovation and rental to higher-income tenants.
  • This plan will not only result in the displacement of Arvilla residents but will result in the net loss of 16 affordable dwellings in the Spruce Hill neighborhood, an area which has seen the loss of hundreds of affordable units over the last few years, concomitant with an increase in the area’s median income and a decrease in the African-American population.  
  • Mission First asserts that they cannot afford to renovate the Arvilla and maintain it as affordable housing, as if this is something beyond their control.  Yet, this is a policy decision: how and where to seek funding and, most importantly, where to apply these resources, most of it from taxpayers, depends on choices made by the organization’s executives and board.
  • It is outrageous for Mission First to plead that the Arvilla is too expensive to renovate when their neglect has brought the building to its current state of disrepair.
  • While poor-mouthing the challenge of maintaining the Arvilla, Mission First recently celebrated groundbreaking on a $49.5 million project at 59th and Market.  The project will result in 90,000 square feet of offices and retail space. Any additional affordable apartments, they promise, will come in a “second phase”. Meanwhile, the lack of affordable housing for needy Philadelphians has reached crisis proportions.
  • Mission First contends that they will use the proceeds of an Arvilla sale (offered at $2.15 million) to “create more affordable housing”.  Building new affordable housing units is extremely expensive. Mission First’s projects over the last few years have averaged around $375,000 per unit to build.  This means that replacing the 16 Arvilla units would cost about three times what the income from its sale would provide.
  • Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Mission First’s actions of the last few months has been their treatment of the vulnerable residents whose well-being is their responsibility.  By their own admission, the decision to sell the Arvilla had been made years earlier, but residents were kept in the dark. Men walking around the building taking pictures created great anxiety for residents that something was happening to the place they called home, but no one from management was talking.  Then, they received the abrupt notice that they would need to “vacate” their apartments, within as few as 6 weeks for some residents and during the holiday season for all of them. Only the intercession of our group, with the assistance of Community Legal Services, extracted an eviction delay for some until the end of January.
  • Mission First’s executives are apparently indifferent to the impact of their decisions on the Arvilla’s residents and their neighbors.  The residents of the building are not mere “clients” to be moved from one place to another. They are neighbors in a community of neighbors.  Many of them are long-term residents. One elder has lived in the Arvilla for 50 years. Another resident has lived on the block for 50 years, first in his family home right next door, then in the Arvilla.  Together, these two men represent 100 years of neighborhood residency and all that means in terms of friendships, a sense of security and familiarity. Moving them from the Arvilla means a rupture in their lives and in the life of the surrounding community.
  • The youngest residents of the Arvilla have also suffered. Mission First moved a family in only 7 months ago, knowing their residency would be brief.  Now, the single mother and her three children are faced with moving in the middle of the school year. Three full weeks after Mission First’s published statement that all residents are receiving “comprehensive relocation assistance”, and just three weeks before their scheduled eviction date, the mother still does not know where they will be moving and is stressed out and sleepless because of it.
  • Although they promised to delay the evictions, Mission First has continued to move residents out.
  • Contrary to their assertion that they are helping residents find homes in the “neighborhoods of their choice,” they are offering apartments as far away as Roxborough and the Northeast.  Most, if not all, of the Arvilla’s residents consider this area of West Philadelphia their home and wish to stay here. And their neighbors don’t want to lose them, either.
  • The apartments offered to the Arvilla residents are in some cases substantially inferior to what they have now.  Residents have been shown a studio in place of a one-bedroom and a one-bedroom in place of the two-bedroom that now houses a mother and three children.  The residents report an intimidating and belittling attitude of “take-it-or-leave-it”. What kind of choice is that?
  • It was only after press coverage and pressure from our group that Mission First agreed to offer some financial assistance with moving.  But this has translated into providing a van and movers to transport their household items. All the ancillary costs of moving have fallen on the residents themselves.  And there can be no real compensation for the emotional toll inflicted by such an upheaval in their lives.
  • Mission First states that it will relocate the Arvilla’s residents to neighborhoods “that are appropriate to their economic situations”.  There could not be any blunter assertion that our Spruce Hill neighborhood is now restricted to only the affluent. And an admission that Mission First is willing to participate in the increasing economic and racial segregation of our city.  We know that children fare better in life when they are raised in neighborhoods that are considered to offer “high opportunity”, places where crime is lower, incomes are higher, schools better-rated and healthy food more available. Spruce Hill has become such a neighborhood.  Now that it has, should an organization like Mission First move a family out of this area to one of lower opportunity, perhaps sealing those children’s fates?
  • The callousness of Mission First’s treatment of the Arvilla’s residents – the curt order to “vacate”, the real estate listing that boasts of the potential of the building to attract high-paying renters if it were properly renovated, the resistance to negotiation – pales by comparison to the indifference of the organization to its tenants’ health and safety. A look at the apartments or a chat with the residents reveals years of neglect and a lack of responsiveness to complaints.  One elderly resident has been without running water in his bathroom for almost two years. A large hole was made in the same tenant’s bedroom wall in order to fix the plumbing to an adjoining apartment, over the tenant’s protests. The hole was left open for months, exposing him to noxious odors and admitting animals from outside. Other tenants complain of a lack of heat. A mother sleeps in several layers of clothing and turns on her oven at night to keep her children warm. At a public meeting about the Arvilla, an employee of Mission First’s property management arm admitted that the furnace at the Arvilla was inadequate to the job.
  • What kind of organization would neglect to maintain a property that is sheltering our city’s most vulnerable – its children, its elderly, those who struggle with chronic mental illness?  Apparently, Mission First is that kind. That is the conclusion reached by the District of Columbia, where Mission First operates an affordable apartment building, the Dahlgreen Courts. The D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs castigated Mission First, declaring that it “has shown little regard for the law and what is more, little concern for its tenants…has a long history of failing to abate housing violations, forcing tenants to live in unsafe and unhealthy environments… [Mission First] does not deserve any leniency from this Court.” In a 2018 report, D.C.’s auditor used Mission First as the object of a case study in how the district was managing housing violations.  On one day in December 2016, a building inspection of Mission First’s affordable apartments, the Dahlgreen Courts, drew 105 housing violations, making Mission First D.C.’s poster child for tenant neglect.  Indeed, residents of Dahlgreen Courts have filed suit, alleging lead poisoning and other serious health consequences from Mission First’s failure to address health and safety violations in the 96-unit building.  How many Philadelphia tenants have been put at similar risk? 

We are asking that Mission First halt their tenant evictions and remove the building from the market.  We also expect them to bring the currently-occupied apartments up to a good standard of livability and to renovate the rest of the apartments.  We ask them to return any of the evicted Arvilla tenants who wish to come back to their neighborhood. We want them to halt the sale of the building for market-rate development.  We ask them to work with us and others to seek an alternative to the building’s sale and to find a way to keep it as part of the critical inventory of affordable dwellings in our neighborhood.  We want them to affirm that they will not take steps to sell off other buildings in the neighborhood.

Finally, while we acknowledge Mission First’s important role as a provider of housing to our neediest neighbors, we are convinced that they now risk acting as an agent of displacement.  They should be working to make affordable housing available in every neighborhood in our city. The organization needs to recommit to its stated mission – “to develop and manage affordable, safe and sustainable homes for people in need” – and we are willing to help.

Join us!

Arvilla Video Resources:

This Building has Been Forgotten About — Heating Problems with Mission First Housing

Without Water for Two Years – Elder left without water in bathroom tub and sink for two years

Pushed out – Arvilla residents discuss displacement

Mother of Three ‘betrayed’ by Mission First Housing Grou” – Single mother of three talks about her reaction to being given one month to leave her home — right in the middle of the school year, only six months after having been invited into their “sustainable” home

Arvilla Tenants Excluded from Meeting Concerning their Displacement

They Came in Anyway – Elder talks about treatment by Mission First

I Would Like To Stay – Retired resident expresses his desire to stay in his neighborhood

It’s Special – Arvilla Residents on their neighborhood.

We Don’t Matter to Them – Resident of the Arvilla talks about Mission First Housing Group.

Problems in the Arvilla – Elder who has resided in the Arvilla since 1969 describes the issues his live-in aide has to fix.  These are fixes that are the landlord’s responsibility, but Mission First has ignored them.

Forced Out of the Neighborhood… into smaller apartment – Resident discusses being “shut down” by Mission First and downgraded from a 1 bedroom apartment into an efficiency, despite MF’s promise to show him at least three comparable apartments.

Arvilla Resident on Why He Likes the Neighborhood – Resident discusses his attachment to a community that he enjoys participating in.

I Find Myself Sleeping in Full Outfits – Mother of three talks about broken heat in her apartment — she sometimes uses her oven to heat when it gets too cold.

Arvilla Resident on the Condition of Building – Mother of three, talks about the poor condition of the building — she wouldn’t mind leaving, except the neighborhood is so great for her kids.  She was invited in seven months ago, but then told to move — at a month’s notice — in the middle of her kids’ school year.

Plumbing problems start to get attention only after press coverage – An Arvilla resident tells us about maintenance situations in the building, in direct contradiction of Mission First’s statements at the Spruce Hill Community Association meeting the night before.