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Philadelphia: Former Public Housing Superblock Transformed into Modern and Affordable Housing

Multi-colored two- and three-story walkup apartment buildings with sidewalk in foreground.
Tree lined road with multicolored two- and three- story residential buildings.
Aerial view of one-story building with solar panels on the roof and low-rise apartment buildings in the background.
Corner view of low-rise apartment buildings from across the intersection.
Bedroom with a made-up bed, two night stands with lamps, and carpeting.
Modern kitchen with appliances and a dining area.


Home > Case Studies > Philadelphia: Former Public Housing Superblock Transformed into Modern and Affordable Housing


Philadelphia: Former Public Housing Superblock Transformed into Modern and Affordable Housing


In December 2019, the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) opened Blumberg 83, an affordable housing development in the city’s Sharswood neighborhood. The apartments are on the site of the former Norman Blumberg Apartments, which had become one of the city’s most distressed public housing projects. Blumberg 83 is part of a larger redevelopment plan to revitalize Sharswood. In sharp contrast to the apartment tower design of its predecessor, Blumberg 83 consists of prefabricated low-rise townhomes and walkup buildings built using modular wood frame construction techniques. Blumberg 83 won a 2021 National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials Award of Excellence for Project Design for employing an innovative approach to addressing the city’s urgent demand for affordable housing.

The Sharswood Neighborhood

Throughout most of the 20th century, Philadelphia’s Sharswood neighborhood was a mixed-income community marked by rowhouses, churches, and thriving businesses. The main street, Ridge Avenue, was one of the city’s primary retail corridors. The neighborhood was home to a diverse population of homeowners and renters and had become an African-American cultural hub. In 1966, PHA began constructing Norman Blumberg Apartments, a large public housing project that became a dominant feature of the neighborhood. The original apartments were built on an 8-acre superblock and consisted of 510 units in 3 high-rise towers and several low-rise buildings. Many families with means moved out of Sharswood in the 1980s, and the neighborhood began to decline. Most of the community’s remaining residents lived in the aging public housing towers, which were poorly suited for families with children. As disinvestment hit the neighborhood, vacant lots, neglected homes, and abandoned stores replaced its once-thriving residential and commercial areas, and the public elementary and high schools eventually shut down.

Despite these challenges, Sharswood showed great potential for revitalization. The neighborhood is only 2 miles from the city center, and the adjoining communities have seen extensive public and private investment in recent years. In 2013, PHA received a Choice Neighborhoods Initiative (CNI) planning grant to develop a strategy to replace Norman Blumberg Apartments and transform the neighborhood. HUD provides CNI grants to rebuild distressed low-income housing and encourage community reinvestment. PHA, with considerable input from neighborhood residents, used the planning grant to support the Sharswood Blumberg Neighborhood Transformation Plan.

In 2016, PHA began demolishing Norman Blumberg Apartments, sparing only the senior tower for rehabilitation. PHA is replacing all 510 public housing units and developing more than 700 new units. When completed, most of the more than 1,200 units will be affordable, and several will be owner occupied. The replacement units will be distributed among the new developments and will have the same subsidies and protections as traditional public housing.

The Apartments

Blumberg 83 opened in late 2019 with 83 apartments, as the third phase of the Sharswood Blumberg Neighborhood Transformation Plan. Blumberg 83 consists of several two- and three-story buildings with a mix of townhouses and walkup apartments. The development offers 11 one-bedroom, 36 two-bedroom, 32 three-bedroom, and 4 four-bedroom units ranging from 616 to 1,641 square feet to serve households of varying sizes. Eleven units are reserved for families earning up to 20 percent of the area median income (AMI), and the rest serve households earning up to 60 percent of AMI. Ten of the apartments are targeted to people with mobility issues, and three are designed for those with visual or hearing impairment. Residents have access to a community center and a landscaped green space.

The development of Blumberg 83 required demolition, excavation, and new construction. Prefabricated structures were built in a climate-controlled facility as rectangular modules that were then transported to Sharswood on trucks and assembled onsite. This modular construction strategy shortened the development process by a few months, since the modules were produced during site preparation. Building the modular units indoors also reduced the risk of weather delays and allowed for better quality control. Furthermore, modular buildings consume less energy and generate less construction waste than onsite construction. Because of its modular construction and other sustainable design features, Blumberg 83 was recognized by two green rating programs: Enterprise Green Communities and ENERGY STAR® Certified Homes.

The superblock design of the original Norman Blumberg Apartments interrupted the street grid, creating a physical and symbolic disruption of the neighborhood. The scattered site design of Blumberg 83 allowed the city to reconnect the grid and widen one of the streets to accommodate public bus service. PHA also repaved the surrounding streets and added new street lighting and trees. These streets now adhere to the city’s Clean City, Green Waters plan to reduce the amount of polluted stormwater runoff. Street trees and planters divert rain into underground storm infiltration beds.


Blumberg 83 was supported through HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program. RAD allows public housing agencies to leverage funding from other public and private sources for public housing improvements by converting public housing subsidies to project-based vouchers. Roughly $10 million of the $33 million project cost came from low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) equity (table 1). Most of the remaining funding came from two mortgages. Blumberg 83 also received a small rebate from PECO, Philadelphia’s electric provider, for energy efficiency.

Table 1 Blumberg 83 Financing

LIHTC equity $10,234,00
First mortgage 5,360,000
Second mortgage 17,700,000
PECO energy rebate 39,000
Total $33,333,000

Moving Forward

In 2020, HUD awarded PHA a $30 million CNI implementation grant for the neighborhood transformation project. The grant is supporting most of the remaining Sharswood housing units as well as neighborhood amenities and services. The new activity generated from Blumberg 83 and the subsequent developments is making the entire Sharswood neighborhood safer and more inviting. Lindsey Samsi, the project manager for some of the remaining phases of the redevelopment, explains that the infill development also benefits existing homeowners who had been surrounded by vacant lots. Much of the new housing is designed to resemble the row houses that once characterized the neighborhood. "Rather than just plopping down a mid-rise building on a large lot, we’re actually restoring the historic fabric of what the neighborhood once was," Samsi said. PHA expects the remaining CNI-supported housing units to be completed or under construction by the end of 2023. Most of the commercial improvements are expected to be completed by 2025.



The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.