The City of Philadelphia received a $30 million grant earlier this summer from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as a part of its Choice Neighborhood Initiative to implement a “Transformation Plan” encompassing Temple University’s Main Campus and the low-income residential neighborhoods that surround it to the north and east.
The grant aims to leverage private investment and local partners, such as Temple University, to make improvements across the targeted area, including new services and amenities, housing and educational opportunities.
Norris Apartments, a Philadelphia Housing Authority-owned project located just outside Temple’s campus, is set to have all of its 147 units torn down and replaced with brand new housing as a part of the plan. For residents, who have long endured maintenance problems and the stigma of living in sub-standard housing, the investment in their community is long overdue.
“The houses have served their time,” said Donna Richardson, tenant council president of Norris Apartments and 25-year resident. “You can keep patching them up, but they’re going to wear after a while.”
What’s missing from the plan though, according to Richardson, is a greater emphasis on jobs. She added that around 50 percent of working-age residents at Norris are unemployed.
As the sixth largest employer in the city, according to state data on the fourth quarter of 2013, and the largest institutional presence in North Philadelphia, Temple University has been a natural target for nearby residents looking for employment. Temple also holds 25 percent of the total jobs in the Lower North Planning District, which includes Norris and most of the surrounding neighborhoods.
Norris residents, however, have had little success getting employment from their next-door neighbor.
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Richardson claimed that only two residents out of 374– PHA’s latest count of the population — currently work for the university. She cited the case of a Norris resident named Alfred Jackson who applied for a position to little success, adding that he actually had more experience and better credentials than many other residents seeking jobs.
“We know Temple can’t hire everyone,” said Richardson. “We’re not expecting that, but give us more than a token.”
Temple declined to release information about the number of nearby residents in its workforce, but it did state that it tries to prioritize them for open positions.
“I ideally recruit and try to target individuals for employment that are from our general surrounding neighborhoods,” said Michael Robinson, director of community outreach at Temple.
If the university can’t hire someone, Robinson said he tries to direct them to other employment opportunities that Temple is aware of, such as through vendors that work for the university, or other partners such as Pennsylvania CareerLink.
Temple also has in-house workshops and classes that teach job readiness such as interview and writing skills, and resolving conflict in the workplace, including ComUniveristy, which takes place monthly, and the 8-week NOW Professional Development Training class.
But hiring from the community has its limitations. A cursory look at the job opportunities currently offered at Temple shows mostly administrative and teaching positions requiring secondary education and often years of experience.
“Some of the barriers to hiring may range from someone not having the level of education we’re looking for, or they have the education and they don’t have the minimum years [of experience] we are looking for,” Robinson said.
And yet the close proximity — Norris is nearly surrounded by campus buildings — and the university’s rapid expansion in recent years has created an expectation in the community that the university should hire more Norris residents.
“We’re fine with some of the programs they are offering,” Richardson said. “But some people need jobs. If you have a mother of five, or four, or three, she’s not trying to go to school. She’s trying to get employment to take care of her family.”
“They live right across the street,” she added. “I think they should be able to get a job or two.”
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