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Pennrose Nears Opening Of All-Affordable Apartment Building In Newark

A rendering of Pennrose's 100% affordable Aston Heights apartment building in Newark

A new affordable housing development is nearly ready to replace the infamous Brick Towers in the Central Ward of Newark.

Philadelphia-based developer Pennrose expects to complete the five-story, 154-unit Aston Heights by the end of the year, with leasing anticipated to begin at some point this October. The units will all be rentals restricted to tenants making 60% or less of the area median income for Essex County.

A total of 105 units will be reserved for individuals and families making at most 60% AMI, with the rest set aside for tenants making 50% AMI, Pennrose Regional Vice President for New Jersey Jacob Fisher said. The development is being built on land owned by the Newark Housing Authority through a ground lease agreement.

Newark has been undergoing a transition from decrepit public housing projects to more modern, but smaller, mixed-income developments over the past several years, raising questions about how much such projects really fight against displacement.

“When public housing at a high density is demolished, there’s now a thinking that one-to-one replacement is the goal, so you don’t have people displaced," Fisher said. "But the interesting thing that we’ve seen over time doing dozens of these redevelopments is that people who are residents of the community are given a voucher to relocate elsewhere in the city or outside the city, and when they have the opportunity to return, we only get a 30-35% rate of return. That’s just based on experience.”

Aston Heights doesn't quite fit that model, as Brick Towers was privately owned for years by a landlord that severely neglected the property before it was taken over by the NHA. By the time it became a public housing project, it was already beyond repair and was demolished in 2008.

Pennrose was brought on to redevelop the land in 2010, but, as is commonplace in affordable housing, took seven years to put together financing before it was able to break ground last May. The project applied to, but did not receive, a 9% Low Income Housing Tax Credit years ago, and was subsequently rejected from participating in Hurricane Sandy recovery financing and the New Jersey Economic Redevelopment and Growth program.

UPDATE, SEPT. 23, 8 P.M. ET: This article has been updated to include the income distribution of the affordable units in the building.

Pennrose's Aston Heights development in Newark, seen under construction in the summer of 2018

The capital stack was finally completed in April of last year, and it includes a 4% LIHTC, a loan from the NHA Capital Fund Financing Program and a grant from the NHA that was attached to the land when the local administration took it over from the Federal Housing Authority, Fisher said.

Although Fisher recognizes how the persistent need for more affordable housing can lead to criticism of lower-density projects like Aston Heights, he contended that projects of this size can integrate with the street life and surrounding community better than an imposing set of towers that can be isolating for the communities within.

“The benefits [of lower-density affordable housing] have been that a lot of times, we’re able to create developments that allow for more eyes on the street, more neighbor collaboration and maintaining safety of the site, just by virtue of being built at a lower density when people have, in a lot of cases, front doors," Fisher said. "That’s when you build townhouses, or when you build mid-rises with a central access point and keycards for security.”

That street engagement is central to Pennrose's ambitions for the project, with a 5K SF laundromat having leased the ground floor. Aston Heights sits on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, once known as High Street and considered one of the prime corridors in the city thanks to its bustling activity and view of New York.

Though Pennrose does not have any further projects in the pipeline in Newark, Fisher stated his desire to become more involved in the city, especially along the MLK Boulevard corridor. Aston Heights sits across the boulevard from Pennrose's previous affordable development in the area, Montgomery Heights.

“Brick Towers was a central parcel in the Central Ward, on MLK Boulevard, and it’s a very visible place," Fisher said. "Having had it as a vacant lot was doing nothing to advance the cause for redevelopment of that corridor.”