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Is Public Housing Improving?

Tenants like new townhouses, but problems remain at Woodrow Wilson

The townhouses nestled around a street called Hope Lane portray an image of suburban tranquility. In the front gardens, flowers blossom in bursts of pink, purple and gold. Well-tended shrubs and hanging-plants adorn buildings that are so new their bricks and aluminum siding still shine. There’s no noise, no litter, no sign of anything or anyone who might disrupt the peace. At 2 p.m., on a recent afternoon, the only person lingering outside is a man adding mulch to the lawn.

About two miles away, the Woodrow Wilson apartments offer a different picture. The grass in front of the faded brick apartments is ragged with dirt patches, overgrown weeds and litter. Two people share a marijuana cigarette while sitting on the steps in front of one building. Across the way, a man sips beer from a can covered by a paper bag. Trash spills from dumpsters that sit near the center of the complex. Just about every building has at least two empty apartments with their windows and doors covered with plywood.

The contrast between the two complexes couldn’t appear much starker than it is. They seem to come from different worlds. But both are owned by the same organization – the Long Branch Housing Authority.

The 248 townhouses around Hope Lane represent the housing’s authority first major redevelopment, an initiative that started in 2005 and ended in 2010, a project that was supported by a $20 million federal grant.

The 132 apartments at the Woodrow Wilson complex are the agency’s next target. At present, more than 20 percent are boarded-up, some since 2010, tenants said.

The housing authority has an application pending with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to demolish Woodrow Wilson. But neither officials nor tenants are sure exactly when the demolition would take place.

“It goes without saying that redevelopment of those buildings would improve the quality of life for all our residents,’’ said Randy Phillips, the housing authority’s assistant executive director.

The agency plans to bring in Pennrose Properties, the same Philadelphia-based developer that handled the townhouses, to rebuild Woodrow Wilson, Phillips said.

Six years ago, the public housing complex where the Hope Lane townhouses now stand was more troubled than Woodrow Wilson, according to tenants and officials.

“Oh my God, it was bad,’’ said Karen Reaves, a former Red Bank resident who moved to a Garfield Court townhouse along Hope Lane when the newest units opened about a year ago. “If you gave one of those apartments to me, I wouldn’t take it. I’d go homeless first.’’

“It’s quiet here now,’’ added Reaves. “It’s a very good place to live.’’

The revitalization of the housing complex where Reaves now lives was part of a national initiative known as HOPE VI that pumped $6.7 billion in federal funding into America’s cities over the past 18 years. It’s been an effort to replace distressed housing projects – many of them high-rise fortresses that had become bastions of crime – with townhouses and other low-rise developments designed to provide tenants with a cleaner and safer way of life.

New Jersey cities received more than $400 million in revitalization grants under the HOPE VI program, more than any other state in the union. That money has transformed the Garden State’s urban skylines.

“To my knowledge, I don’t know of a development that hasn’t gone well in New Jersey,’’ said Vito Gallo, the former executive director of Summit Housing Authority who serves as New Jersey chairman of American Planning Association’s housing committee.

Now the Obama administration is attempting to phase out HOPE VI and replace it with the Choice Neighborhoods program, which supporters say takes a more holistic approach to housing redevelopment by including provisions for transportation, schools, social services and access to jobs.

“HOPE IV was an excellent program and Choice Neighborhoods will build on that,’’ said Donna White, a HUD spokeswoman in Washington, D.C.

But HOPE VI’s legacy remains an issue for debate among housing experts, tenant advocates and government officials mainly because of a basic fact – the majority of the places that were rebuilt under the program ended up with fewer public housing units than when they started. Nationwide there are about 100,000 fewer public housing apartments because of HOPE VI redevelopment, said Gallo, who also has taught housing policy classes at Rutgers’ Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.

“For future generations, we have less public housing stock,’’ said Arnold Cohen, policy coordinator of the Trenton-based Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, a nonprofit coalition of more than 250 groups. “That’s problematic.’’

Housing officials say the distribution of tens of thousands of federal Section 8 vouchers, which subsidize rents for people with low-incomes and allow them to lease apartments outside government-owned and -operated projects, has more than offset the loss of public housing units.

But tenant advocates say some residents of the buildings demolished through HOPE VI ended up being displaced and found themselves living in housing that was worse than where they had been.

“When a project is demolished, what ought to be done is that every unit of affordable housing is replaced by another one,’’ said Matt Shapiro, president of the New Jersey Tenants Organization. “Most of the projects are never anywhere close to that. As a result, you have fewer affordable housing units.’’

“This is gentrification by another name,’’ added Shapiro. “Its purpose is to get rid of poor people.’’

HUD required local housing authorities to submit relocation plans as part of their applications for HOPE VI funding. But there was no requirement to do follow-up research on what happened to tenants after the new complexes opened, said a New Jersey HUD official.

Under Long Branch’s $20 million HOPE VI grant, officials replacements complexes that had provided 290 units of public housing down with new ones offering 248, according to the housing authority. The Seaview Manor section of the complex went from 46 units to 40, Grant Court (now named Presidential Estates) from 82 to 70 and Garfield Court from 162 to 138.

Phillips said about a third of the residents of the old buildings ended up staying in apartments elsewhere that they rented using Section 8 vouchers. Others, he said, were relocated to vacancies at Woodrow Wilson during construction and opted to stay there when the new townhouses opened. Many moved back to rebuilt complex around Hope Lane.

“Anybody who wanted to return, returned,’’ unless they had problems lingering from their previous leases at the complex, said Phillips.

People interviewed at both of Long Branch’s public housing family complexes said the housing authority targeted troublemakers and kept them from returning to the rebuilt homes. Many stayed at Woodrow Wilson, worsening the environment there, tenants say.

The housing authority has taken a hard-line to try to keep the atmosphere peaceful at the new townhouses.

“There’s no groups of people hanging out,’’ said Phillips. “No drug dealing. None of those problems. It’s a different atmosphere.’’

“It’s extra quiet,’’ said Laurie Jean, who moved to a Garfield Court townhouse from an apartment in Asbury Park last year. “And look at how clean it is.’’

Some tenants say the housing authority has been too hard-line in its approach at the new townhouses. They complain about a “trespassing list” that bans people from the grounds who have been convicted of crimes at public housing sites. They say housing employees chase children off the grass, prohibit people from leaving lawn chairs in the front of the homes, and don’t let them keep their barbecues outside.

“Now it’s like you’re in jail, you can’t do anything,’’ said one man who declined to give his name for fear that housing officials would retaliate against him for complaining to the press. “I bet if they see me talking to you they’re going to write me up.’’

“There’s no place for the kids to play, they can’t go on the grass,’’ said Vanessa Robinson. “Housing wants them to go over to the park,’’ which is a few blocks away, she added. “But that’s no good for the little ones. You’ve got to keep your eye on them and you can’t do that and cook.’’

Residents also say there are burgeoning pockets of trouble in the new townhouses, especially in areas that have been reopened the longest, along the fringes of the development on Liberty Street and Central Avenue. “You got crime here,’’ said Robinson. “It’s not coming from tenants. It’s from people who come from the outside.’’

At Woodrow Wilson, one woman who said she used to live in the old Garfield Court projects said she decided not to move back when they opened the new ones. She said she’s trying to save money to buy a house and didn’t want the hassle of moving back and forth. Besides, said the woman, who declined to give her name, friends of hers who did move back have been unhappy with the tight enforcement of housing authority rules.

Teshara Evans has been a Woodrow Wilson resident for 20 years and she’s looking forward to the day the buildings get crushed by a wrecking ball. “They’re horrible, they raggedly, they’re all falling apart,’’ she said.

But, Evans said, she declined a townhouse at the rebuilt complex because of crime problems on Central Avenue, near where she would have been living. “I didn’t want to be over there,’’ she said.

What about crime at Woodrow Wilson? “On my row, we don’t have any problems. It’s nice and quiet,’’ said Evans. “Over there,’’ she added pointing beyond to the buildings beyond the dumpsters, “that’s the rough side.’’

If HUD approves the housing authority’s application to demolish Woodrow Wilson, then the agency would iron out the redevelopment details with Pennrose, said Phillips. The complex doesn’t qualify for HOPE VI funding, so officials are considering federal housing tax credits to support the project.

The new complex, Phillips said, could end up providing more housing units than there are currently at Woodrow Wilson.

“There’s a lot more land and it’s more open,’’ he said. “We have a lot more to work with.’’

Bob Basher July 15, 2011 at 05:24 PM
The new housing is really a great improvement. I would say though the roads in area are not...and they havent been in years. The bad roads really tend to give the impression of impoverishment. Maybe from all the truck traffic in demolition and rebuiding..and truck traffic from the building of Pier Village but I think with freshly paved streets in the liberty street vacinity the effect would be imediate for business and for the general mood of the people living there...where I grew up when the streets were repaved the whole town began to flourish again and the litter pretty much stopped..crime went down and the people were more apt to sit outside and feel a more part of the community.
hunternicolino October 08, 2012 at 03:13 PM
woodrow wilson has closed on june 30th 2012 .i was a tenent there i want to return to the new apartments.it is now october the old apartments are still standing.what are they waiting for they could have been down and the new apartments could have been going up.
JOHN SMITH December 18, 2012 at 01:54 AM
hope none of these people return because you just make the place a wreck and don't respect the neighbors, STAY OUT, GET A JOB AND PAY TAXES LIKE THE REST OF US! STOP BEING LAZY AND RELYING ON OUR BACKS !!!!!
John April 11, 2013 at 09:07 PM
You guys should make a policy stating no old residents return because these new apts will look like the old ones or at lease make a rental office and make sure theres cameras everywhere this would really help our community.
John April 11, 2013 at 09:10 PM
When will you guys put pictures of the models.

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