But today, Powell-White and 41 of her neighbors are angry. They are losing their homes. In February, PHA declared Passyunk Homes a ``distressed, nonviable site,'' concluding that most of the 700 units in the complex are beyond repair. They are to be torn down in three years.
Although the agency's plan to demolish Passyunk Homes - a row of mostly battered barracks-style townhouses along the Schuylkill Expressway - is well documented, these residents do not want to leave. As the moving vans pass by, signaling the imminent end to the 59-year-old development, they cling to the hope that someone will heed their petitions against what they see as forced relocation.
Powell-White arrived at Passyunk Homes at age 23, a young woman seeking refuge from an abusive husband. She raised four children and 14 grandchildren here.
Now she lives in a house with new walls, paneling and cabinets. She owns her own refrigerator, washer and dryer. She has a great view of the neighborhood from her bathroom and the two bedrooms. A poster of 76ers star Allen Iverson hangs on the door of one bedroom.
``There are a lot of bleeding hearts here, a lot of people whose hearts are actually bleeding because we are being asked to leave,'' Powell-White said, fighting back tears before finally breaking down.
``You'll have to excuse me,'' she told a reporter, wiping her eyes. ``There are people who have been living here for 30, 45 and 60 years. That's a lot of time to let go.''
It was in this complex that drug dealers are suspected of murdering the daughter of resident Juanita Sutton, who fought a brutal but successful war against drugs alongside Powell-White. It was Sutton's idea to get up the petitions, but she said the group is not sure when they will be delivered to PHA. The signers want their homes to remain if the rest of the complex is demolished.
PHA press secretary Robin Leary says she understands the emotions, but reality must not be forgotten.
``The reality is that Passyunk has lived out its usefulness, and we could not be allowed to put more money into it,'' Leary said.
Built as temporary housing for the U.S. Navy in 1941, the complex - bordered by Interstate 76, Penrose Avenue, oil and gas tank farms and the Conrail and CSX railroad tracks - has gone through several changes in its 59 years. Most of the houses are boarded up, others are in decaying condition. About 80 percent of its residents live in poverty.
Carl Greene, PHA's executive director, has said that it makes no sense to try to preserve Passyunk. Rather than spend $70 million ($100,000 per unit) to rehabilitate and bring the 700 Passyunk units up to code, ``those resources would be put to better use by continuing our commitment to developing new and better housing that all PHA residents can be proud of,'' Greene said.
Passyunk residents will have a choice between other public housing and Section 8 rent subsidies, which allow them to move into privately owned city apartments wherever the vouchers are accepted.
PHA's demolition plan will also affect a $2.4 million community center and a gymnasium that opened in 1997. PHA says that more than 200 residents have already signed up for relocation. The relocation, already in progress, is expected to be completed within six to 10 months. Moving trucks were at the complex this week for those who have found alternative homes.
The development is scheduled for demolition in 2002, at a cost of $8.2 million, partially paid by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Last month, PHA obtained preliminary approval from HUD to demolish the homes.
Passyunk is undermined by an estimated 1 million to 2 million gallons of petroleum floating underground near the Sun Oil Co. refinery in South Philadelphia. Some of it has seeped into sewer lines, sending free-flowing petroleum under parts of South Philadelphia.
Some residents have long blamed the plume for allergies, asthma and other ailments, and have wondered whether it could cause cancer.
Loretta Epps, a 10-year-resident diagnosed with lung disease in 1996, blames Passyunk Homes for her problems. She's happy to go.
``They told me my lungs are damaged, and I have difficulty in breathing,'' said Epps, 32, who also suffers from asthma, blurred vision and sleep apnea. She breathes with the aid of an oxygen machine.
Epps said she never had any major health problems until she moved into Passyunk in November 1989. Although doctors did not say so, she believes her health problems are caused by exposure to the petroleum at Passyunk.
Leary said some residents have complained about health problems at Passyunk, but that there is no proof that the site is to blame. She said that several studies, including one commissioned by Sun Co. and the Defense Supply Center, were inconclusive.
``The studies are being evaluated by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the EPA,'' Leary said. ``The primary concern of Mr. Greene is the safety and well-being of all PHA residents.''
Some residents who are willing to move have discovered that they may not be able to go with all of their personal items.
Jessie Gillespie, of the 2200 block of Pollock Terrace, is packed and ready to move into the Wilson Park housing complex. But she cannot take her washing machine to her new place. She has to use one of the machines in the laundry room.
Leary acknowledged that in some developments, like Wilson Park, laundry room facilities are provided.
``Unfortunately, the resident chose to go to a site where personal washing machines are not accepted,'' Leary said.
After 30 years, Alexandria Dockins is moving because her son is going away to college. She supports those who insist on staying.
She said she believes Passyunk's impending demolition has a racial element, because Passyunk residents are mostly low income and black.
``Once they tear this project down, this whole area, geographically speaking, will be all white,'' she said. ``No one else is forced to move out of this community that may have oil under their land and live near the refinery.''
PHA said Passyunk Homes' poor condition, only, is the reason for the demolition.
``Over the years, it has been known as `Cardboard City' due to its less-than-solid construction,'' Leary said. ``The fact that HUD capped spending at $500,000 ensured we would not be able to modernize it nearly enough to make it a quality housing option for our residents. It would be difficult to attribute this to any form of racial bias.''