Camden recovery aids some

Other areas and agencies, though, have had no share in state funding.

Posted: November 10, 2009

Third of four parts

James Reilly sips morning coffee on his new front porch so he can watch the sunrise glow upon the looming Ben Franklin Bridge.

On the weekends, the 34-year-old Manayunk transplant and his new wife, Maria Nasidka, play tennis at the courts across the street and go for long runs along the Delaware River. They organize friends for coed football games at the nearby Rutgers University fields and walk to minor-league Riversharks games. Then they return home to three bedrooms, four bathrooms, 2,300 square feet, and a backyard of suburban proportions.

All this, in Camden - a city with one of the worst reputations in America - for the bargain price of $217,000 and the cheapest property taxes around.

These newlyweds are a rare realization of the vision set forth in the 2002 recovery law that put Camden City government under state control and funneled $175 million in bonds and loans to the city.

Although the law said market-rate housing to accommodate middle-class people was "critical," things didn't work out that way. Most of the $48 million appropriated to residential projects was targeted to low-income renters.

"The ratio is skewed; too much is going to affordable housing," acknowledged Theodore Z. Davis, the former Camden chief operating officer. "You'll never grow."

The newlyweds' community is a remarkable exception, and it shows the potential that the city has for middle-class growth.

Their home is part of a $10.4 million, 18-home middle-income housing project funded with $1.2 million from the Camden recovery fund. The theory? Offering $100,000 home subsidies could entice employed professionals to a city that has lost middle-class families since the 1950s.

"I could never have imagined the peace of mind I have being here," Reilly said. "I love living here."

He's awestruck over the community feel - with an active neighborhood e-mail chain, a recent mayoral candidates' forum, and a neighbor's generosity in lending a power tool.

"It's so personal," he said of his neighbors. "It's almost like [Camden] is their baby that they're rooting for."

The homes between Rutgers-Camden and the waterfront sold almost as soon as they hit the market last winter. "Middle-income people will pay a premium to get a good house in a good neighborhood in Camden," said Frank Fulbrook of the Cooper Grant Neighborhood Association, which developed the project with Pennrose Properties.

Each property was subsidized by about a third, with a 10-year residency requirement. Plus, for each of the first 15 years, the newlyweds will pay a "service charge" of about $4,340 instead of taxes. That's three times less than the taxes of some of their suburban neighbors.

This money only goes to the city's coffers, and not the schools' or the county's, but it's an effective enticement for buyers.

Such recovery-funded enticements are also used for businesses, and they helped to bring both a new Rita's Water Ice to the neighborhood and Victor's Pub, the city's nicest bar, which has built a lunch crowd with workers from the waterfront offices.

This slow uptick in improvements has stoked new residents' enthusiasm and helped strengthen their commitment to Camden - even if people who live in Cherry Hill say they're "crazy" for moving to a city known as one of the country's poorest and most dangerous.

"I always have to give them a pitch to tell them what it's all about," Nasidka said, gushing about biking to Philadelphia and walking to shows at Wiggins Park and Susquehanna Bank Center.

There's no nearby supermarket, but, they say, they would have to drive to a market if they lived in Mount Laurel, too.

A few blocks north is an active drug area, but, Nasidka said, "If you're in Rittenhouse and go a couple of blocks in the wrong direction, you're not in such a good neighborhood, either."

Several police departments patrol the area, and Reilly says he's "safer in Camden than I was in Manayunk," where his car was broken into twice.

"A city is a city."

The couple eats at Latin restaurants in East Camden where there's little English on the menus. Their neighbors include a city firefighter, a Cooper University Hospital emergency room doctor, and Rutgers-Camden professors.

For a couple looking to have a family and interested in a high-quality education, Camden public schools - among the worst in the state in every indicator - are currently not an option.

But, Reilly said, "if we were in Philadelphia, I might not want to send my kids to the schools" there, either.

He said he'd consider charter or private schools. "There's no doubt in my mind that this city, this location, is going to improve over the next 10 years," Reilly said.

And, he believes, he'll be around - perhaps with little ones playing horseshoes in the massive backyard - to see it happen.

Home-improvement money

Her five children moved. Twice, cars crashed into the living room, leaving craters in the wall. Next door, the church burned down.

But Marie Brown stayed at the corner of 28th and High Streets in East Camden. Across the street, her friend and neighbor Dorothy Threat stayed, too. And their loyalty was recently rewarded.

In an innovative, nationally recognized home-improvement program funded in part by recovery dollars, longtime Camden residents current on their taxes are being awarded with $20,000 home-improvement projects.

The workers "did a beautiful job," said Brown, 71, who is undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer and lives on Social Security. "I appreciate everything everybody does for me, like these people here."

The Camden Home Improvement Program (CHIP) is highly successful, officials and civic activists say, thanks to $5 million in funding from the state recovery and an additional $2.85 million from other state and city funds.

Homes in Camden are so old, though, and residents are so poor, that this money has not been enough. And it is just a piece of the $24 million that the group Camden Churches Organized for People requested in 2005 when it complained that recovery money was skipping over the neighborhoods.

With 200 homes covered by the recovery plan's portion of the money, and with more than 500 homeowners on a waiting list, Brown's good fortune could have been replicated many times over, and sooner, with more funding.

Brown moved into her five-bedroom home in 1973 after fleeing the fires in North Camden, and thought she was "in heaven." But her house - which once included a grocery store downstairs - has 33 windows and no adjacent neighbors, so it is vulnerable to the wind. Some winters have been so cold that Brown couldn't use the washing machine because the pipes had frozen.

So CHIP replaced 10 of the windows, and now Brown's heating bills are down more than 50 percent, she said. A supply closet was rebuilt, the front of the house was power-washed, and the gutters were replaced.

Brown found out about CHIP from her neighbor and occasional partner in prayer, the 73-year-old Threat. Widowed, Threat bought her three-bedroom house from her parents 30 years ago and then raised nine of her 11 children there. After her husband died, she became a nurse to support the family.

Since suffering a stroke, money has been tight and she hasn't kept up with the house. So CHIP installed a new back door, banisters and smoke alarms, the home's first.

"They did lots - I am not complaining one bit," she said in her singsong voice. "I am grateful. It really has been a blessing to me."

Part of the intention of the program is to inspire other neighbors to fix their own homes, and sure enough, after CHIP fixed Threat's sidewalks, two neighbors had their own sidewalks repaired.

Yet Scotch tape still holds together the glass on the front door. And when the washing machine is on, water leaks on the laundry-room floor and pours outside. Clearly, this old house needed more than $20,000.

But for Camden's most committed residents, any help is welcome. "Whatever you get, be appreciative, be thankful," Brown said. "Believe me."

Cultural program unfunded

Alexis was a Camden High School sophomore, fighting at school, running the streets, dealing with what she described as an anger problem. I "do what I do," she said.

Sister Gigi found Alexis on the streets. "Do you want to join us?" she asked.

Gigi is an outreach coordinator for the Unity Community Center - an organization of 150 praise-dancing, drum-beating, karate-kicking, stilt-walking, brass-playing, military-marching Camden kids.

"Do you want to join us?" she asked Alexis, again and again.

Months passed, and Alexis relented. Last spring she nervously walked into the dilapidated community center and watched a braided, tattooed woman tap a drumbeat on a 6-year-old boy's shoulders: Boom, ba-boom ba-boom ba-boom.

Boom, ba-boom ba-boom ba-boom, the boy responded, as the beat flowed through his arms for the first time.

And with this, Alexis pulled up a chair and joined UCC.

From saving a girl headed down a dark path to teaching a boy the joy of music, UCC believes it uses martial arts, jazz, and dance to make miracles every day. But despite its 26 years of service, the organization was unable to wrestle a dime from the $175 million Camden recovery fund.

One longtime civic activist in Camden, Andy Thomas, said in an interview before he died this summer: "These kids are the best things to happen in Camden in 50 years."

Out of a dingy storefront on a particularly ugly stretch of Mount Ephraim Avenue, UCC offers children a chance, usually free, to find self-confidence and discipline. The youths have performed concerts at gubernatorial inaugurations in Trenton, World Cafe Live in West Philadelphia, and a pageant in Gambia. UCC is Camden's biggest, and most improbable, cultural export.

Three years ago, founders Robert and Wanda Dickerson submitted a several-hundred-page application for a $1 million grant from the recovery fund to renovate a 6,000-square-foot former auto shop that was donated to the group. A $1 million request for a Boys & Girls Club and $5 million for a Salvation Army center had already been approved.

Although the UCC proposal never came up for a vote or public deliberation, officials say the organization wasn't financially viable, so it was rejected.

There were tax liens from outstanding water bills at the new property, which UCC says are erroneous - because there are no pipes. There were property taxes owed because UCC had failed to submit its tax-exemption form for a couple of years (it is current now).

And there were repeated questions about matching funds. Officials favored projects with other funding sources, which residents complained effectively eliminated grassroots groups.

"It's like we're really living in an illusion, it's a mirage," Gigi said. "And to have $175 million come into the city - $175 million! - and we haven't gotten any support? . . . You go to one part of the city, by the waterfront, and you think you're in Hollywood. You go to another side of the city and it's Beirut, a war zone."

Former Camden COO Davis said that he worked with the group but that it failed to get its paperwork and finances in order: "A lot of people are more hell-bent on crying and complaining than doing something."

UCC has never relied on government funds to operate. Its leaders say they tried to adjust their application to accommodate concerns over their expansion proposal.

The City Council approved a resolution this year absolving UCC of its liens, and the Camden County sheriff - who is in charge of tax sales - even appeared to show support. Each City Council member then handed a signed copy of the resolution to a UCC child.

In state-run Camden, though, a city councilman's signature is just an autograph. A week later, Davis called the council's resolution "meaningless."

UCC is now trying to raise private funds to renovate its building, which it got in 2000. It puts on more than 400 performances a year, but those fees go back into the program, not the building.

"This is a powerful story to show how government went astray in the process of helping poor people," said Roy Jones, an activist who wrote UCC's application.


Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 856-779-3919 or mkatz@phillynews.com.

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