Conflicts continue in Mount Holly Gardens redevelopment

Beatriz Cruz, who cares for her granddaughter, Alayah Collins (right), 2, has lived in Mount Holly Gardens for 20 years. The house adjacent to hers was removed this year. September 26, 2011. ( David M Warren / Staff Photographer )
Beatriz Cruz, who cares for her granddaughter, Alayah Collins (right), 2, has lived in Mount Holly Gardens for 20 years. The house adjacent to hers was removed this year. September 26, 2011. ( David M Warren / Staff Photographer )
Posted: September 28, 2011

Nancy Lopez makes a small fist as she insists she won't budge from the rowhouse she has called home in Mount Holly for 24 years.

"I'm fighting this until I get my fair rights that I deserve as an American, as a single parent who brought up five kids right, as a person who bought my own home," Lopez said as a bulldozer at the end of her tiny street groaned, drowning out her voice.

Then the former teacher's assistant sighed.

The township's threat of eminent domain over the last decade has taken a toll, and she doesn't know how long she can resist.

Mount Holly has demolished 259 of the rowhouses in the Gardens section, leaving a bleak vista of 70 artificially detached units, some standing precariously.

Most of the absentee landlords and their tenants are gone, leaving about 35 dogged but wearying homeowners and about the same number of renters.

The long legal dispute has drawn national attention, and the intervention of the U.S. Justice Department.

"I said, if you want my house, then leave me with another one," said the 56-year-old Lopez.

The township offered her $55,000, which Lopez said isn't enough to replace her three-bedroom, two-story house unless she takes on "a humongous new mortgage." She's making ends meet as a supermarket cashier and relished the idea of paying off her mortgage in six years.

This month, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia gave Lopez and the other holdouts hope when it ordered a trial to decide if the town's actions have discriminated against the section's mostly Hispanic and African American residents, many living below the poverty line.

The residents hope it will at least prod officials in the Burlington County community to agree to arbitration or mediation. But officials are showing no signs of backing down from the fight.

In 2002, the Mount Holly Township Council decided it would rid the blight and crime in the Gardens area by razing the neighborhood. The town had put a police substation there and ramped up patrols, apparently to no avail, and then turned to redevelopment.

The town made deals with most of the landlords and some of the individual homeowners and demolished the vacated units. Kent Pipes, a broker with the nonprofit Delta Real Estate, said the company sold seven units to the township in February.

The properties were assessed at $39,000 for two-bedroom units a year ago, he said, before the county ordered the town to do a revaluation to bring assessments closer to market value. The town then offered him $55,000 a unit, which he said was only enough to pay off the mortgages.

"When the town declared it an area of redevelopment and then had the threat of eminent domain hanging over people's heads, they effectively killed the market," said Pipes, who is also president of a nonprofit housing corporation, the Salt & Light Co., in Mount Holly. "Who else would buy it?"

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has ordered a trial to find out whether the town can rehabilitate some of the remaining homes, offer affordable new ones, or take some other action instead of simply displacing the remaining residents.

The court decision came in a lawsuit that some residents filed against the township, the council, Town Manager Kathleen Hoffman, developer Keating Urban Partners, redeveloper Triad Associates, and former Mayor Jules K. Thiessen.

The court cited census statistics showing a shortage of homes for low-income families in Burlington County.

The court noted that the town initially offered to pay only $32,000 to $49,000 for the houses, although one had sold for $81,000. The price of a new townhouse in the Gardens, meanwhile, is expected to be from $200,000 to $275,000, it said. Rent is projected at $1,230 a month for new apartments.

The case has grabbed the attention of the Justice Department, South Jersey Legal Services, AARP, and the Castle Coalition, a national lobbying group that argues against government seizing of private property. AARP represents many of the elderly residents.

In 2008, before the New Jersey Public Advocate's Office was eliminated, the agency interviewed Gardens residents and issued a report that foreshadowed the court ruling. It said that the township had failed to adequately compensate the residents and did not offer them enough affordable units, and that the demolition around them left them with little choice but to sell to the town.

Still, town officials do not appear willing to give in.

Neither the mayor nor the town manager returned calls for comment. But Deputy Mayor Tom Gibson said the town "needs to finish this development" and "continue down the road."

Gibson said the next step would be to meet with M. James Maley Jr., the town's special counsel in the case.

Maley, mayor of Collingswood and a prominent redevelopment lawyer in South Jersey, said in an interview that the court and the Justice Department were wrong.

"We could appeal to the Supreme Court, or go back and try the case, or ask for a rehearing. . . . Everything is an option," he said.

"This has implications for redevelopment projects" everywhere, he said. "How does Camden City do any redevelopment project?" he said, noting that there are large numbers of minorities there. Maley said redevelopment was a legal way to remove deteriorated homes, cut crime, and improve a town's appearance.

Richard Dow, the only person on the five-member council who has opposed the redevelopment, said there has been mostly silence since earlier this year, when the Justice Department filed an amicus brief in the residents' lawsuit suggesting that fair-housing laws may have been violated.

Finally, on Monday, the council took up the matter - privately - in an executive session.

"After the Justice Department weighed in, I could see the handwriting on the wall and knew we would be looking at even more legal costs" if we continue to litigate, Dow said. "I don't believe in taking a house for another house."

Olga D. Pomar, a Legal Services lawyer who represents about 20 of the remaining Gardens families, said her clients were "open and hopeful that the town is interested in reaching a settlement."

Going to trial, she said, would prolong their pain.

But in the past, she said, the town has refused to accept arbitration or mediation. Instead, it has made "a wholehearted attempt to make them say, 'I just have to get out of here. I can't live here,' " she said.

A wrecking crew is now sawing off vacant rowhouses, leaving the houses of families still there with cracks in walls and draftier houses.

Efrain Romero, a retired school custodian whose family has lived in the Gardens for 20 years, said he wants to stay, especially now that the crime's gone, but it isn't easy.

"Right now the people who own the houses are nice and quiet," he said. However, there are leaks in his roof and cracks in his house.

The appeals court criticized the town for demolishing all the vacated units rather than waiting until the first phase of new homes was built and for creating "conditions that encouraged the remaining residents to leave."

"Residents living amongst the destruction were forced to cope with noise, vibration, dust and debris," it said, describing the aftermath in stark terms.

"Around the neighborhood, homes bore the scars of demolition: hanging wires and telephone boxes, ragged brick corners, open masonry joints, rough surfaces, irregular plywood patches, and damaged porches, floors, and railings. Destruction of the sidewalks outside demolished homes" make it "difficult to navigate through the neighborhood."

Maley scoffed at the idea that the town is pressuring poor minorities to move out.

"We're following the state law, the federal law, to remove an area that's blighted," he said. He doubted mediation would be fruitful, saying "the things the folks wanted have been totally unrealistic."

Lopez said township officials have been insensitive. "They think because it's legal, it's right," she said. "I guess that's how they sleep at night."


Contact staff writer Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com.

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