After three years, some success from Camden housing plan

Alona Williams bought a 4-bedroom house on Benson Street through the program. "I love it. . . . It's so quiet," she said.
Alona Williams bought a 4-bedroom house on Benson Street through the program. "I love it. . . . It's so quiet," she said. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 04, 2013

Three years. $26 million. Seven neighborhoods.

Since 2010, various Camden agencies and groups have been working to improve conditions in those targeted neighborhoods with a large chunk of federal money designated for communities affected by foreclosed and abandoned properties.

A major component of the Camden plan was to stabilize neighborhoods through home ownership.

"All homes built and sold by February 2013," Mayor Dana L. Redd declared during her 2011 "Renewing Our Neighborhoods" forum.

Though the venture has allowed at least two dozen residents to become first-time homeowners, work on only a third of the nearly 300 properties that were projected to be demolished, built, or rehabilitated through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2 (NSP2) had been completed as of May 10, according to federal records.

One developer blamed Hurricane Sandy for a three-month construction delay. Others said finding people in Camden who have a high-enough credit score and a stable job to qualify for a mortgage was difficult.

Between the Camden Redevelopment Agency and the Housing Authority of Camden City, 98 houses were to be built or rehabilitated to be sold, and 80 rental units were to be developed. The Redevelopment Agency received $12 million and the authority $14 million. The money also went toward demolition of vacant houses, land banking, and greening. All the work was done through collaboration among the grantee government agencies, redevelopment nonprofits, and for-profit developers.

Just across the Delaware River, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority worked with $44 million during the same NSP2 phase, which ended in February. At that time, Philadelphia also had completed work on only a small percentage of its projected properties, according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Though the properties have not been sold or occupied as quickly as was hoped on either side of the river, occupants who have taken advantage of the finished products say the program was a blessing. In Camden, the interest has been primarily from longtime residents.

Maritza Figueroa and her husband, Anthony McCormick, who both grew up in the Cramer Hill section, bought one of the highly subsidized rehabilitated homes through NSP2.

"If there were other [subsidized housing] programs outside of Camden, we would've probably done that," McCormick, 25, said as he held his year-old child on the porch on a recent afternoon.

But the couple's home on the 700 block of Berkley Street, which they bought for $72,000, is "pretty quiet," they said, adding that they had noticed the neighborhood becoming more stable.

The city had hoped to use some of the grant money to attract new residents, but that response hasn't happened.

"With 3,000 employees at Cooper Hospital, it seemed like a natural choice" for potential buyers, said Maria Yglesias, coprincipal at M&M Development, which is building 30 townhouses in the Cooper Plaza neighborhood. "To our surprise, not as many" have. "It's other people who purchased who live in Camden."

M&M has closed on only one of its NSP2 properties, which range in price from $113,000 to $219,000. Yglesias doesn't think the price is a deterrent. Other NSP2 homes have been sold in Camden in that price range.

After renting most of her adult life, Alona Williams, a single mother of two, took the jump last June to look at the St. Joseph's Carpenter Society's newly rehabbed houses.

Williams, 36, who works for the state Division of Youth and Family Services, fell in love with a four-bedroom house on Benson Street in Cooper Plaza. She called the purchase process "too easy." In February, she moved into her first home as the owner.

"I love it, love it. It's so quiet," she said of the $142,000 house.

In addition to affordable and market-rate housing, the Redevelopment Agency and the Housing Authority developed low-income housing projects with NSP2 money.

Some have criticized that, saying it further concentrates poverty in Camden, already ranked as the poorest city in the nation.

The authority contracted with Michael's Development to build a 40-unit affordable complex in Morgan Village. The agency contracted with Ingerman Development and the nonprofit Respond Inc. to develop the 40-unit Meadows at Pyne Poynt, also affordable housing.

Bryan Morton, a North Camden resident and a commissioner of the Redevelopment Agency, said he feared his neighborhood was being saturated with affordable housing, digging it into a deeper hole of poverty.

Once the Meadows project was completed, the agency began discussing a second phase that would erect 78 more units of affordable-housing rentals in North Camden, one of the poorest and most drug-infested areas of the city.

"We often build things without thinking beyond the grant money," Morton said.

Chuck Valentine, director of modernization and development for the Housing Authority, said with the amount of poverty in Camden, low-income housing could not be ignored.

"Do you need affordable housing? Well, that's a stupid question. Of course we do. We don't have enough," Valentine said, citing one waiting list of more than 7,000 names.

Helene Pierson, executive director at the Waterfront South-focused nonprofit Heart of Camden, charged with developing 28 homes under NSP2, said the stimulus money helped in continuing to reduce the number of vacant properties in the neighborhood.

A decade ago, Waterfront South was one of the most dilapidated city neighborhoods, if not the worst. It has gone from having 400 abandoned properties to less than 50, Pierson said.

"The neighborhood starts having a fighting chance," Pierson said.

Selling the houses has been difficult, though, because banks have become stricter about mortgage lending, she said.

Some NSP2 participants are doing lease-to-buy, Pierson said. They will rent for a few years while Heart of Camden works with them to get mortgage approval. The lease payments would go toward the sale price. Nearly all taking part have been first-time buyers from within the city, Pierson said.

In the Liberty Park section, two of nine completed houses have been sold. One on Everett Street was sold to a woman who lives just down the street, said Norma Sellers, a real estate agent working with Pennrose Development to sell the 10 houses it developed under NSP2.

"We've got a lot of marketing" material out, Sellers said, to draw interest in the remaining properties from hospital workers.

Some of the biggest Camden employers, such as Virtua and Cooper, are offering incentives of $5,000 for employees who buy houses in the city.

The new county police force and charter schools - along with all the NSP2 houses - are sure to draw new city residents, said the Redevelopment Agency's executive director, Saundra Ross-Johnson.

Like many other city officials, she believes "it's a new day" in Camden.


Contact Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917, cvargas@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," at www.philly.com/camden_flow.

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