Residents welcome demise of North Phila. PHA high-rises

Phara Regusters (left) and Alicia Perez will be happy to have new homes.
Phara Regusters (left) and Alicia Perez will be happy to have new homes. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 20, 2014

PHILADELPHIA Mothers know not to send their children into the stairwells of the Blumberg public housing high-rises in North Philadelphia.

Bad things happen there.

Fights. Drugs. Rapes.

Phara Regusters, who lives on the sixth floor of the Judson Tower, worries so much about her 12-year-old son that she will stand by the stairwell door like a sentinel, watching and listening until he gets where he's going.

"We'll be on the phone: 'You see him? I don't see him,' " said Regusters, while chatting in her kitchen with neighbor Alicia Perez, who lives two floors below her. "We don't take any chances."

So it was with great relief and hope that residents such as Regusters and Perez heard that the towers would be coming down.

Rumors had been circulating for more than a year that the Philadelphia Housing Authority planned to demolish the outdated high-rises to make room for low-rise townhouses.

Two weeks ago, the PHA confirmed the news and began spelling out details to residents.

"I can't wait," said Perez, who has lived at Blumberg with her teenage son and daughter for eight years.

The two 18-story buildings - the Judson and Hemberger Towers - house 2,100 people in 499 units. The Blumberg development also has 15 barrack-style buildings and another tower for senior citizens.

Built in the late 1960s, the high-rises are viewed today as obsolete. The buildings isolate poor households and stand as an obstacle to renewing the neighborhood, PHA president Kelvin Jeremiah has said. And even though the housing authority has stepped up police patrols in corridors and stairwells, crime flourishes.

Living in the towers, said Regusters, 53, is like "living in a beehive."

"Criminals come here to get lost," she said. "If PHA takes that away, that's a good thing."

Far-reaching plan

Before the PHA can implode the towers, it needs the approval of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provides most of its funding. That could happen by the end of the year, with demolition occurring next year, Jeremiah said.

The decision to replace the high-rises is part of a far-reaching plan to redevelop the Sharswood neighborhood around Blumberg, an area stretching north of Girard College, south of Cecil B. Moore Avenue, and between 20th and 27th Streets.

In the first phase, the PHA will spend $20.5 million to build 57 units in townhouse-style buildings. It will use open space around Blumberg, taking over a basketball court and vacant lots in the surrounding neighborhood that are owned by the city or PHA.

Last month, the PHA received a key piece of funding: A state financing agency awarded it federal low-income housing tax credits to use for raising 60 percent of the cost.

"That was critical for kick-starting development," Jeremiah said.

The authority also has received a grant of $1.5 million from the city and will use $6.3 million of its own money.

'Back to the table'

Phase two, which will start after the demolition of the towers, calls for building 82 more units, including some for sale.

"Since 2010, we've done virtually no development work," Jeremiah said. "People now are coming back to the table, wanting to work with us."

The PHA's construction work stalled after the 2010 firing of longtime executive director Carl R. Greene, who aggressively rebuilt PHA communities during his tenure. HUD took over the agency in 2011 and returned it to local control only a year ago.

At Blumberg, PHA staff has begun meeting with residents to spell out what will happen to them. The authority has promised to place families in other PHA properties or provide federal vouchers for subsidizing the cost of private housing.

'Really happy'

Current residents will be given priority for moving into the new units. PHA also will move families out of the barrack-style units, but will not dismantle the tower for seniors. Jeremiah said that building was easier to maintain and keep safe.

"Everyone is really happy," said Regusters, president of the resident council at Blumberg. "They're getting people prepared."

While the move will be disruptive and stressful, many tenants say it is better than staying put.

Roberta Buchanan, 23, a Blumberg resident for 13 years, lives on the top floor of the Judson Tower. She said she never lets her 8-year-old son out of her sight.

At first, she was sad about relocating. But she has come around.

"It's a good change for most people," she said.


jlin@phillynews.com

215-854-5659 @j_linq

www.inquirer.com/

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