Future of Atlantic City’s public housing looks like middle class neighborhoods

The days of building public housing in huge towers or “villages” only for the poor are over, officials say.

The Meadows housing development in Atlantic City is what public housing of the future will look like.

The Meadows’ 90 units are a mix of affordable tax credit units, housing choice voucher units (formerly called Section 8), and public housing built by a public-private partnership between the authority and Conifer Realty of Mount Laurel. It looks like any middle class urban community, and is less dense than most subsidized housing.

As communities grapple with how to both assist people during difficult economic times in their lives and help them work towards self-sufficiency and independence, the shape and function of public housing needs to change, advocates say.

That includes replacement housing for the historic Stanley Holmes Village if it is demolished, said Atlantic City Housing Authority Executive Director Tom Hannon.

The old style of concentrated public housing provided homes for people, but also kept them — and their children — isolated from the wider community, said HUD Region 2 Administrator Lynne Patton while touring the city’s public housing last week.

“Public housing began with good intentions, but ultimately what it did was silo poverty, and silo opportunities from people who truly need it,” said Patton. “The goal of the new Stanley Holmes will be to make sure each individual unit blends seamlessly — it all looks like market-rate housing — and you can’t differentiate low-income housing. That’s the way it should be.”

People need to see role models of all kinds around them, said Councilman Jesse Kurtz, who is on the board of the authority.

“Kids grow up and have never encountered people going to work each day,” said Kurtz of people who grow up in segregated public housing. “That’s not normal.”

When public housing is scattered throughout the city, kids will grow up around professionals as well as people struggling, he said.

Members of the Collins family have lived in The Meadows almost since it opened about four years ago, and they love it there. They particularly like the mix of people of all economic backgrounds, how rules are enforced and how the kids all play together on lawns and sidewalks around the houses.

“We’ve lived in Back Maryland, and in Carver Hall,” said Cecelia Collins, who lives with her husband and children in one unit, while her adult son Daniel, 27, lives in a separate unit with his family. “The Meadows is a quiet, peaceful neighborhood. We have minimum to no police action.”

It was a different story at Carver Hall, an older affordable housing complex on South Carolina Avenue, Daniel Collins said.

“I felt my children were unsafe there,” he said of his four kids ages 3 to 9.

The city’s housing authority, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, has a $16 million annual budget funded by federal dollars and rent money collected, said Hannon.

It owns and operates seven housing projects as well as 165 single-family homes spread throughout the city. There are about 800 units for elderly and disabled and 800 for families, he said.

His agency alone houses 10 percent of the city’s population — about 4,000 people. And there are 1,000 families on the waiting list.

The waiting list for senior housing recently opened and will stay open for new applications through the end of the month.

A large percentage of Atlantic City residents qualify for housing subsidies.

That’s because the city’s median family income is so low — about $26,000. And the qualification is based on the median family income of the entire county, which is $76,900.

To qualify for housing choice vouchers (formerly called Section 8 vouchers) a family must be very low income, which is defined as making 50% or less of the median family income of the area.

A family of four can make up to $38,450 and still qualify for a housing voucher, which pays the remainder of the rent after the recipient pays 30 percent of their income towards it.

To qualify for public housing in ACHA buildings, for which tenants pay 30% of income for rent (minimum of $50 a month), a family of four only needs to be low income, meaning having an income of 80% of the median.

So a family of four can make $61,500 and still qualify to live in public housing.

ACHA contributed $9 million of the total project cost of $40 million for The Meadows, using the last of its Hope 6 grant from HUD, Hannon said.

So it retains an ownership share, but Conifer manages the property, he said. That’s unusual for a property with public housing units in it, but it shows that HUD is comfortable with “thinking outside the box” on projects, he said.

But as beautiful as The Meadows is, some residents of the 82-year-old, 420-unit Stanley Holmes Village off Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard are hesitant to embrace the idea of replacing it with similar housing spread around the city.

The housing authority recently chose The Michaels Organization, of Camden, to be the private redeveloper partner on the project.

Michaels will now begin meeting with residents and make a plan to either renovate the 44 buildings that make up Stanley Holmes or replace it with new housing.

As Hannon showed Patton around Stanley Holmes recently, passersby gave their two cents.

“Don’t tear it down. People need that! Please!!” hollered one driver as he passed the group of officials and media on the sidewalk near the Stanley Holmes Community Center.