Housing Authority tabs stimulus funds to raze, renovate or upgrade units (Delaware News Journal)

The News Journal

The Wilmington Housing Authority will spend the bulk of $5.2 million in federal stimulus money to demolish some units, renovate others and make a series of upgrades in a high-rise apartment that has been vacant since a major fire four years ago.

The money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was designed to improve public housing, increase energy efficiency and create jobs, U.S. Rep. Mike Castle and Senators Tom Carper and Ted Kaufman said.

The Riverside housing project, plagued by drugs and crime, will get most of the money, WHA Executive Director Fred Purnell said.

About $2 million will be spent to demolish 146 units that have been vacant there for several years. Part of the cost includes asbestos removal and other environmental cleanups that will make the site ready for future redevelopment.

"The stimulus money gives us one last shot to stabilize the Riverside community," Purnell said. "We didn't have the money to do what needs to be done there."

Riverside will also get about $1.2 million of the $2 million that is budgeted for renovating public housing units throughout the city, Purnell said. Seventy Riverside units in various stages of disrepair will be modernized. The work will include improvements to kitchens, bathrooms, floors, roofs, windows and doors.

About $800,000 will be spent to do similar work in the Southbridge project and several single-building apartments the housing authority owns in other city neighborhoods, Purnell said.

Bernadette Winston, president of the housing authority's board of directors, said Purnell and his staff made the right decisions on how to spend the stimulus money. Winston is also the executive director of Kingswood Community Center, which serves Riverside's tenants, so she knows how much help the impoverished area needs.

"What we're spending there only scratches the surface of what's needed there, but anything that we didn't have before at least offers that community a chance for a new beginning," she said.

Riverside was one of several Wilmington neighborhoods that were designated last year as "Blueprint Communities" by Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh, which gave $25,000 to each of the neighborhoods to create development plans.

Getting rid of the long-vacant units, which are all in the empty back of the Northeast Wilmington project, and sprucing up the vacant ones in the populated area closer to Bowers Street and Gov. Printz Boulevard, is consistent with the development plan created by the Blueprint team.

Riverside has a 65-percent refusal rate by prospective tenants who have been screened and approved for an apartment by the housing authority staff, Purnell said. Some families simply fear the pervasive crime, but others don't like what Purnell calls the "gap-toothed" appearance of the project -- with two or three vacant units in the middle of a block. The units attract addicts, rodents and squatters. Families simply don't want to live there.

"This money should help us reduce those refusals," Purnell said.

The work is expected to begin later this year.

Winston said the ultimate dream for Riverside is for HOPE VI funding to be reinstated by the federal government. A $29 million grant from that program allowed the housing authority to demolish the equally decrepit Eastlake project across the street from Riverside and replace it with new town houses.

About $600,000 of the stimulus money will be spent to complete the repairs to Crestview Apartments on North Market Street, which was gutted by fire in 2005. Most of the the money will be for a new sprinkler system and various energy improvements.

About 10 percent of the money given to the housing authority will be spent on administrative costs, Purnell said.

The Dover Housing Authority got about $600,000 and the Newark program got $172,000. The Delaware State Housing Authority, which serves Kent and Sussex counties, received $1 million.