By ELANA KNOPP
At Newark’s Millard E. Terrell Homes, the public housing complex that sits on the corner of Riverview Court and Chapel Street in the city’s Ironbound neighborhood, a group of ladies gather in a converted apartment-turned-office, their eyes steely with determination.
They are ready to talk.
These are residents of the 275-unit housing complex who are, literally, fighting for their homes.
Rita Fortenberry, president of the Terrell Homes Tenant Association who has lived at at the apartments for more than five decades, speaks in measured tones as she describes a years-long fight to save her home.
“We’ve taken the gloves off,” she said. “We’re gonna continue to fight and we’re not going nowhere.”
Fortenberry is one of hundreds of Terrell residents who are fighting to save the complex after the Newark Housing Authority (NHA) recently voted to demolish it, with the Board of Commissioners agreeing to ask the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for permission to close and raze the public housing complex.
The NHA has cited structural, environmental and security concerns as reasons for the recommended demolition, claiming that repairs will cost an estimated $65 million, according to NHA’s engineering reports.
If closed, says the NHA, tenants who qualify for housing vouchers would be able to move to other affordable housing and be given 60 days in which to do so.
But of the 205 apartments currently occupied at Terrell Homes, housing advocacy groups said that just 40 of these would qualify for the housing vouchers.
Residents said the Housing Authority has been threatening them with a shutdown of the complex for years, yet have never done anything to address the issues.
Terrell Homes, originally named FDR Apartments, was built in 1946 as army barracks and later named for tenant and apartment manager Millard E. Terrell.
The neighborhood had a large and vibrant African-American population in the mid–20th century, home to such notable locals as jazz singer Miss Rhapsody, along with frequent visits from Sarah Vaughan, who attended church at the Mt. Zion Baptist Church on Thomas Street.
Drew Curtis, community development and environmental justice director at Ironbound Community Corporation (ICC), said the NHA’s repair estimates have been drastically inflated and refuted by several engineers and architects.
“We had an independent company out to assess and they are estimating the cost at half of what the NHA is saying,” Curtis said. “Our independent engineers and architects all say there’s no reason to close Terrell and that improvements can be made. Most of the apartments are in good condition. It’s cozy, and it’s home.”
Curtis said he suspects the NHA and the city are moving to demolish the complex to make way for the proposed development at Riverfront Park, which sits right next to the complex.
Threats to demolish the complex began in 2012—the same year that Riverfront Park was built. In addition, the lot upon which Terrell Homes sits is included in the city’s redevelopment plan.
“Is it a coincidence that they want to demolish it?” Curtis said. “The NHA is not making any attempt to improve or save Terrell.”
The Riverfront development plan, which calls for approximately five miles of redevelopment, addresses the Riverfront District bounded on the north at Delavan Avenue, McCarter Highway on the west, Raymond Boulevard on the south and Chapel Street and the Passaic River on the east. The Riverfront District is divided into four sub-districts, including North Ward, Lower Broadway, Downtown and the Ironbound.
Since the proposal for demolition and closure of Terrell Homes has been on the table, residents and housing advocacy groups have been involved in ongoing discussions with city officials and members of the housing authority.
In January, Adam Gordon, an attorney and associate director at housing justice organization Fair Share Housing Center, wrote to HUD Director Maria Maio-Messano and Acting Director Catherine Lamberg, asking that they refrain from approving any application of the NHA seeking demolition of Terrell Homes, and stating that the demolition as currently proposed would be in violation of the Fair Housing Act.
“As HUD and the NHA are well aware, Terrell Homes is a predominantly African-American public housing complex in a community, the Ironbound, which has been experiencing rapid gentrification and the loss of affordable housing opportunities,” Gordon wrote. “The demolition of these homes without an affirmative plan in place to allow those residents that wish to stay in the Ironbound to do so will further segregation by race in violation of the duty of both HUD and the NHA to affirmatively further fair housing.”
Gordon claimed the NHA has refused to comply with its legal obligations and has not engaged in collaborative consultation with the residents of Terrell Homes.
Gordon also alleged that the NHA has mischaracterized ICC’s request to develop an inclusive relocation plan with options in the Ironbound as “illegal steering.”
“To ensure that residents have options to remain in their communities in ways that further integration, rather than perpetuate segregation, is not “steering,” but rather NHA’s legal obligation under the federal Fair Housing Act,” Gordon wrote. “Given the realities of the rapidly appreciating housing market in the Ironbound, the NHA’s assertion in its letter to ICC that “residents can choose from all affordable housing options available to them including other public housing sites across all of Newark and the Section 8 Voucher Program…rings alarmingly hollow.”
The NHA did not respond to a request for comment.
Newark’s City Council recently voted to pass inclusionary zoning legislation, which would require all new residential and mixed-use developments of 30 or more units and substantially rehabilitated residential developments of 40 or more units to set aside 20 percent of units as income-restricted housing for low and moderate-income residents.
The legislation, however, does not apply to the city’s lowest-income residents, who many say will continue to be priced out of affordable housing, according to affordable housing experts and housing advocacy groups.
Gordon calls the relocation plan “non-existent,” noting the “discriminatory intent and disparate impact inherent in displacing this majority African-American community,” along with the NHA’s failure to apply for available funds from the Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery program to rehab Terrell Homes.
Tenant leaders and ICC participated in discussions with NHA in July and August of 2016, although housing advocacy groups claim the NHA later thwarted those efforts by failing to communicate further with community representatives.
Curtis said that a door-to-door survey revealed that approximately 75-80 percent of Terrell residents want the housing complex saved.
“We have the tenants’ backs,” Curtis said. “We want to see it saved and improved. This is not just about Terrell Homes, this is about gentrification and affordable housing.”
In a Dec. 2016 letter written by then-NHA Executive Director Keith Kinard to ICC Executive Director Joseph Della Fave, Kinard emphasized the agency’s plan to move ahead with the demolition.
“I must re-emphasize that the Newark Housing Authority intends to proceed with the preparation and submission of the demolition application to the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development to close Millard E. Terrell Homes,” Kinard wrote. “As previously stated, there are chronic, systematic issues at Terrell that far exceed the NHA’s financial capacity to address…The NHA has successfully implemented Relocation Plans for several public housing sites and we expect the same outcome for Terrell.”
Kinard also stated that 98 percent of Terrell residents who showed up at a community meeting last year were in support of the proposed demolition, noting his intention to obtain HUD’s approval of the application to close the site “so our Terrell Homes residents have access to the benefits of a Relocation Plan, including multiple housing choices and getting their moving expenses covered.”
In February, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka supported the move to demolish Terrell Homes in a letter to HUD.
“I support the application of the Newark Housing Authority to demolish Millard Terrell Homes (Terrell Homes) located at 59-97 Chapel Street, Newark, New Jersey,” Baraka wrote. “The City of Newark has worked with the NHA to ensure that residents live in safe and decent housing. However, based upon the conditions at this site and evidenced in Terrell Homes’ recent Physical Needs Assessment, demolition of the buildings is the most cost-effective measure.”
The mayor states in his letter that the buildings “have outlived their useful lives” and cited crumbling infrastructure, lack of amenities and physical isolation of the complex.
But residents tell a far different story. For them, Terrell is a close-knit community and home to many for upwards of half a century.
Rosemary Horsley, 69, moved to Terrell Homes as a service child 66 years ago, while Valerie Hall and Dorothy Brazell have both lived there for more than 50 years.
Hall pulls out several sepia-toned photographs dating back to the ’60s, images of children, carefree and smiling, standing and playing in front of the apartment complex.
The pictures reveal a well-maintained neighborhood, neat and trimmed and welcoming.
All recall community barbecues, kids playing outside on well-manicured swaths of grass dotted with trees and flowers, neighborhood get–togethers and raising their families over the course of many happy decades.
They also remember the drive-in movie theater down the road and some food markets that have since been shuttered.
“When I moved here, it was real nice,” Brazelle said. “I had curtains down the hallway. We had skating night and movie night and music and a canteen for the kids. It was a community.”
Fortenberry said that all residents are asking for is a fresh coat of paint and some new doors to make Terrell look like it once did.
Horsley said the complex once had landscaping, bushes and trees, but not anymore.
“The Housing Authority tore down the bushes and landscaping,” she said. “They said drug addicts were using the bushes to hide drugs, but that’s not true. They tore it down because they didn’t want to take care of it.”
This past summer, the association held a free food program to provide breakfast and lunch to the kids who live at Terrell, as well as a back-to-school event, where Terrell kids received new bookbags and school supplies.
“We are a village inside a community,” Fortenberry said. “We take care of each other. We’re all seniors and we take care of each other. If someone dies, we serve food to the family.”
The women also note the many public housing complexes that have been torn down due to rat infestations, mold and flooding, as well as high crime, but say that Terrell—which has just two maintenance workers and one repairman to care for all 275 units–simply needs to be repaired and maintained.
“If they really cared about Terrell Homes, they would have done something about it,” Fortenberry said of the NHA. “This is willful neglect on the part of the Housing Authority. Since 2012 we’ve been fighting with the housing authority to leave us alone and fix it up. All we want are new doors and a paint job to make it look like it used to look.”
Residents also say that Baraka, who has been an outspoken supporter of inclusionary zoning, has turned his back on them.
“The mayor told us he was neutral and that he didn’t sign anything, but he did sign against it,” Horsley said. “He said MX-3 at Riverfront doesn’t affect us but that’s not true. That’s gentrification. Why doesn’t he just tell us the truth? They have not provided us with any place to move. The kids are worried about where they’re going to move. We’re being displaced.”
MX-3, a controversial development proposal recently passed by the city council, allows for high-density residential and commercial buildings in the Ironbound neighborhood, which will increase building heights to 12 stories in the area near Penn Station.
Horsley also noted Baraka’s recent comments at one of many city council meetings on affordable housing.
“The mayor said you can be on unemployment and live in the Hahne building,” she said, referring to the luxury mixed-use project in the heart of downtown. “Well, unemployment don’t last forever.”
A spokesperson for Baraka did not respond to request for comment as of press time.
East Ward Councilman Augusto Amador has proposed solutions to save Terrell, such as physically restructuring the complex to make it smaller and more manageable.
Amador announced at the Oct. 11 meeting of the city council that he had met with the director of the NHA, who said he would put together a plan with the involvement of residents.
Della Fave disseminated a letter last week to housing advocacy colleagues, noting the consistent threat that Terrell residents have been under at the hands of the housing authority and the agency’s announcement to demolish the apartments several years ago.
“Two years later, NHA announced the same plan,” Della Fave said. “We all were able to stave off their plan until the evening of September 28, when the NHA Commissioners voted to submit to HUD for approval to demolish Terrell. When asked about the fate of the residents, the answer was simply that they will get vouchers – if they qualify for them. Vouchers alone are not the full answer for safe and secure housing. And for those that do not qualify, what is their fate?”
Della Fave further said in the letter that the city, along with the NHA, had planned for destruction of Terrell Homes and claiming the housing authority’s voucher eligibility program may leave many residents homeless.
Della Fave noted the NHA’s alleged lack off communication with the ICC and other advocacy groups.
“During these last two years, residents, ICC, and other partners have repeatedly asked for consultation,” he wrote. “NHA continued to refuse to talk despite repeated requests from residents and partners to resume discussions…Even when ICC and its partners offered to build new housing nearby Terrell that would include Terrell residents, NHA would not come to the table.”
Earlier this year, after HUD announced a new round of Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) funds, a program intended to leverage public and private dollars to turn complexes like Terrell around, the NHA allegedly refused to apply for these funds, with the city doing nothing to persuade them, according to the ICC.
Horsley cited the redevelopment plans at Riverfront Park.
“When they printed up the blueprints for that park, those blueprints were made for us not to be here,” she said. “There’s a lot of people that want to live in public housing. Just fix it up and let people live there. It’s years of neglect, neglect, neglect.”
The threat of displacement is reminiscent of the struggle for her civil liberties years ago, said Horsley, calling the Ironbound a melting pot but fearing the demolition of Terrell will drastically reduce the black and brown population in the area.
“I couldn’t get a job because they couldn’t stand my black face,” she said. “If they close this, it reduces the black and brown population. They don’t want us in the Ironbound District. They’re getting rid of the blacks and Hispanics.”
As for the mayor supporting the closure of Terrell Homes, Horsley was at no loss for words.
“It’s your own kind sticking a knife in your back,” she said. “Just turn it. This is part of the renaissance, baby. This is gentrification at its worst.”
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