Thursday, August 12, 1999

Public housing made better

Renovated Laurel units open doors

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Marian Miller comes home today to her corner of Laurel Homes.

        The 69-year-old retiree will be one of the first to move into three renovated public housing buildings at Liberty and Linn streets that — in a few years — will be the last of the kind that once dominated the West End landscape.

        The 16-month, $12 million renovation project took down one of four buildings on the corner. Laurel Homes' remaining 21 buildings would be demolished and replaced with mixed-income town houses if the Cincinnati Pub lic Housing Authority receives a $35 million federal grant during the next month.

        “I walk through here and I ask, "Lord, am I in heaven?'” Ms. Miller said Wednesday when she was shown her renovated one-bedroom apartment.

        She looked from her concrete stoop at a landscaped courtyard. Surrounded by a spotless black fence and ring of shrubs and trees, a yellow-and-red playset shone in the morning sun. The new environment appears to have generated a new attitude among some returning residents.

        “A group of us seniors got together. We ain't going to put up with that loud, filthy-talking rap. We ain't taking no stuff from nobody,” said Ms. Miller, a former nurse's aide who lived in the now-demolished building for 18 years before being relocated to another section of Laurel Homes. She's most excited by her shower — she used to have only a tub — and the flowers planted along the sidewalks.

        “You know, before, you cared, but now, now you want to do your very best to keep it this way,” she said.

        Ms. Miller's new home is a one-bedroom flat; the single-floor apartments are 7 percent to 40 percent larger. Several of the units were transformed from flats to two-story town houses.

        The four buildings previously had 240 apartments. The three remaining have 130.

        Most are two- and three-bedroom apartments. Maximum rent for one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments is $322, $394 and $474.

        Forty units are rented to residents — Ms. Miller and others — who were moved from the buildings that were renovated or the one that was demolished. The remaining 90 units will be held for Laurel Homes residents who will be forced to move if demolition occurs.

        “These three buildings preserve a piece of this community's heritage,” said CMHA Executive Director Donald Troendle. “This is where people can come to see Cincinnati's past.”

        Shirley Williams, 57, will move back Saturday to one of the renovated units.

        “They're real nice, with the washer-dryer hookups and the showers,” said Ms. Williams, who works part time as a housekeeper. “It's convenient down here with the bus lines. We have nice neighborhoods. About half of them are coming back.”

        Apartments in the three buildings are more livable, Mr. Troendle said, but are still limited by exterior dimensions.

        “This is a good product, but these are basic units,” he said. “They do not have central air (conditioning). They do not have carpet.”

        The three buildings were renovated as part of a 1996 CMHA plan that called for the renovation of all of Laurel Homes. But with direction from the federal Department of Hous ing and Urban Development (HUD), that plan was scratched in favor of an idea to demolish outdated public housing nationwide and rebuild it as mixed-income neighborhoods.

        Last year, CMHA won a $31.1 million Hope VI grant from HUD to demolish and rebuild Lincoln Court, a 52-building public housing complex across Ezzard Charles Drive from Laurel Homes.

        Ten of Lincoln Court's buildings are down, and 12 others will be demolished by the end of October.

        This spring, CMHA filed for a $35 million Hope VI grant to demolish 21 buildings containing 970 apartments in Laurel Homes. The city has pledged more than $15 million to the rebuilding of Lincoln and Laurel.

        The new Lincoln Court will have about 500 town houses and apartments, down from 886 units.

        The new Laurel Homes would have 630 units, including the 130 renovated apartments, as well as 85 others that will be built or renovated off-site throughout the West End. Before renovation, Laurel Homes had about 1,100 units.

        CMHA has promised residents that they will be given first choice to return. Residents who don't want to come back can move to another of CMHA's properties or receive Section 8 vouchers for subsidized housing in Hamilton County.

        It appears the West End of the 21st century will look vastly different than it did for most of the 20th.

        The exception would be the corner of Liberty and Linn.

        Ms. Miller was 10 when her family moved into Laurel Homes in 1940, two years after it opened.

        She lived there until she married, and moved back after she split with her husband. She left again to live with her mother in Evanston when her income level exceeded residency limits. She came back to stay when she was disabled at work.

        “When you're like me, low-income, with a fixed income, this is the place you live,” Ms. Miller said. “But it has never been as nice as it is now.”


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