Friday, July 23, 2004

HUD secretary encouraging on English Woods

By Kevin Aldridge
Enquirer staff writer

Alphonso Jackson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, gets a hug Thursday from English Woods resident Marcia Battle.
ENGLISH WOODS - U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson said Thursday that he's seen housing projects in "much worse" condition than English Woods and that no public housing development could be sold or closed without his permission.

Jackson, who came to Cincinnati to visit with tenants and tour English Woods, called the World War II-era apartment complex "scenic," "beautiful" and "structurally sound." Those words have seldom been used by the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority - which owns English Woods - to describe or market the 948-unit development in recent years.

"I just wanted to come and see for myself," Jackson said. "I come with no preconceived notions as to what should occur."

Jackson's visit comes at a time when public attitudes toward low-income housing in Cincinnati are changing. In recent years, public housing developments such as Huntington Meadows, Lincoln Court and Laurel Homes have been bulldozed in favor of newer market-rate housing and condominiums.

The housing authority wanted to raze English Woods and build single-family homes atop the prime western Cincinnati land as it had done in the West End with Laurel Homes and Lincoln Court.

But Cincinnati City Council, state lawmakers and neighborhood activists opposed the demolition. In October, HUD rejected the demolition plan.

"No one can close or sell any public housing without my permission," Jackson said.

About a dozen tenants, neighborhood activists and supporters of English Woods met with Jackson at a church in Cumminsville Thursday morning to discuss concerns.

De'Nita Wilson, 30, said she was pleased about the HUD secretary's visit but was hoping for more immediate help. Wilson, a tenant since 1999, said she recently got a letter from the housing authority telling her to vacate her apartment by Dec. 31.

"I love my apartment and I'm hoping I can keep my home," Wilson said.

Jackson went inside one apartment in the newer English Woods addition on Bleeker Street. He also drove past over 300 unoccupied apartments in a fenced-off section CMHA has targeted for demolition. Jackson said judging only from his view of the outside, things looked fine to him.

"I have seen in my time much worse," Jackson said. "It's structurally very sound (on the exterior). The property is very scenic and beautiful."

CMHA Director Donald Troendle has said renovation - estimated at about $130,000 per unit - would be too costly. Troendle has maintained that the complex, though structurally sound, is riddled with failing heating and cooling systems, asbestos and lead-based paint.

The housing authority has done little marketing of the property. Instead, English Woods tenants are being moved out of the area once targeted for demolition and into two additions. There is a 70 percent vacancy rate among 700 units, Troendle said.

"The housing authority has the right to say something is not viable," Jackson said. "But so far, they have not shown the documentation to support that."

CMHA spokeswoman Kelly Kramer said the agency would have liked an opportunity to meet with Jackson and show him City West, a West End development made possible through HUD Hope VI funding. Kramer said CMHA has been hindered by the Bush Administration's dissolution of the Hope VI program and recent cuts (4 percent) to its operating budget and capital funds.

She said the housing authority envisioned using Hope VI funds to pay for renovations.

"Cities have to do everything they can to maintain strong, viable public housing," Jackson said. "It is important that we have affordable housing in all of our major urban areas, including Cincinnati."

Jackson said he will make a decision on what course of action HUD will take with respect to English Woods after he returns to Washington and meets with his staff.


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