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10/6/03 Miami Herald
Urban project upgrades homes, lags on promises
Civic leaders say that goals to help resurrect the Jacksonville neighborhood are
not being fulfilled.
By Andrea Robinson
JACKSONVILLE - As Miami embarks on a brand new way to house the poor, this North
Florida city holds lessons on the promise and the peril of the national push to
dramatically re-create public housing.
When the Jacksonville Housing Authority opened The Oaks at Durkeeville in 1999,
it was widely welcomed as a serene and colorful oasis replacing the crumbling stucco
and concrete block buildings that had stood there for nearly six decades.
It was Florida's first redevelopment under the HOPE VI program, a federal effort
to raze the forlorn brick and concrete warehouses that had come to typify public
housing nationwide. Three years ago, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
named The Oaks at Durkeeville one of the top public housing projects in the country
for bringing new businesses to the neighborhood.
Police calls dropped dramatically. Drug use was less noticeable. Tellingly, 1,063
families are on a waiting list to move in.
The Oaks yielded 201 public housing units, 74 fewer than had existed at the old
Durkeeville development, and 28 market-rate single-family homes. The reduction was
far less than planned for the Scott-Carver project in Miami, where 856 units will
be replaced by 411 homes, 120 of which will be set aside for public housing.
June Mitchell and many of the former Durkeeville tenants are delighted with their
more spacious homes. The old ones had bedrooms smaller than the walk-in closets
of modern homes, Mitchell said, and had enough holes that rats from aging sewers
would come through for frequent visits.
''It's glorious,'' Mitchell said. ``That's what I wanted, something decent, . .
. somewhere we could put our furniture without me falling down.''
But despite the accolades, civic leaders say Jacksonville housing officials have
failed to keep all of their promises to help resurrect the neighborhood.
The neat cluster of apartments, courtyards and gazebos at The Oaks rests near blocks
of urban chaos once the heart of a thriving black community, also called Durkeeville.
It is now riddled with decaying clapboard homes, pockmarked red brick buildings
and trash-strewn vacant lots.
It was not supposed to be this way, activist Celia Miller complains.
In 1997, when Jacksonvile housing officials submitted to HUD a comprehensive revitalization
proposal for The Oaks, it included the construction and renovation of houses south
and west of the old projects.
''We wanted a seamless society,'' Miller said. ``We felt the housing authority promoted
isolation of tenants. That was supposed to change.''
The housing agency also has not provided the service programs included in its federal
proposal, such as computer courses and parenting classes, adult day care and job
training to low-income people who lived near The Oaks.
Miller, president of Good Neighbor Mania, a local civic group, said the northwest
Jacksonville neighborhood got little to show for 18 months of planning meetings
to help the housing authority put together its package for the $21 million grant
awarded by HUD. Carlotta Williams, the consultant who helped Jacksonville win the
federal grant, agrees with Miller. ''We had a well-integrated services project,
but . . . it didn't go the way we planned,'' she said. ``I don't know why.''
Another piece of the Durkeeville plan that failed was the Durkeeville Resident Management
Corp., a resident-run nonprofit organization that was supposed to manage the new
apartments and operate an on-site day-care center, laundry room and banquet hall.
But a year after Durkeeville opened, the corporation disbanded after residents failed
to enroll in mandatory training classes. The managerial duties reverted to the housing
Ronald Ferguson, the city's housing director, said intervention by two federal agencies
thwarted plans to build new homes in the area surrounding Durkee and to provide
support services to other residents.
PLAN PUT ASIDE
The $2.1 million building plan was scrapped after the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency discovered contaminated soil at several Jacksonville sites, including land
Concerned that the federal government would order a long cleanup that could extend
beyond the deadline for spending the HOPE VI money, the housing authority opted
to use the funds on housing in other parts of Jacksonville.
And HUD ordered local housing officials to rewrite the community services package
because the programs had to be specifically for Oaks tenants. Ferguson said Miller
and others were notified of the decision.
''They're unhappy because they refuse to accept the fact that conditions changed,''
Ferguson said. ``If all the expectations of the surrounding community were not met,
we regret that. It was due to circumstances beyond our control.''
As for the failed resident management firm, Ferguson said, ``It is very tough for
residents to manage and start up businesses without a lot of detailed training.
Training is available to them, but it takes a lot of energy and a lot of time.''
Williams, who has written 13 successful HOPE VI grant applications in Florida, Ohio
and Pennsylvania, said housing agencies place too little attention on the self-sufficiency
component. Without adequate attention to education and job training, she warned,
tenants are in jeopardy of returning to old habits, thwarting nascent attempts at
`BRICKS AND MORTAR'
''We do the bricks and mortar well all the time,'' Williams said. ``The people part
always falls down.''
Jacksonville is about to begin its second redevelopment of public housing, after
winning a $20 million HOPE VI grant earlier this year. Tenants at the Brentwood
Homes are being relocated, and officials predict that demolition will begin in about
Ferguson said limits on how federal money can be used provide a useful lesson not
just for his agency but for other housing authorities launching HOPE VI projects.
''If I had to give one bit of advice to anybody, it would be to stay close to the
residents and make sure the final product is something that benefits them,'' he
said. ``You might not be able to do everything you want, but if the development
is of quality, it should be easier to get other [investors] to come in and do neighborhood
development beyond HOPE VI.'