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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 authority.

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.


The $2.1 million building plan was scrapped after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency discovered contaminated soil at several Jacksonville sites, including land near Durkeeville.

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 revitalization.


''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 a year.

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.'