New hope for Newark housing project

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Though Micah Whittaker’s new apartment is wedged between two busy car dealerships, the 27-year-old mother of three says the home is proof her prayers were answered.

Whittaker is one of the first residents to move into Alder Creek, the new subsidized housing complex in Newark on the grounds of the former Cleveland Heights complex on East Cleveland Avenue.

The opening of the complex ends the decadelong limbo in a town where the University of Delaware’s student population keeps rents high.

Demand generated by the constant flow of students helps make Newark the second most expensive rental market in the state, according to the Delaware State Housing Authority. Only 8 percent of Newark’s rental units have rent less than $500 per month, and more than a quarter of the units cost more than $1,000 per month.

“I was praying for a change, and my prayers were answered,” said Whittaker, who lived in Wilmington’s Southbridge neighborhood before moving to Alder Creek at the end of August. “It is going to be a better environment and better home.”

Construction is underway at the old Cleveland Heights public housing facility in Newark earlier this month. The new facility is comprised of 56 units and is scheduled to be completed in October.

(Photo: EMILY VARISCO/SPECIAL TO THE NEWS JOURNAL)

Cleveland Heights was a series of 21 buildings owned by the Newark Housing Authority. Citing high-crime and vacancy rates, housing authority officials began open discussions about closing the facility and selling the property in 2002.

Over the next decade, the complex slowly went vacant, and as the population dwindled, the Newark chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People accused the housing authority of neglecting the property to pressure tenants out. Officials won approval from federal authorities to sell the property in 2007, but it sat vacant for years, becoming uninhabitable and an eyesore for neighbors. Ingerman won the contract to partner with the housing authority to redevelop the property in 2012.

“It looks a heck of a lot nicer than it did before. It was just run-down blocks of brick. I don’t know if it was high crime, but it looked that way,” said Steve Sequi as he trained his dog in Lumbrook Park less than half a mile from the development. “I hope it stays that way.”

The 56 apartments are situated in 13 buildings across the 6-acre plot wedged between new Nissans, Chevrolets, Hyundais and Infinitis. The rear of the property is bordered by city-owned solar panels and White Clay Creek.

“We are kind of wedged in here. The idea was to make the buildings look like a big house,” said David Holden of New Jersey development firm Ingerman, which is leasing the property from the Newark Housing Authority. “It has that feel rather than a large apartment complex.”

The 42 apartments at the Cleveland Heights, pictured in 2013, sat empty and uninhabitable for several years.

The one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom units each have their own private entrance, deck or patio space. The complex also has a playground and community center for residents.

Two of the 13 buildings are occupied, and construction continues on the rest. There is a waiting list for the remaining units, which are expected to be ready in the next month, Holden said.

“I have three kids, and if it were not for this, I’d have nowhere to go,” said Brittany M., as she unloaded a moving truck at the complex. “I just hope this is a stepping stone to get back on my feet after my divorce.”

Forty-two of the apartment units will be subsidized through the housing authority for residents earning 60 percent of the county’s median income. Rent will be set at 30 percent of a tenant’s income.

The other apartments will be restricted to tenants with Section 8 housing vouchers.

Ingerman Development Principal David Holden does a walk through of a three bedroom unit at the old Cleveland Heights public housing facility in Newark Thursday, September 17, 2015. The new facility is comprised of 56 units and is scheduled to be completed in October. (Photo: The News Journal – 2015)

Holden said the total cost of the development is about $13.5 million. Ingerman is receiving an estimated $12 million over 10 years in federal tax credits to help fund projects that provide affordable housing. A long-term loan of $736,000 from the Delaware State Housing Authority is also contributing.

Ingerman will collect an 8 percent fee from tenants’ rent for managing the property and will receive about $1 million for a developers fee.

“It’s been a long road,” Holden said.

Housing officials notified Newark city government of its intent to sell the Cleveland Heights property more than 12 years ago.

“Everyone is like, ‘You are moving into that ghetto?’ I’m like, ‘No, they tore that down,’ ” Brittany said. “Even the soil is different.”

Dave Field, of Ocean City, NJ, puts the finishing touches in on the kitchen of a unit at the old Cleveland Heights public housing facility in Newark Thursday, September 17, 2015. The new facility is comprised of 56 units and is scheduled to be completed in October.

The complex was also tainted by environmental contamination. Parts of the property sat on the edge of a city landfill that was covered in the 1950s. The state contributed about $1 million to the housing authority through its brownfields program to remediate and cap surface contamination. The apartments are outfitted with vapor barriers, methane monitors and venting.

“There is plenty of space. It is really nice,” Whittaker said of her new apartment. “I’m so thankful for this program to be able to move forward with our lives.”

Whittaker applied to the Newark Housing Authority in January 2014. A letter offering her a spot in Alder Creek came more than a year and a half later. Brittany M. had been on the waiting list for public housing in Newark for three years, a reminder of the demand for such housing in the city.

The housing authority has a waiting list topping 600 for its 98 public housing units. The average wait time on that list is more than two years, according to the Delaware State Housing Authority’s most recent needs assessment. Newark Housing Authority Director Marene Jordan was not available for comment.

Contact Xerxes Wilson at (302) 324-2787 or xwilson@delawareonline.com. Follow @Ber_Xerxes on Twitter.

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