Neighborhood proves need for affordable housing

Beatriz Cruz, who cares for her granddaughter, Alayah Collins (right), 2, has lived in Mount Holly Gardens for 20 years. The house adjacent to hers was removed this year. September 26, 2011. ( David M Warren / Staff Photographer )

A rundown Mount Holly neighborhood that has been the subject of a long-running fight over its redevelopment could be a poster child for New Jersey’s affordable housing needs.

Built in the 1950s for military families, Mount Holly Gardens included garden-style rowhouses and apartments. Eventually, the neighborhood morphed into a low-income development. After frequent problems with drugs and crime in the Burlington County complex, Mount Holly Township declared it blighted, and in 2004 began demolishing homes.

Most of the residents accepted offers to buy them out. But those left behind have been unable financially or unwilling to leave, despite mounting pressure to force them out. So far, Mount Holly has razed 259 vacant units, leaving 70 artificially detached units standing precariously. Living among the destruction, residents must cope with debris, dust, and noise. There are hanging wires, rough surfaces, and broken sidewalks throughout the neighborhood.

The township’s stated goal was to build up the local economy and improve the quality of life by redeveloping the area with 228 apartments, 292 townhouses, and commercial space. Township officials insist that their action was legal. Advocates argue that residents have been poorly treated and given a raw deal.

A federal appeals court has ordered a trial to determine if Mount Holly discriminated against the Garden’s poor and mostly black and Hispanic residents. At best, Mount Holly has shown a callous indifference to the plight of low-income residents with few options to find another place to live.

The case has drawn national attention as well as intervention by the U.S. Justice Department. Rather than continuing an expensive legal fight, Mount Holly should settle the dispute with the remaining residents by agreeing to either mediation or arbitration. The viable options include rehabilitating some of the remaining homes, or providing more affordable new ones. Flexibility will be needed on both sides.

The biggest misstep that Mount Holly made was failing to consider that New Jersey is one of the least affordable places in the country to live. Even with compensation, including relocation assistance and low-interest loans, Gardens residents — whether homeowners or tenants — have been unable to find affordable replacement housing.

For example, the township offered Nancy Lopez $55,000 for the townhouse where she has lived for 24 years. But that is not enough for a new place, without taking on a mortgage that she cannot afford. The price of the new townhouses being built in the Gardens is expected to be at least $200,000. Rent is projected at $1,230 a month for new apartments.

This case is more evidence that New Jersey must find a better way to expand low- and moderate-income housing. In the meantime, towns must treat all of their residents with dignity and respect — regardless of their economic status. The residents of Mount Holly deserved better.