Camden will receive more than $13 million in federal funding to replace the 1940s-era buildings in the Clement T. Branch Village public housing complex with mixed-income town houses and apartments, developments that Mayor Dana L. Redd and other officials said would transform the struggling neighborhood.
The money is coming from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant program. Camden officials had applied for the grant last year without success.
Camden could have lost out again, beaten out by even stronger applicants, but HUD dipped into funds from the prior year to make the grant, a department official said.
As New Jersey elected officials announced the news at a conference at Branch Village in the city's Centerville section Tuesday, the mood was jubilant.
"It's about people's lives that we are changing today," said U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, who was joined by fellow Democrats Sen. Cory A. Booker and U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, local officials, and several dozen Branch Village residents.
Losing the grant last year, Menendez said, "didn't stop our dream, and we went at it again, and here we are celebrating our dream."
Officials acknowledged, however, that the funding is less than half of what the city had hoped to receive, and that it will fund only the first piece of a broader goal to remake neighborhoods.
The city had applied for $30 million to pay for improvements to the Centerville, Whitman Park, and Liberty Park sections, including housing, new parks, and a revitalized Mount Ephraim Avenue business corridor. The four other recipients of the 2016 grant - Boston, St. Louis, Louisville, and Denver - received between $29.5 million and $30 million.
Last year, five cities were each awarded about $30 million in "Choice Neighborhoods" grant money.
Dominique Blom, deputy assistant secretary for public housing investments for HUD, said that this year the agency planned to make only four such awards. Camden was a finalist, but was not selected as one of the four recipients. However, she said, the agency decided to use about $13 million in carryover funds from the prior year to dedicate to the Branch Village project.
"Camden had a strong application, and the competition was close," she said.
Menendez, who helped steer the application process, said Tuesday that although Camden has been successful in winning grants, it frequently competes against much larger cities.
"Just because you put a grant in doesn't mean you're going to win," he said.
Development plans for Branch Village have been underway for years, and in 2012 a HUD planning grant enabled the community to draft a blueprint for the area that called for new housing, open space, better access to public transportation, and commercial development on Mount Ephraim Avenue. Last year the city was named a federal "Promise Zone," a designation meaning that it receives a competitive edge when applying for federal grants.
The grant will pay for 176 new town houses and 50 apartments for seniors. Redd said those projects will be complemented by other infrastructure work in the area, including two new schools that are being built in the neighborhood. Redd and Menendez also said they would work toward securing federal funds from other sources to fund the remainder of the project.
Redd said her administration had worked hard to submit a competitive application, and that their efforts were commended by representatives of HUD.
"It's not zero," she said. "So, I'm happy for $13.2 million."
Booker, who has often described Camden as a "great American comeback story," said Tuesday that new housing was a key to moving Camden past its troubled history, and that the nation's public housing projects are remnants of outdated and racist policies that were designed to isolate minority and poor communities by trapping them in substandard living conditions.
"What we're celebrating here is not housing. This is about restoring what Martin Luther King called 'the beloved community,' " he said. "It is the revitalization of the American dream."