It's been one year since Elida Echevarria and her son, Luis Lopez, moved into the first of the "replacement homes" that have been constructed in the Mount Holly Gardens, following a decade-long housing discrimination battle that ended with a date before the Supreme Court.
Last week, they showed off their one-story townhouse, warmly decorated with cutout hearts on the walls and colorful tchotchkes on a shelf. "I love it," Echevarria said.
Their former crumbling brick rowhouse sits a block away, among the scattered vestiges of a neighborhood that had been scheduled for demolition after Mount Holly officials announced plans to replace the units with market-rate housing. Township officials said Echevarria's house and nine other boarded-up units are expected to be razed within about one month. About 30 remain in a neighborhood that once had 325 houses.
While many of the landlords sold their units to the township, about 40 residents who had lived there for decades decided they would stay and fight. South Jersey Legal Services in Camden filed a lawsuit against the township on their behalf, as "Citizens In Action," and contended the township's plan would have the effect of displacing low-income minorities.
Township officials, however, argued their aim was to remove a crime-infested area and eyesore.
A settlement was reached four years ago between the township and the 20 residents who remained in the lawsuit after a decade of litigation. It called for them to move out and offered them replacement homes in the new housing development. If they had an existing mortgage, they would be obligated to continue to pay it off. Lopez and Echevarria are making monthly payments of $306 for the mortgage and other costs.
For Lopez, who works at a fast-food restaurant, the new two-bedroom townhouse means he and his mother can enjoy home-baked chicken and biscuits. "I like the oven best," he said, noting their old oven was unsafe and unusable. Lopez also said their new home — which they moved into on July 13, his birthday — means they no longer need to worry about being forced out of their neighborhood.
Echevarria, 67, a retired teacher's aide, said she mostly enjoys "the view" from the front porch of their home. She looks out on open space across the street, and sunflowers on the edge of their tiny lawn. She especially loves hearing frogs croaking in a nearby pond.
Echevarria and Lopez had moved into their tiny house in the Gardens in 1998 and lived there with five Chihuahuas. But after the town announced plans to build a new housing development at the location, they watched in anger and fear as rowhouses around them were sliced from their buildings by bulldozers and other residents moved out.
One year ago they were among the first four families to move into the first row of replacement homes: One-story townhouses on Levis Drive. The townhouses were built on land where homes were demolished.
Six other families in the Gardens are awaiting completion of another row of townhouses that is under construction nearby, said Josh Brown, the township manager. Those two-story units, he said, are expected to be ready in October. They have either two bedrooms and a den, or three bedrooms.
Then, the remaining four families who requested replacement homes will be relocated to three-story townhouses that will be built either late this year or early next year, Brown said.
Two other Gardens residents last year decided against waiting for the replacement homes and took buyouts and moved away, he said.
Among the 30 rowhouses that are still standing are those occupied by the families that have not yet moved into replacement homes.
Some are boarded-up and hidden by weeds that tower over the flat roofs. Lopez and Echevarria's house is barely visible because of the overgrowth, but a well-defined, wooden wishing well sits in a clearing nearby.
Brown said the township council recently authorized a $100,000 bond referendum to demolish 10 more homes this fall. He said the township had not done this earlier because of budgetary issues. "We are still going a little slowly, but we would like to move faster," said Brown.
When the replacement homes are finally completed and the residents are moved in, the rest of the old rowhouses will be razed and the first phase of new homes will be built, Brown said. That could happen as soon as next year.
Recently, approvals were granted for 96 apartments and 80 to 88 townhouses to be built on the ground that was formerly occupied by the Gardens. About 12,000 square-feet of commercial buildings will also be constructed nearby, off the Mount Holly Bypass, he said.
"I'm glad the people were able to stay in their neighborhood," Brown said.
Carlos Lotuffo, who lives near Lopez and Echevarria, is also celebrating the end of his first year in his new home.
His favorite room is his "office," which he converted from a back bedroom. Lotuffo, 70, a retired TV news producer, uses the room for reading and also for using his computer.
"It's perfect for me," he said. Meanwhile, his old rowhouse also sits among a strip of boarded-up units on the same street, just a half-block away from the new development. Pink and yellow flowers continue to thrive in front of the vacant houses. But they, too, will soon be gone.
This story has been changed to reflect that residents of the Mount Holly Gardens sued the township as Citizens in Action, and individuals and did not file a class action lawsuit.