Time running out at New Brunswick Homes

Published in the Home News Tribune 1/14/01

By SHARON WATERS
STAFF WRITER

NEW BRUNSWICK: With remaining New Brunswick Memorial Homes residents facing a Jan. 26 deadline to move out and demolition planned for this spring, the final months of the 43-year-old Homes are here.

The four-year federal HOPE VI revitalization project for the city's public-housing site is also less than two months away from its halfway point.

Although it has been amended, the original project timeline had construction of the first replacement housing at George Street and Remsen Avenue scheduled to begin in September 1999. However, ground has not even been broken at the site yet.

The New Brunswick Housing and Redevelopment Authority expects to break ground on rehabilitation of a few houses at the end of this month, said John Clarke, deputy executive director. It will break ground for the new homes in March, according to New Brunswick Mayor James M. Cahill.

Officials originally had hoped to have replacement housing built at George and Remsen before Homes residents had to move out so they would have more choices of where to go. But now, two weeks before Homes residents must vacate or face eviction, there are no new replacement units available.

The city did not consider pushing back the relocation date for residents, said Glenn Patterson, the city's director of the department of planning, community and economic development.

"You want to keep moving on," said Patterson, noting replacement housing was available in the form of Section 8 vouchers.

Patterson also said it was unfair to hold officials to the original timeline, calling it "sort of a best guess." A revised timeline submitted with a revitalization plan should be used instead, he said. The initial application was based on a typical development; officials at first were not aware of the extensive process involved and did not know all the project's required steps during the application, Patterson said.

The authority's executive director, Kevin Quince, also said the revised timeline should be used to evaluate progress, and that improvements were included in it.

"I feel that this delay has actually helped our HOPE VI Team to improve our plan since we spent that next year meeting with residents and members of our HOPE VI Community
Task Force, HUD officials, city officials and our developer to make improvements to our plan," said Quince.

But even the revised timeline had construction of the George and Remsen units scheduled to begin last August.

Another deadline missed: Demolition of the Homes was scheduled for Jan. 1.

Also, The Community Builders Inc., the replacement-housing developer, scheduled and then canceled presentations of the master plan for the Homes site at least twice because it was not ready.

Construction of the George and Remsen units was slowed because it took longer to acquire the land, Patterson said. In addition, officials had to wait a year to apply for low-income tax credits, which can only be requested in March, he said. The grant was not fully funded until March 1999 and the application could not be made sooner, he said.

"You don't have anything that's legally binding so you don't have the cash," said Patterson.

Quince and Mark Quinn, senior project manager for The Community Builders Inc., also cited the wait to apply for low-income tax credits as the reason for the delay.

Quinn said there has been "quite a bit of a lot of work done" at George and Remsen. He listed site-plan approval, securing funding (although it is still being finalized), engineering and preparation of construction documents.

Quinn refused to disclose fees to be paid to his company, the architects or engineering firm for the project. He also would not furnish copies of any contracts.

New Brunswick's grant was approved by HUD on Nov. 10, 1998, and HUD signed off on its funding reservation on March 1, 1999, said Alan Gelfand, a spokesman for HUD's New Jersey office. He said not having funding reserved would have an impact on moving forward with the grant but it would be unusual for an approved grant not to be funded.

"I suppose theoretically if other things were not done I guess we could pull back, but I'm not aware of that ever happening," said Gelfand.

There is no requirement to have completed replacement housing before residents must vacate, said Gelfand. Slips in the timeline have not stopped HUD from providing funding.

"We will not release our funds until certain necessary preliminary work is done but we do not feel delays have been of such significance to have us consider not funding the project," said Gelfand.

THE OVERSIGHT

The city does not provide oversight of the HOPE VI project but is one of the partners because it has provided funding, said Patterson. He noted the Housing Authority is an independent agency with one commissioner appointed by the mayor, five by the City Council and one by a state official.

"The oversight is limited to the ability to make appointments," said Patterson, noting it was "fairly lucky" that everyone had a shared vision. "Everyone tends to row the boat in the same direction," he said. Cahill said oversight of the project is primarily at the federal level. "I don''t know what you mean by oversight. Do we look at it? Yes. Do we have some enforcement that they didn't do it and we penalize somebody? No," said Cahill. Cahill said the city has no oversight of the timeline, which he said was prepared by the Housing Authority and The Community Builders Inc. Oversight of the timeline is by the federal government, he said.

HUD has no knowledge of any oversight responsibility for HOPE VI by the city, said Gelfand. The Housing Authority is a local agency with "state involvement" and receives federal funding, said Gelfand. HUD, which provided about $7.5 million in grant funds, monitors New Brunswick's HOPE VI project by reviewing quarterly progress reports submitted by the Housing Authority and attending status meetings every other month, said Gelfand. On Jan. 12 he refused to allow a reporter to speak with any staff who review the reports or attend the meetings, saying it is policy for all responses to come from the press office. Gelfand said a written request to speak directly to staff would be reviewed further. Gelfand also would not provide copies of any progress reports Jan. 12. Although status meetings are to be held every other month, the last meeting was on Sept. 21 and meetings were not held since then because of the holidays, said Gelfand. He believed the next status meeting would be held this month or in February. The quarterly reports contain a section on changes to "schedule checkpoint dates" and staff would look at that section to determine any delays, said Gelfand. When asked to characterize the latest report, dated Oct. 30, Gelfand said HUD was generally satisfied with the progress made.

The authority, with the assistance of HOPE VI relocation agency Pennrose Properties Inc., has relocated most of the Homes families. There were 183 families eligible for relocation, said Eugenia Hill, Pennrose's relocation specialist. About 35 families remained at the Homes as of Jan. 12, officials said. Most residents have relocated locally. Of the 143 families relocated as of Dec. 15, 44 transferred to public housing in New Brunswick, 41 moved to other housing in New Brunswick, 39 relocated elsewhere in Middlesex County, 16 went elsewhere in New Jersey, and three moved out of state, according to Hill.

The assessment Officials with the city, Housing Authority and HUD said they were satisfied with the progress of HOPE VI and expect to meet the final deadline of March 2003. "We do not believe the HOPE VI project in New Brunswick has been slow-moving compared to other projects (across the country)," said Gelfand, saying HUD was hopeful the project can be complete on or near schedule.

Cahill said he thought the project was going well, although he wished development of the replacement housing had gone faster. Patterson said he thinks the project has been "moving on at a very good pace," and achieving a pace similar to other HOPE VI projects in New Jersey.

Quince said he was "very pleased" that staff have continued to work with involved parties to make improvements to the plan and move the process forward. Quince noted HOPE VI was "not an easy, simple development process" and includes tracking of all residents, provision of social services, financing and many other tasks. Clarke said he was satisfied, although he thinks there's always room to improve. Both Quince and Clarke touted that the authority has held over 155 HOPE VI meetings in a 24-month period. Beatrice B. Harris, chairwoman of the authority's Board of Commissioners, also said the project isgoing well.

Sharon Waters: (732) 565-7270. E-mail
swaters@thnt.com
from the Home News Tribune
Published on January 14, 2001