‘A beautiful building’: HUD grants Camden $35M to overhaul public housing complex

HUD Secretary Marsha Fudge chats with Ablett Village resident Maria Gonzalez at the announcement of the the CHOICE grant on June 2, 2021; to the left of Fudge are US Rep. Donald Norcross and interim Camden Mayor Vic Carstarphen. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

HUD Secretary Marsha Fudge chats with Ablett Village resident Maria Gonzalez at the announcement of the the CHOICE grant on June 2, 2021; to the left of Fudge are US Rep. Donald Norcross and interim Camden Mayor Vic Carstarphen. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

From her Ablett Village doorstep, Sharon Parker smiled as she watched government officials and neighbors celebrate the planned demolition of her rundown Camden public housing complex and the modern development slated to replace it.

“I think,” she said, “we’re going to have a beautiful building.”

Ablett Village resident Sharon Parker on June 2, 2021. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Marcia Fudge, along with New Jersey U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez and U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, joined city leaders at the East Camden site to announce a $35 million Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant just awarded to Camden’s housing authority for the Cramer Hill neighborhood.

The money will be used to tear down what officials called the last public housing project in the city and build in its place 425 energy-efficient, mixed-income housing units, with a community center, playgrounds, a garden, and walking trails.

The federal investment in Camden comes after a Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant awarded in 2018 that united public housing residents and local partners to create a comprehensive “transformation plan” for the neighborhood.

HUD Secretary Marsha Fudge with US Senator Bob Menendez at the grant announcement at Ablett Village on June 2, 2021. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

The low-rise Ablett Village, with what Menendez described as four out of 10 residents living below the poverty line, was erected in 1943.

“This was built for soldiers after World War II,” said resident Maria Gonzalez. “Now, we’re going to make this for people who really need it.”

Speakers introduced by interim Camden Mayor Vic Carstarphen reflected on their own childhoods as they spoke of the plans.

“As a poor kid,” said Fudge, “we didn’t have a lot, but I always knew I could go home and be safe … I am so very proud to be here with you on this proud day. The next time I come back, I’m going to see a community that none of you probably can even imagine.”

Camden County Commissioner and city resident Al Dyer spoke of moving often as a child, living at one time in Ablett Village until his family was displaced, and at one point sleeping in a park.

“I’ve been through all that,” he said. “So for this community to get $35 million to rebuild this development, that’s huge to me.”

Mary Cortes, president of the Cramer Hill Residents Association — who collaborated on the grant along with the mayor’s office, the housing authority, and HUD representatives — said winning the funding was no easy feat.

Mary Cortes, President of the Cramer Hill Residents Assocation, with an artist’s rendering of the new complex to be erected on the site of Ablett Village on June 2, 2021. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

“It took three tries over 2 1/2 years” before a grant to replace Ablett was approved, said Cortes.

She estimated the process of finishing the new complex will take five years, with a first step of building new housing for current Ablett residents in Cramer Hill and moving them in, then razing the current structures, erecting the new development, and offering current residents housing there.

Cortes was concerned the brand-new complex might not be made available to current Ablett residents.

“We were just hoping that it was for these people and not for outsiders,” she said.

Cortes said HUD had stipulated that Cramer Hill residents “had to have a place at the table” in planning the new development, and that had not always been the case in previous projects.

She recalled helping to plan the nearby Kroc Center and not being asked to attend that celebration, so she was pleased to get a telephone invitation to this one Tuesday night, and to be called to the podium to thank her for her help.

Ablett Village on June 2, 2021. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

Still, Cortes is guardedly optimistic about the community’s continued involvement in the new development.

“Where is that money going to be spent?” she asked. “And will we continue to be at the table? Those are the biggest questions.”

On Wednesday, though, the mood was triumphant.

Tracey Powell, president of the Ablett Village Resident Association, thanked the residents and told the lawmakers they had gone the extra mile for the project.

“You are the ones who not only cared about revitalizing our neighborhoods, you cared about us,” she said. “You are our knights in shining armor … You are our heroes.”

HUD Secretary Marsha Fudge, left, with Tracey Powell, President of the Ablett Village Resident Association, on June 2, 2021. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

Fudge told the assembled crowd that they’d already seen what a HUD Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant could do, with the $13.2 million that was awarded in 2016 to revitalize the South Camden neighborhood where the dilapidated Branch Village housing development stood.

“Just think, this is almost triple what you got the last time!” said Fudge.

“Thirty-five million dollars changes lives and transforms neighborhoods,” said Fudge. “Camden is a great community that deserves this $35 million.”

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