Future of Holmecrest remains unclear

In this two-part series, NEast Philly goes inside two housing projects to see what works, what doesn’t and what’s to come. In the second half, we talk to residents of Holmecrest.

Public housing projects are dirty, dilapidated, filled with crime and unwelcome in their neighborhood.

Except when they’re not.

Holmecrest is a Philadelphia Housing Authority project, but it doesn’t fit into the many negative stereotypes about projects that exist today. The 84-unit development is tucked away in a corner of Upper Holmesburg, just a few blocks from Frankford Avenue. It’s a tranquil place residents say is a wonderful home, and that neighbors seem hard-pressed to find a reason to complain about.

“Never,” said Lillian Cook when asked if she had problems with Holmecrest Homes, which is half a block from her house. “I’m comfortable with the way it is.”

“We don’t even look at it like a project,” added her friend and neighbor Nicole Varchacoski. “[Holmecrest residents] will yell at you if you get in trouble.” The senior-citizen-only nature of Holmecrest may be a big part of its success, and PHA Executive General Manager for Operations Keith Caldwell said as much.

“The key thing with Holmecrest is that that’s a senior development,” Caldwell said. Talking about the difference between Holmecrest and Liddonfield — a much larger, multi-family project that recently closed after years of crime and dilapidation — Caldwell said the age-qualification was crucial.

“The biggest difference is one’s a multifamily development, and the other is a senior development,” Caldwell said.

Holmecrest includes a day center and two courtyards with benches, which are frequented by the seniors on nice mornings. Some of those residents say the standard of living is better than they expected.

“They have quite a few things,” said Dale Heverline, a resident of Holmecrest. “You can pretty much do what you choose. They have a day room, and they have trips.”

By contrast, Liddonfield was riddled with crime and public complaints during its half-a-decade existence as public housing. The city talked of shutting it down so often that it came as a surprise to some homeowners in the surrounding neighborhoods when it finally did close. And, it’s difficult to find anyone who says they aren’t thrilled about the end of Liddonfield.

Meanwhile, another Holmecrest resident, Jesse Lofton, said he felt lucky to have gotten into the residence there. At one time, Lofton said he lived in Liddonfield, and it was in much worse shape.

Despite Holmecrest’s success, it may be on the way out along with Liddonfield sometime in the future. PHA and many other public housing agencies around the country are moving away from projects, or what they call “developments,” and toward “housing choice,” which places public housing residents in neighborhoods with private owners and renters. In the video below, Holmecrest residents talk about their experiences with PHA and the differences between their property and Liddonfield.

This is an attempt to incorporate public housing more evenly into the neighborhoods, and it is a movement gaining traction. Spurred in part by the failure of projects like Liddonfield, policy leaders feel the old style of public housing simply doesn’t work.

Where that leaves Holmecrest is unclear. There are no immediate plans to empty it or tear it down, but Caldwell said it will probably happen in the future.

“At this point, we plan to at some point demolish it, but there’s been no final plans as to what’s going to happen with it,” Caldwell said.

The development may not be closed down soon, but the fact that it is an old style of housing may bring it to an end along with other less successful projects like Liddonfield, even though it seems to be a success now.

It may be mostly due to the fact that only senior citizens live there, but Holmecrest has defied the low expectations of projects. And, neighbors said its success is due to the calmer demeanor of its residents.

“It’s not as wild [as family projects], nobody is drinking and peeing in the hallways,” Niagie Wilson said. Wilson, who has lived across the street from Holmecrest for five years, said it’s been without incident.

“No problems at all,” he said. “Everyone’s pretty much nice.” Wilson added that the development may also be helped by the fact that it’s tailor made for senior citizens.

“It’s made for them. I went there and my back started hurting, I was always ducking,” Wilson said, laughing.

Caldwell said the PHA tries to help keep the sense of community alive in Holmecrest, to allow the residents to feel connected.

“We do work with community organizations within there. There is basically resident leadership, because there’s a tenant council there,” Caldwell said.

For now, Holmecrest is bucking the trend of failed projects. Residents and neighbors said they want it to stay open, and they’re hoping the development doesn’t go the way of Liddonfield.

Stephen Zook is a Temple University journalism student working with Philadelphia Neighborhoods, a class devoted to covering under-reported areas of Philadelphia.

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