One year after the Mount Holly Gardens housing-discrimination case was settled, the township has missed a deadline to rebuild the decimated, mostly Latino and African American neighborhood.
Most of the 325 rowhouses in the neighborhood were razed after Mount Holly Township declared the area blighted and began acquiring them a decade ago. The residents who refused to move sued the township, saying they did not want to leave and could not afford the market-rate townhouses planned as part of a redevelopment.
The case was litigated through state and federal courts, and an agreement was reached days before arguments were to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Under the terms, 20 of the residents who still lived in the Gardens were promised "replacement homes" in the new development. They would turn over the deeds to their rowhouses and then be provided with new homes, each contributing $20,000 toward the upgrade.
The first four units were supposed to be built and occupied this year. But in the waning weeks of 2014, the foundations are just being laid. Completion is not expected until March, if the weather cooperates.
"Obviously we had hoped these first four replacement homes would be up by the end of the year. But we had some issues. The biggest was the soil compaction issue," Mayor Richard DiFolco said Tuesday.
DiFolco said that engineers learned in August or September that the soil was too porous to support the new townhouses, and had to be replaced. "I don't feel like [the delay] is a breach, because we are doing everything we can to build as quickly as we can for the residents there. . . . Unforeseen circumstances happen," he said.
Earlier, Township Manager Eric Berry said he believed that the biggest problem was the distances required between the street and the buildings, and that this required planning board review. "A couple of engineers were working on it, and I guess there was some disagreement," he said.
Township Solicitor George Saponaro said there also were issues with how the property lines were recorded in the survey. "There was some kind of discrepancy with how something was written. . . . The engineers and surveyors and title people had to figure it out," he said.
Olga Pomar, an attorney with South Jersey Legal Services who represents the Gardens residents, said she was encouraged that the work had begun: "It's been a frustrating year. After the excitement of the settlement, it took a while to get the homes started. . . . But the homes are now promised by March, so it's only a three-month delay."
Pomar also said TRF Development Partners, the Philadelphia-based developer of the homes, has said much of the funding is in place and it may be able to get the next seven replacement homes started in the spring and finished by late summer. "It definitely looks like it's moving forward," she said.
In an interview last month, Angel Vera, one of the 20 residents, said he was disappointed by the delays but would rather that the project be built properly. He said he was optimistic about the new timetable.
The next deadline would be for the completion of the remaining units by 2018. If the township fails to get all of them finished by then, the agreement says, it will have to pay each affected family $150,000.
About 40 residents had joined the lawsuit, saying the township had discriminated against minorities by targeting their neighborhood. In the early days of the redevelopment, drug dealers who had rented houses from absentee landlords or lived in the vacant buildings moved out, removing much of the blight. That left the mostly low-income families who said they did not want to move.
While 20 residents agreed to accept replacement homes, seven others took buyouts. The rest moved on or died as the litigation dragged through the system.
During the last year, two other residents died, leaving the township with an obligation to provide only 18 replacement homes. Their estates are being offered buyouts.
DiFolco said he was pleased that the housing project is moving forward. He was expecting the concrete to be mixed and the foundation to be laid this week. "Absolutely, we feel badly about the delay," he said. "We were all happy last year about having the resolution of the litigation. The residents deserve to have something fair. But this was unforeseen."
The mayor also said the other part of the redevelopment is moving along. More than 200 townhouses and 200 apartments are being built next to the Gardens. A shopping center with an anchor and several stores are also planned, he said, and will be situated in an area of the Gardens closest to the Mount Holly Bypass.
"We have had a lot of progress as far as what was there a year ago," he said.