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New homes in Camden's Lanning Square draw families

Anthony Johnson and his wife, Erin, tried moving home to their native Camden the first chance they had after finishing college and fellowships in other states. Unable to find a house, they ended up in Collingswood in 2013.

Anthony Johnson and his wife, Erin, tried moving home to their native Camden the first chance they had after finishing college and fellowships in other states. Unable to find a house, they ended up in Collingswood in 2013.

Last year, they drove through Camden's Lanning Square neighborhood and saw sparkling blocks of brand-new townhouses for sale just a few blocks from Cooper University Hospital, right next to a park - homes with granite countertops, fireplaces, and Jacuzzi bathtubs.

"We jumped on it," said Anthony Johnson, 33, a health-care consultant. "We always wanted to move back to Camden. It was just a matter of finding the right place."

The couple, who married last year, settled on South Sixth Street in October after closing on a four-bedroom house for $190,000. Their son was born two months ago, and Erin Johnson quickly became close friends with another new mother across the street.

"We have that sense of community here," Anthony Johnson said. "We've seen the heartache that the city has gone through. And this is what we always hoped for."

Stories such as the Johnsons' are like fuel to Maria Yglesias and Maria Del Mar Lopez, the engines behind a surge in luxury housing development in Lanning Square.

Their company, M&M Development, is responsible for 55 new and rehabbed houses and condos in the neighborhood since 2011, when their Cooper Building opened on the corner of Seventh and New Streets. In addition to the Sixth Street homes, they are rehabilitating six more houses on a nearby block and plan to revamp the Pierre Apartments, a historic, vacant six-story downtown building.

Details are important, they said: doors painted in understated colors, modern tile around fireplaces, second-floor laundry hookups.

As Yglesias, 59, and Lopez, 56, showed off one of the light-filled townhouses, Yglesias said the aesthetics were as important as quality and price.

"When you change the image of a neighborhood," she said, "you change the neighborhood."

And with hundreds of jobs poised to move to Camden in coming years thanks to tax incentives, she said, the time is right.

"If you bring these jobs here and you don't provide housing, Camden is going to miss the boat," she said.

In business together since 1997, Yglesias and Lopez are known for their work in Newark, N.J., where they have transformed abandoned buildings and vacant lots into family-friendly housing at low-cost and market-rate prices.

"A lot of affordable-housing developers get into the habit of making housing that is 'good enough,' because there can be this attitude that poor people don't know any better," Yglesia said. "That we should be putting in plywood cabinets and linoleum because they don't know how to take care of nicer things, and that they are a little stupid.

"So we put in hardwood floors. We put in dishwashers. Things that will make a woman's life easier. Things that will make her love her house."

Both originally from Spain, Yglesias and Lopez met in Newark in 1981. They became friends, married their husbands in the same year, and had sons born a month apart. Yglesias ran a boutique and Lopez co-owned an auto body shop before they decided to focus on real estate.

The duo, who live in Somerset County, came to Camden through the Cooper Foundation's Susan Bass Levin, who met them at a ribbon-cutting for one of their projects when she was commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs.

They knew little about Camden, but Bass Levin pitched the city to them, and in 2010, they broke ground on the $7 million Cooper Building, a 25-unit facility with a rooftop garden and fitness room.

"What we want is to build not just housing, but communities, and that's what they do," Bass Levin said. "And this neighborhood is just one example of what can be possible."

Bass Levin said their decision to build in Camden came at a crucial time. Since then, Cooper Hospital has expanded, and Lanning Square will soon have a new elementary school: KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, a public-charter hybrid "renaissance" school backed by George Norcross, chairman of the board of trustees of the Cooper Health System and hospital.

Though it's now just a kindergarten held in trailers, a school building is under construction at the corner of South Broadway and Washington Street that will draw students for pre-K through eighth grade.

The Johnsons haven't decided where they will send their son to school, but Anthony mentioned both KIPP and traditional public schools as options.

"We know the city is still in transition, but it is transitioning," he said. "Our hope is that by then there will be several good schools he could go to."

In a city that began losing middle-class families in the 1950s, agencies have been working for years to encourage homeownership in seven Camden neighborhoods, using federal money to build and renovate housing through the state Neighborhood Stabilization Program.

To build in Camden, M&M teamed with the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, which provided half of the construction loan and grant funding. Some of the funding earmarked for Camden has gone to their projects, too.

The program to increase homeownership in Camden started slower than some had hoped, but it has helped a handful of Camden residents become first-time homeowners, and Yglesias and Lopez said sales had picked up in recent years. Of the 24 townhouses they have built, 17 are occupied, as are 18 of the Cooper Building's 25 units, Yglesias said.

Buyers include medical students, Cooper employees, a Camden teacher, and former Camden residents such as the Johnsons.

The townhouses on Sixth Street are around 2,000 square feet and range from $180,000 to $220,000. Buyers get five-year tax abatements, and other incentives are available to people who work or attend school in Camden, such as money to help with closing costs.

Lopez said the stabilization of the police force had also played a part in their success. Lanning Square was once a thriving drug market where undercover officers arrested 49 people in one night in 2012 for selling drugs.

Since the Camden County police force was created in 2013, more officers have appeared on the streets, Lopez said.

"People feel safe here," she said. "That's where I see the most change; it's in the attitude people have toward the city now."

Anthony Johnson agreed the drug corners seemed to be gone, but he said he and his neighbors still shoo away people who wander down the street looking to buy drugs.

"Hopefully, in a few years you won't be seeing those people," he said. "Hopefully, they get the picture that this is a family environment now."