Ethel M. Wise is a fixture in South Philadelphia’s Wilson Park public housing development, her home of 21 years. She makes sure hungry neighbors get what they need from the community’s food pantry. She ensures residents can access programming such as the Boys and Girls Club, employment support, and activities for seniors.
“We try to do whatever we can for the residents here at Wilson Park,” said Wise, 74, president of the community’s resident council and a member of the Philadelphia Housing Authority Board of Commissioners.
But she can’t shield her neighbors from the gun violence that has surged throughout the city in 2020 and 2021, or what she called an “influx” of crime overall in the area.
“We just want resources,” said Wise, who for more than four decades has been an advocate for people living in public housing. “We want to make this place safe for all residents — seniors, children, everybody. We just want to live in a happy, safe environment.”
That’s why she said she’s grateful for a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that the Philadelphia Housing Authority will use to upgrade the surveillance system and add cameras at the 729-unit Wilson Park development. PHA — the biggest landlord in Pennsylvania, housing about 80,000 Philadelphians — hopes the cameras will both deter crime at and around the property and aid police in catching those who commit crimes, many of whom are not residents.
HUD announced last week it will give $10 million in safety and security grants to 55 public housing agencies across the country, including those in the city of Chester and Montgomery County. Housing authorities can use the funds for measures such as security and alarm systems, cameras, fencing, lighting, deadbolt locks, doors, and carbon monoxide detectors.
This spring, HUD awarded $250,000 to PHA for security cameras at the Raymond Rosen development in North Philadelphia.
“We’re targeting specific developments where we’re seeing higher than normal incidents of crime and criminal activity,” said Kelvin Jeremiah, PHA’s president and chief executive officer. “We’re working to ensure our residents feel safe and secure in their homes.”
Surveillance cameras form one piece of PHA’s plan to strengthen security and support services and revamp its approach to public safety at its properties. PHA is recruiting community engagement associates to connect residents with social services and job training and to identify community needs. Members of a diversionary team will be tasked with engaging with residents and helping keep people out of the criminal justice system. PHA’s police department will transition into a broader office of public safety.
“We believe that the crimes we’re seeing are symptomatic of a whole host of other issues,” including poverty and lack of employment and educational opportunity, Jeremiah said.
“Overall the concern that I hear more than anything else is the quality of life could be further enhanced if we were in a partnership relationship with residents, one that provides them with opportunities for social and economic mobility,” he said.
Although residents as a whole support PHA’s police force, some say they have been over-policed. PHA’s police department used to have roughly 60 officers. That number is down to 24, as vacancies have gone unfilled. The housing authority plans to add six officers to balance the need for police with the social services that can help stabilize community members and prevent crime, Jeremiah said.
In recent years, the housing authority has upgraded security measures at its properties, including giving key fobs to residents to restrict who enters buildings, video surveillance, and new doors and locks. Jeremiah said that these measures have resulted in fewer people coming to public housing developments to commit crimes.
Adrianne Todman, HUD’s deputy secretary, said in a virtual announcement with representatives from public housing agencies that the department was “thrilled” to provide funds “so that families that you’re serving feel more secure in their homes and in their communities.”
She called the $10 million round of funding “just a down payment” to address the needs of residents of public housing “after many years of disinvestment.”
The Montgomery County Housing Authority is receiving $100,000 from HUD to replace about 550 carbon monoxide detectors across the housing authority’s six properties. The devices are nearing the end of their lifespan of seven to 10 years, said Joel Johnson, the housing authority’s executive director.
The city of Chester’s housing authority plans to use its $250,000 grant to add security cameras at the Ruth L. Bennett Homes, its largest development, consisting of 261 housing units. Steven Fischer, the authority’s executive director, said he understands if some residents are hesitant to be under surveillance right outside their homes.
“I’m not crazy about putting cameras into a community,” he said. But, he said, the authority has seen a reduction in crime in properties with cameras.
“Residents are pleased,” he said. “Any additional security is going to help [improve] safety in the community that they live in.”