Northeast: A Tale of Two Projects

Liddonfield Homes residents relocated, units to be leveled]

While no plans are set for the 32-acre site in Holmesburg where work crews will eventually demolish the 436-unit Liddonfield Homes, many in the surrounding neighborhood are breathing a sigh of relief at the closure of this trouble-plagued public housing development.

“They were saying for years they were going to close Liddonfield, and it never closed,” said Maria Asterga, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Cuba and moved across the street from the development in 1964. “It was trouble and drugs. The cops came a lot. As a child, I was worried about walking up there.”

The Liddonfield Homes sit on 32 acres of land between Torresdale and Frankford avenues in Holmesburg.

Asterga and her parents said rumors flew around the community since they moved there that the development, built as military barracks in the ‘40s and converted to public housing in the ‘50s, would be shut down.

Until earlier this year, however, at least 174 families remained in the development, before the Philadelphia Housing Authority issued relocation notifications to them, signaling that PHA officials decided to entirely close Liddonfield.

PHA Executive General Manager for Operations Keith Caldwell said the process of moving families out of the development was ongoing for several years as a result of its costly and outdated plumbing, heating and electrical systems.

“Liddonfield was one of our older public housing developments, and it became functionally obsolete,” Caldwell said. “The cost of upkeep far exceeded the benefit. The decision was made. We would relocate families and demolish the site. All the families fell under the Uniform Relocation Act [for relocation] to other developments within PHA or to be issued Housing Choice vouchers, formerly known as Section 8 vouchers.”

Caldwell said the last family moved out of Liddonfield April 2 and that families issued Housing Choice vouchers had the option of moving into any Section 8 housing in the nation, adding that families were “treated with dignity and respect” during the process.

“It’s a challenge for people who have lived there for most of their lives, if not all of their lives, to be told, ‘You have to relocate,’” he said. “And unfortunately, we have no other development close to Liddonfield other than our Hill Creek site [in Olney], because everyone wants to stay in the Northeast and they want to stay in PHA.”

No concrete plans were made to demolish or revamp Liddonfield until August 2006, when, according to a PHA press release, the agency received $3.5 million in funding from the state of Pennsylvania. That money was to go toward compiling the $94 million PHA needed to fund its then-planned project – demolishing the old homes, filling 12 acres of the space with 225 brand-new PHA units and leaving the other 20 acres for private developers to build homes to be sold at market-rate.

That plan fell flat three months later, though, when PHA was denied $20 million in federal funding for the project, according to a Northeast Times article.

Belongings and broken glass are all that remains of the families who once resided in the Liddonfield development.

PHA’s website lists no information regarding the four-year halt on Liddonfield’s demolition. Caldwell said no concrete plans have been made for the site, denying rumors that Holy Family University, located several blocks north of the development, is considering the space for student housing.

Jessica Spinosi, a mother of three young children who moved from the Mayfair community into a cul-de-sac across the street from Liddonfield a year ago, said she is glad to see the development shut down. But Spinosi is concerned about what demolition might bring.

“All the mice and rats, I’m not looking forward to that,” she said. “[But] I’d rather have noise than violence.”

Like Asterga, Spinosi said she noticed issues with crime she related to the development.

“It wasn’t so much the kids as the adults causing trouble. There was so much fighting and drug dealing,” she said. “[Some nights,] there were groups of people, not just one or two, but seven or 12, walking up and down the street. There was a hooker.”

As for crime issues, Caldwell said anytime PHA learned of problems in the development, agency authorities dealt with it properly, even evicting some families found to be associated with drug use or dealing.

“In an urban area like Philadelphia, where you have that kind of surroundings, you’re always going to have some type of activity going on,” Caldwell said. “When that was brought to our attention … we took the appropriate action, but not every crime or not every issue with drugs was associated with Liddonfield.”

He said because Liddonfield was an open development located just off Frankford Avenue, a major Philadelphia thoroughfare, it was easy to get to and from for outsiders who may have caused trouble around the development as well.

“There was always some issue with some neighbors that felt like the people there were a problem,” Caldwell added. “But we certainly did not move to relocate them because there was a problem.”]

A project fighting (and winning) against the odds

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 (PHA) 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 Holmesburg, just a few blocks from Frankford Avenue. It’s a tranquil place that residents say is a wonderful home and that neighbors outside the development seem hard-pressed to find a reason to complain about it.

Three Holmecrest residents chat outside their homes.

“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-century existence as public housing. City officials talked about 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.

Homes in Liddonfield are abandoned as crews prep to level the site.

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.

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 public 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 many have of traditional public housing projects. And, neighbors said its success is due to the more calm 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 that 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.]

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