Two political factions in Hoboken have taken opposite stances on whether to implement a plan to demolish and rebuild a large portion of the city’s public housing projects, but no one seems to be discussing a middle ground – except maybe the residents, who say they are tired of living in buildings erected in the 1950s and ravaged by years of neglect.
The residents of the Andrew Jackson Gardens and Harrison Gardens in the southwest corner of the city say their 806 units of subsidized housing are relics of an age long gone, when low-income residents were pushed into the deepest corners of the city’s borders, effectively resulting in the creation of ghettos around which the city could otherwise flourish.
The same thing has happened in Jersey City, Newark, Camden, and other urban epicenters up and down the East Coast. In many of those cities, however, the stereotypical “projects” – sets of brick buildings in the shapes of crosses which typically surround a central courtyard – have been replaced by modernized mixed-income and midrise developments.
The trend began in the early 1990s after the National Commission on Severely Depressed Housing directed the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to create a program by which affordable housing could be effectively de-ghettoized and integrated into larger urban communities.
In August of 2010, Carmelo Garcia, the executive director of the autonomous Hoboken Housing Authority (HHA) and a product of Hoboken’s affordable housing, began a process by which he would seek to revitalize the HHA’s main campus. The campus spreads from Second Street north to Sixth Street, and Jackson Street west to the Palisades cliffs.
Spurred on by $2.8 million that the HHA received in 2009 as a direct result of President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Garcia and the HHA’s board of commissioners hired an architectural firm to design a revitalization plan, which they unveiled in 2010. They called it Vision 20/20.
All about politics
Three years later, Garcia and residents who support him are at odds with Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s supporters at City Council and HHA meetings over the 10-year, 10-phase project.
At stake are millions of dollars in development contracts, along with – perhaps – the thousands of potential votes in the buildings run by the HHA. The project could add even more units to that part of town, some of them at market rate.
Furthermore, the matter is becoming an election issue, as the mayoralty and three council-at-large seats are up for grabs in this November’s election.
At the center of the sudden uproar is Hoboken’s newest arch enemy, Hurricane Sandy. Because of the storm, HUD released around $15.2 billion in recovery aid earmarked for low-income housing in February.
Garcia wanted to apply for the aid by a May 31 deadline, but needed the City Council to adopt a “resolution of need” in support of the first phase of the application. The resolution would not approve the project (which will need city Planning Board approval) but would show support from the council.
“The goal is to integrate the affordable housing community into mainstream Hoboken.” – HHA Executive Director Carmelo Garcia
At two meetings in May, Zimmer’s allies rejected a resolution in support of the project, which Garcia wanted to include in his aid application. Garcia submitted the application to the federal government nonetheless, but called it “deficient” without the resolution.
A letter of support from the council would help the project do well in competition with projects from around the state for the funds. The resolution would have stated that, “the Council finds and determines that [the building] meets or will need an existing housing need.”
But members of the council say they want more details on the plan before expressing any kind of approval.
The HHA is run by Garcia, the paid executive director, but he answers to the federal department of Housing and Urban Development and to a seven-member volunteer board of commissioners. The HHA’s board, like the council, is also split into two factions, and the commissioners that have aligned themselves with Zimmer have a majority against those who support Garcia.
The arguments have intensified considerably. Council members have accused their colleagues, and the mayor, of racism, and have been hit back with accusations of exploiting HHA residents for votes. For their part, HHA residents who support the project have come to City Council meetings, rallying under the battle cry of “We can, we will, watch us!”
Amidst all of this, “Vision 20/20” is no closer to getting off the ground than it was in 2010. Why?
The arrival of the federal stimulus money in 2009 was accompanied by a suggestion that the authority conduct something called a Physical Needs Assessment (PNA), which evaluates a given housing authority’s current stock, in conjunction with HUD.
The PNA’s results, according to Garcia, showed an immense need for replacing certain buildings.
Enter Vision 20/20, which replaces all the units in Andrew Jackson Gardens and Harrison Gardens and adds 196 new units. The Jackson complex, which holds 598 units in 19 buildings, was constructed in 1952. Just to the southeast of Andrew Jackson, the Harrison Gardens consist of two 10-story H-shaped buildings, each of which is further divided into two separate buildings, consisting of a total of 208 units. Those buildings were built in 1959. Together, the two developments hold 806 units, each of which would be replaced.
The planners originally advised the HHA that the strategic capacity of its main campus could hold as many as 1,853 units, a considerable increase from the original 806. But according to Garcia, the HHA’s board decided in August 2012 against the massive increase due to concerns about density and loss of open space.
They eventually settled on, and voted in support of, an increase of 196 units, bringing the project’s total to 1,002.
The city and certain HHA board members, including Councilman-at-Large David Mello – an ally of Zimmer – have raised concerns about the potential increase in density.
“I think we need to focus on making these areas better, rather than bigger,” Mello said in an interview.
Garcia said that the additional units could be opened as market-rate housing, bringing wealthier residents to live with those of low and middle incomes, and furthering the effort to desegregate the area in the southwest corner of Hoboken from the rest of the city.
“The goal is to integrate the affordable housing community into mainstream Hoboken,” said Garcia in an interview. “And we’re trying to do it in a way that places no burden on the city but allows everyone to reap the benefits.”
What’s the process?
In 2010, the HHA published a 112-page document that outlines the project’s methodology, a breakdown of its phases over the course of an estimated 10-year construction, and the advantages it would bring to Hoboken. (The document is not available on the HHA website. At some point, it was added to a third-party website by Mello. The project can be seen via this link: http://bit.ly/1azY0Uo.)
While working on the plan, Garcia looked at the grants and funding programs that were available from HUD, the state, and the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) tax credit program, and settled on a mixture of all three.
According to Garcia, the project’s 44-unit first phase would be funded by two grants – one for $7.3 million from the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) low income housing tax credit program, and another for $3.4 million from HUD’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) disaster recovery program – as well as a $1.9 million loan from the New Jersey Housing Mortgage and Finance Agency (HMFA).
According to Maria Maio, the executive director of the Jersey City Housing Authority (JCHA), this type of funding scheme is typical. In the past 10 years, Maio has overseen the revitalization of three of Jersey City’s most decrepit low-income communities – the Curries Woods community on the border with Bayonne, the downtown Lafayette Gardens, and the A. Harry Moore projects on Duncan Avenue just off of Kennedy Boulevard.
“In Jersey City, all of our developments have been mixed-income housing, and so they’re funded through a combination of grants,” she said. “But the process for securing these grants is complicated, and there are very few departments in the city that aren’t touched by it.”
Maio said that usually the first step is to engage the city’s planning board, its City Council, its redevelopment agency, and any other institution that would be involved with the project.
In Hoboken, hardly any departments have been consulted on Vision 20/20. Zimmer has said repeatedly that she supports revitalizing HHA property, but not without following a process similar to what Maio described. Zimmer believes the city should conduct a redevelopment study of the entire neighborhood before deciding how Vision 20/20 would fit in.
“This is a project that will affect the entire community, so the entire community should be involved in the conversation,” she said last week. “Even [the HHA’s] own plan says that there needs to be an entire community process, but there’s been none of that.”
However, Garcia was not asking for the entire project to be approved – just for a letter of need from the council in support of the funding for the first phase. Ultimately, the project would still need to go before the city’s Planning Board, and potentially other bodies, for approval.
On the other hand, the city’s support in a letter may have implications saying that the council supports it as written.
Garcia and Zimmer have met face to face to discuss the project at least once, at the end of April. Correspondence written between the two following the meeting shows Garcia disagreed with the mayor’s assessment that there has been failure to communicate. Garcia also described what he said was a previous meeting with Zimmer outlining the entire phase one project.
Zimmer responded in her own letter a few days later, telling Garcia that “contrary to your assertions, you have failed to properly brief my administration, the City Council, or the public with respect to this project.”
Maio, speaking from experience, said that cooperation between the city and the JCHA has always led to fruitful results when attempting to secure funding.
“It’s tough competition. You could lose out by one point,” she said. “The applications for these grants are given scores, and you get points for having a resolution of need from the city and the approval of the planning board, things like that.”
References to the KKK
Garcia presented the HHA’s resolution to the City Council twice in May, with disastrous results. The first time, the four members of the council aligned with Zimmer walked out of the meeting to prevent a vote (it was subsequently held anyway, but was not entered into the record by the city clerk, because any council vote requires a quorum of at least five members). The second time, 3rd Ward Councilman Michael Russo referenced the Ku Klux Klan as part of criticism of Zimmer and Council President Peter Cunningham, who voted against the resolution.
Russo said that if Cunningham was not going to support affordable housing in Hoboken, he “might as well go home and cut two holes in a pillowcase.” He then added, “…you’re an outright racist.”
Cunningham promptly denied the accusation, telling Russo that he “couldn’t believe [Russo] just said that.”
Zimmer said in an interview last week that those accusations detracted focus from more important issues.
“It’s despicable,” said Zimmer last week. “All I am trying to do is keep residents safe, and I’m getting accused of being racist. It’s sad.”
Why the rush?
Garcia still filed for the CDBG disaster recovery funds before the May 31 deadline, but was not confident in the HHA’s chances.
“It was a deficient application,” he said recently. “We lost ten points right out of the gate, so I don’t know if we’re going to get it.”
Asked why he waited until only a month before the deadline to apply, and to seek the council’s support, Garcia said that the application took a significant amount of time to plan.
City officials and council members aligned with Zimmer echoed the mayor’s accusations that Garcia ambushed the city with Vision 20/20.
But Garcia said the city was lucky to have a plan when the funds were made available.
Maio confirmed that the deadline for the grants was moved up, noting that the original deadline would have been at the end of this month (June) if not for Sandy.
“It happened fairly quickly,” she said. “The government has to have that money obligated by a certain date.”
The members of the City Council who voted against the resolution of need – Mello, Cunningham, Council Vice President Jennifer Giattino, and Councilman-at-Large Ravinder “Ravi” Bhalla, all allies of Zimmer – gave various reasons at two May council meetings for their opposition.
Cunningham spoke of concerns that the site where the HHA plans to construct the building is not well suited to the project and the city’s Planning Board has not approved the project as a whole. Bhalla said he doubted “whether this plan even exists on paper,” noting that he’d heard mention of a 26-page document circulating around town, but that he’d yet to see it.
The 26-page document Bhalla referred to is most likely the final two chapters of the HHA’s original 2010 plan, which Zimmer confirmed last week she had seen. She said she only recently became aware of the larger document.
Mello, who has said he supports the project in theory but not yet in practice, worried that it is moving too fast to tell whether its financial aspects are in Hoboken’s best interest.
“We need to make sure this is the best thing for our residents and our taxpayers,” he said. “I want to get the most bang for our buck.”
Millions of dollars at stake
Mello also raised concerns about the developer fee that would be included in the cost of each building, and would be split down the middle between the HHA and the project’s developer, RPM Development. RPM, which is based in Montclair, specializes in building low-income and affordable housing, and has constructed over 30 developments throughout the state.
“This project has the potential to make developers very rich,” he said in an interview. “How are we going to keep track of where that money goes?”
Indeed, Mello’s concerns are over much more than a pittance. The developer fee for the first phase alone – just one building – is upwards of $1.5 million. There will be fees for the other phases, but they depend on the scale of the projects, so the exact amounts are not known.
Still, it’s not simply a reward that the developer gets to pocket. It must be used to cover professionals and maintenance. On the other hand, it is a considerable amount of money with vague oversight.
Garcia said that HHA’s half of the developer fee could be used to improve various amenities, and would offset funds which HHA is set to lose due to mandatory federal funding cuts known as sequestration, a trend affecting various bodies in the state. At a recent meeting, Garcia estimated the HHA’s losses to be around $800,000.
Accusations from both sides
Like almost anything in Hoboken, accusations of backroom politics, shadow deals and ulterior motives surround the Vision 20/20 proposal.
Those in favor of Vision 20/20 have accused Zimmer of attempting to intervene in the HHA’s dealings by placing loyal appointees on its board of commissioners, including Mello and the board’s former chairman, Jake Stuiver, who has moved to Pennsylvania but remains on the board.
“The mayor wants control of the HHA board,” said Garcia. “Our relationship has been rocky since [Stuiver] took over as chairman, but the HHA is supposed to be autonomous and on no terms should we be submitting to City Hall’s agenda.”
Zimmer denied the accusation, and Mello scoffed at the idea that his decisions on the HHA board are made at the mayor’s behest.
“That’s the perception because that’s the way the opposition wants it to be portrayed,” he said. “I ran with the mayor because we agree on many issues, but on many other issues, we’ve had healthy debate.”
Stuiver said that he understood the council’s opposition of the plan on the grounds of a lack of information, saying he has experienced the same frustration.
“Garcia has this modus operandi that’s always rush, rush, rush,” he said. “But he’s never in a rush to provide people with information ahead of when important decisions need to be made.”
Conversely, Mello accused Councilman Russo of backing Vision 20/20 solely to solidify his voter base. The majority of the project would be built in Russo’s 3rd Ward, though a small section would be in the territory represented by 4th Ward Councilman Tim Occhipinti, another Vision 20/20 supporter.
“I think they would love to achieve it to attract their voter base,” said Mello.
Russo did not return a call for comment, but Occhipinti called Mello’s accusation “outlandish” and accused the at-large councilman of the same type of cronyism.
“He knows that his political base doesn’t want this to happen,” he said. “To blatantly ignore the needs of residents who need better housing is a travesty.”
Rob Davis III, the newly elected chairman of the HHA board, who lives in the projects and has called himself “an instrument of the people,” lamented the effect that the infighting of Hoboken’s politicos has had on the Vision 20/20 process.
“It seems like a lot of people think that this is something other than replacement housing,” he said in an interview. “This isn’t some grandiose plan to take over the city and bring certain people more votes. This is about modernizing people’s lives.”
Mello, for his part, said that another year of work on Vision 20/20 might help.
“Right now, we could build something marginally better than what we have now if we want to, but it’s not as good as it could be,” he said.
So, will the city’s two bitterly divided factions find some common ground in the future? According to Maio, projects like Vision 20/20 rarely come to fruition unless everyone is on the same page.
“In my experience, these projects tend not to happen without the support of everyone,” Maio said, “the board of commissioners, the residents, and the city.”