"Affordable housing is always a big issue. We are seeing most of the people displaced by the Hurricane Katrina were living in shoddy residences," said Snyder. "Affordable housing has not been a priority for Washington as well as the state, until now."
The large number of fatalities due to Hurricane Katrina and subsequent flooding were in New Orleans' 9th Ward. A large percentage of people living there are below the poverty line, according to news reports. "Secaucus is unique in that we strive to maintain housing availability for a variety of income levels," Snyder said. "Affordable housing is anything but shoddy here." In Secaucus, most of the federally subsidized housing is for senior citizens, but there have been recent projects built and renovated in town via the town's affordable housing fund, into which developers building market-rate units in town must contribute money. Secaucus has been in the forefront of pro-active housing practices by using federal dollars and private development to renovate existing residences for affordable housing. The recently renovated "Patriot Commons" went from a disaster area to a gentile gateway to Secaucus.
Welcome to Secaucus
Patriot Commons, located at the south end on Paterson Plank Road, is first development seen upon entering Secaucus from the south.
The 20-unit, two building complex was privately owned until four years ago, when the Secaucus Housing Authority took it over and renovated it for affordable housing. The original residents of the complex who did not qualify by state affordable housing standards were still allowed to stay. Whenever they decide to leave, they will be replaced by those who qualify.
The development is painted a deep maroon color with white trim. The lawns are meticulously manicured and pleasantly landscaped. But it was not always that inviting to view or live in.
Before the property was purchased in 2001 from JACE Realty Corp. of Union City, it was on its last legs. "It was a mess - always something breaking," said Tom Nelson, who has lived at the Commons for the last 25 years. "The parking lot had holes in it. The plumber was here full-time. Tiles were falling off the bathroom walls."
Snyder said there were also structural problems, and the porch stairs were hazardous. Photos taken at the time of assessment show a bland brick building circa 1955, with narrow porches with faulty handrails. There is yellowing grass and a single chain link fence between the two buildings.
Snyder said the buildings generated a good income source from rents, but nothing was put back into the upkeep of the building.
"The previous owner was nice enough, but she definitely had a problem with upkeep," said Nelson. "If you wanted to keep anything in the basement, you had to put it on pallets since it flooded so much."
A big turnaround
Funding for the project came primarily from a federal program called the HOME Investment Partnership Program. The program gives grants to state and local governments for the development of housing for low-income families. Additional funding came via the Secaucus Leased Housing Corp., a SHA and town government initiative started in the 1990s. Fees are collected from private development housing units in town and placed into an affordable housing trust fund. Snyder said $1.8 million collected for use on affordable housing projects over the last 10 years.
Now there is a full porch and white picket fence around each building. There are white shutters on the windows. Earlier in the year, the interiors were renovated complete with new bathrooms and kitchens. There is a large sign visible to Paterson Plank Road motorists with the address and name of the units painted in red, white and blue. "We wanted to give it a colonial look," said SHA Deputy Director and AFB administrative assistant Mike Altilio. "The town football team is called the Patriots, so that's where the name comes from."
Altilio added that Patriot Commons is self-sustaining because "the rent pays for the mortgage of the original purchase."
Home sweet home
Dara Handlowitch has lived in Patriot Commons for the last two years. She is a single mom with a daughter, Melody, 11, in Secaucus Middle School. She works as a waitress part-time at the Metro Dinner on County Avenue. She said she had lived on Front Street for four years in a railroad room style apartment that left a lot to be desired.
"I love it here. Everything is so beautiful, the grounds - everything," Handlowitch said. "Everything is modern. The maintenance people come as soon as I call them. And the police are right across the street."