Saturday, March 1, 2003

English Woods tenants: Problems, but it's home

They say troubles don't justify destroying complex

By Kevin Aldridge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Gayle Jones, who has lived in English Woods since 1999, said she believes the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority wants to tear down the complex to "make money off the land," not realizing the impact the demolition will have on the poor.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
| ZOOM |
Dorothy Terry's modest apartment in English Woods needs a paint job and new kitchen cabinets. Her kitchen faucet leaks.

Part of the ceiling in Veloris Green's apartment collapsed because the pipes connected to her upstairs toilet kept leaking. She could use a new bathtub, and some loose bricks and mortar around her apartment need tuck-pointing.

Tenants of English Woods say such problems are common to just about every building in the World War II-era public housing complex in North Fairmount. But they're not enough, they argue, to justify demolishing the 700-unit public complex, throwing their lives into disarray.

While politicians, surrounding neighborhood groups and the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority argue about the fate of the complex, the view from those who call it home offers another perspective.

Tenants say English Woods is not the dilapidated, bare-bones, crime-ridden housing project that many outsiders think. Many residents regard the development as a "safe haven" for decent low-income and disabled citizens - a place to stay until they can get on their feet financially.

"Everybody's house has some problems," said Marcia Battle, a five-year resident and vice president of the English Woods Civic Association. "A lot of problems (CMHA) let go and didn't correct, so, of course, some buildings are in worse shape than others. But you don't have to demolish the entire thing to fix them."

The housing authority says significant structural and plumbing problems make the barracks-style housing complex obsolete and unsafe. CMHA estimates it would cost as much as $130,000 a unit for repairs. In addition, the housing authority is determined to decrease the concentration of subsidized housing in the city.

The housing authority's five-member board voted Tuesday to demolish English Woods and relocate tenants to other housing authority properties or give them vouchers to rent from private landlords. Two more-recent additions will remain - 118 units built four decades ago and the 138-unit Marquette Manor high-rise for the elderly and disabled people.

CMHA has no firm plans for the vacated land, although it has suggested in the past that it be used for mixed-income housing.

The demolition plan heads to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for approval, which could take up to six months. Residents could be relocated by November.

The CMHA vote angered dozens of tenants, who threatened a lawsuit and demanded HUD investigate how the housing authority spent money earmarked for English Woods.

"We aren't just going to roll over. We are going to fight for our community and our lives," said Green, 47. "We are going to stay here and fight until the bitter end because that's all we can do."

Green, who friends and neighbors affectionately call "Miss Cookie," has lived in English Woods for six years. She questioned how a housing complex deemed "viable" by HUD three years ago could suddenly become "obsolete."

Repairs easily made

Tenants say most of the buildings need simple repairs that won't cost as much as CMHA estimates. Green says the English Woods Civic Association has had engineers assess the complex. They estimated the cost at $17,000 a unit for repairs.

"A lot of these apartments are in very good shape," she said. "These buildings may be old, but they are well-structured."

Battle says most of the disrepair at English Woods is the result of maintenance neglect, not tenant abuse.

"Where is our piece in the city?" she said. "If you keep taking away low-income housing, you are basically kicking us out of the city."

Gayle Jones, a resident since 1999, said she believes CMHA wants to tear down English Woods "just to make money off the land." Jones said that "turn-a-profit-at-all-costs" attitude doesn't take into account the impact on poor residents of razing English Woods.

"If they demolish it, a lot of people would be left homeless," Jones said. "Some people might have to go and live with other family members. Crime would escalate, it would just be terrible."

Just the threat of demolition has already caused some tenants to leave English Woods. There are more than 200 vacant apartments in the complex.

Terry, president of the English Woods Civic Association, said CMHA's offer to give tenants first crack at whatever development replaces it hardly seems like an offer at all.

"They say we can come back if we want to, but if the price is so high how can we afford it?" Terry said. "Most of us are on a limited income."

Terry, 65, said she's planned to move out of English Woods every year for the past 30, but could never afford it. Her $875 monthly income is barely enough to cover her $229 rent payment, food, prescription drugs and other bills.

"I believe that when people leave a community like English Woods, the only way is up," said Battle.

"When I leave here I anticipate moving into my own home, not another cramped apartment that is just as old."

Green said English Woods was a perfect fit for someone like her who has no interest in owning a home.

"Everybody doesn't want a house," she said. "A lot of people don't know how to deal with a house. I'm sickly, so I can't keep up a house. I'd rather just stay where I'm at."

Strange bedfellows

The battle over English Woods has forged an unusual alliance between low-income public housing tenants and residents of neighboring communities who object to plans to relocate the poor to their communities.

U.S. Rep Steve Chabot, a Westwood Republican, recently pulled $450,000 in federal funding from CMHA in an attempt to get the housing group to drop its demolition plans.

Cincinnati City Councilman John Cranley asked the two city-appointed members of the housing authority to resign.

"I recognize that all of our supporters don't have the same intentions, but that's OK because the main goal is to save the development," Battle said. "We can work together for two different reasons. Let's just save it together."

Leaders from neighborhoods such as Westwood and Price Hill say too many subsidized units are already in their communities, resulting in an increase in crime and other social ills.

"It is unfortunately a class situation," said Pete Witte, president of the Price Hill Civic Club. "There is no way around the fact that low-income people, for whatever reason, bring crime and litter with them.

"What they have done to the benefit of areas like the West End and Bond Hill by tearing down this type of housing has been to the detriment of areas like Price Hill and Westwood," he said.

"We've seen nothing but increases in crime over the last three to four years because of this serious displacement that has happened."

Battle said she understands the concerns. Many of the younger tenants in English Woods, she said, haven't been taught about maintaining their property.

"If you don't know how to maintain your property, I'm not sure I want you moving in next to me, either," Battle said. "That messes up my property values, and I understand that concept."

Still, Battle says outsiders unfairly characterize everyone who lives in English Woods as lazy, uneducated, not ambitious or criminal. She moved to English Woods from Colerain Township after she became disabled and could no longer afford to live in the suburbs with her four children.

"Just like in any community, you can't generalize about everybody," she said. "We are good, respectable, decent people. We are not ignorant just because we don't make a lot of money."

The Rev. Walter Jones, a seven-year resident and associate minister at Willing Spirit Baptist Church in North Fairmount, said tenants deserve to be treated with the same respect as everyone else.

"They are showing us that they care very little about those who are not as fortunate as others," he said.

Though the destruction of their homes looms, life moves on as usual for many tenants who remain hopeful that things will work out.

"Whatever happens, happens," said Green. "Just as CMHA is moving on with its plans, we are moving on with our plans.

"It's not over until it's over," she said. "God will have the last word on this subject, not CMHA."


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