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June 28, 2006

 

Between 40 and 50 housing units intended to be sold for about $100,000 will be built by Habitat for Humanity on vacant land in Knollwood, Robert Ruggio, senior vice president of Commonwealth Group, told County Council before it approved rezoning the Brookview apartments complex property.

Ruggio, who serves as point man for the Commonwealth-Setting Properties joint venture which plans to redevelop the site, made the announcement after two members of the Brookview Tenants Association charged that present low-income residents are being victimized by what is being generally regarded as a poster project for 'new urbanism' in not only New Castle County but also the rest of the nation.

"We tenants wanted to be on the bus instead of under its wheels," said Mary Ann Mason. "It's another case of the rich taking advantage of the poor," according to John Rolph.

Their comments evidently swayed one Council member. Jea Street cast the only vote against rezoning saying he could not support clearing the way for a project that would "run the poor folk out of Claymont."

"No one stood up and said, 'We want to go.' They were not asked; they were told they had to go," he said.

Accusation that the interests of present low-income tenants were ignored was staunchly denied by  Ruggio;  Councilman John Cartier,  lead sponsor of the rezoning ordinance; Anne Farley, general manager of the county Department of Community Services; and other supporters of the project.

Approval of rezoning to allow for a mix of residential and commercial uses of the property within 'hometown' zoning guidelines, which allow considerably greater density than is normally permitted under the Unified Development Code, was conditioned on the developer agreeing to an unprecedented development agreement. Among other provisions, that agreement calls for including about 120 'affordable', or 'workforce', units in the new Brookview and building 120 at other locations in the county. It carries roughly the same authority as deed restrictions.

The units to be built at Knollwood count toward the off-site requirement. Ruggio did not provide details of the arrangement with Habitat nor offer a timetable for when the new housing will be constructed.

Council at its session on June 27, also agreed unanimously to a resolution formally authorizing County Executive Christopher Coons to sign the agreement, which is already signed by Ruggio on behalf of Brookview Townhomes Redevelopment l.l.c., the joint-venture entity.

It defines 'workforce' housing as units to be sold initially for no more than $150,000, with allowable annual increases to that ceiling in 5% increments.

Councilman Robert Weiner, cosponsor of the rezoning ordinance and an originator of the Claymont Renaissance movement which, over the course of five years, spawned the redevelopment project, acknowledged that there are several Brookview residents who cannot afford $100,000, let alone $150,000, or comparable-level rents. However, he added, that efforts by Commonwealth-Setting and the county department have resulted in relocating low-income residents, "the overwhelming majority [of whom] are satisfied and have lower rents" while enjoying better living conditions.

During a Council finance committee meeting earlier in the day, Martin Harris, director of the Center for Sustainable Communities, a unit of the Washington-based National Association of Counties, said the Brookview project "is being recognized at the national level and is really a model for what's going on around the country."

Harris was in town to ceremonially present a $5,000 prize to the county for Brookview, one of three winners in the association's annual competition. Council agreed to pass the award on to Claymont Renaissance Development Corp. to help support its continuing economic development activities.

Bruce Gorden, Brookview site manager, testified before the rezoning vote that Brookview Townhomes has spent "in the range of a half million dollars" helping present tenants relocate. That includes refunding security deposits and one-month's rent. He said there presently are 100 households living there but that 94 have given notice that they will move during July.

Farley said Community Services is "committed to seeing that no one is left homeless in the process" of vacating the property.

Street said he was not critical of the department's efforts but referred to what he described as a general trend, including within the city of Wilmington, to uproot the poor. "They shut down Riverside. They shut down Southbridge. All the homeless shelters in my district are full," he said.

Cartier replied that he is aware that the county has "a serious shortage of affordable housing." He said he is committed to being pro-active in an effort to remedy the situation, including making  "changes to our land use code."

Councilman Timothy Sheldon said there are ample opportunities for needy people to earn a living by joining building trades apprenticeship programs. A bricklayer by trade, he said there is a shortage of applicants for such programs. "Anyone who doesn't make enough money is welcome to join a union," he said.

2006. All rights reserved.

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