#117 May/Jun 2001

Shelter Shorts

Home Sweet Cell??   Critics of the United States’s rapid growth in prison population have often quipped that our only housing production program for the poor is prison building. But […]

Home Sweet Cell??


Critics of the United States’s rapid growth in prison population have often quipped that our only housing production program for the poor is prison building. But apparently not everyone thinks that’s a joke. Massachusetts State Representative John H. Rogers has introduced legislation that would make prison cells count as affordable housing when considering grants to municipalities and enforcement of the state’s ordinance against exclusionary zoning. Perhaps the next step could be to define license plate production as economic development. (Boston Globe, 5/16/01)

Union Update… SEIU District 1199-New England, one of the four unions that have been collaborating on housing and community issues through the Stamford Organizing Project (see Shelterforce #111), has been busy on the more traditional labor front as well. Since April it has led a series of strikes and one-day actions at 39 Connecticut nursing homes, addressing primarily the need to increase staff to patient ratios.
Although the nursing homes are private, the amount of state-controlled Medicaid reimbursements they receive plays a big role in the negotiations. When Governor John G. Rowland got involved, however, it was to pay for the nursing homes’ strike-related expenses – to the tune of double the cost of the strikers’ demands – and, in one case, to call out the National Guard. Organizer Jane McAlevey believes that some of the governor’s harsh response has to do with 1199’s “radical housing politics and grassroots political base.”

As of May 29th, the four-week strike was over and all but three nursing homes had accepted back the strikers, but 21 homes were still without contracts. (The New York Times, 5/29/01)

Cracking the Harder Nuts Camden, NJ and Philadelphia, PA, across the Delaware River from each other, don’t often come up as hopeful examples of urban revitalization. Philadelphia is more likely to be mentioned for the persistence of blight in its neighborhoods in the face of its downtown renaissance, whereas Camden, with a 44.5 percent poverty rate and the highest homicide rate in New Jersey for years, rarely shows up in national discussions at all, except perhaps as that extreme example where even the most hopeful strategies founder.
But according to recent newspaper stories, there are signs of life and motion in both cities, though in each case, the jury has barely left the room.

In Philadelphia, Mayor John F. Street has proposed an unprecedented demolition and renovation plan to attack abandoned and vacant properties. The $1.63 billion initiative would demolish 14,000 dangerous and vacant buildings and seal off 2,500 others, clean up 31,000 trash-strewn lots, and build 16,000 housing units. Street’s goal is to cut the vacant property rate by 65 percent, assemble appealing packages of land for developers and eventually recoup the past decade’s loss of 75,000 residents.

If it happens, just about everyone says it would be the most comprehensive project of its sort ever attempted in Philadelphia. Many are excited about it. “We are heartened that Street finally made his move…. He’s done the right analysis,” Ceci Schickel, lead organizer for Philadelphia Interfaith Action (PIA), told The New York Times. PIA is a group of 30 congregations that has long criticized Philadelphia mayors for their halfhearted programs to address the problem of housing blight.

Street’s major hurdle appears to be political – superseding established bureaucracies and patronage expectations while still getting the needed support from the city council, who have so far been resisting. (The New York Times, 4/26/01)

Meanwhile, across the river in Camden, there are also signs of optimism, or at least motion. (Associated Press, 4/25/01) A large floating restaurant and nightclub is moving there from Philadelphia, and a light rail connection to Philadelphia is imminent. Luxury apartments and streetscape improvements are in the works.

Camden’s troubles have long been impervious to big projects like the aquarium that went in in 1992. Will this new flurry of activity turn out to be more of the same, or have revitalization efforts there finally reached critical mass? There’s a long way to go on the home front: on May 25th The New York Times reported that the state was appointing a city manager to oversee Camden’s “drifting” city government.

In both Philadelphia and Camden, one thing that’s conspicuously absent from the news stories is the contribution of community-based organizations who have been slowly and steadily working in the neighborhoods of both cities for years. But their involvement and leadership will probably be one of the key factors for success. Stay tuned.


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