WILMINGTON –– When Hillcrest is ultimately razed to the ground, residents who are moved elsewhere by the Wilmington Housing Authority (WHA) will be expected to pay the same amount each month in rent, calculated as an affordable percentage of earned income.
If and when the renter migrates back to Hillcrest, once it’s redeveloped into a new community, they’d still be charged that income-based rate. At the minimum, a tenant can pay just $50 a month.
But when residents would need to leave, how long they would be out and when they could come back is up in the air. It’s still not known whether residents would return to “Hillcrest” or a neighborhood of a different name on the same 26 acres.
Housing authority CEO Katrina Redmon could not give a rough estimate of WHA’s timeline for demolishing the aging Hillcrest community and rehabilitating it as a mixed-income, multi-use site. It’s still early in the process, she said, and she isn’t at liberty to discuss more than what is already outlined in the request for qualifications, shared in May, so as to not create unfair advantages between prospective developers.
Although WHA has yet to outline its relocation plans, Redmon explained the Uniform Relocation Act prescribes tenants are taken care of, and WHA would not send residents to live in hotels. It’s more likely families would move into units at other housing properties or, potentially, receive housing vouchers to rent from private landlords. It depends on what the federal government approves.
Hillcrest resident Nicole Cromartie said after 11 years of living in public housing, she is ready to get out anyway. She remembers years ago when WHA was talking about “grants and grants, and we were supposed to move,” but nothing ever came of those discussions.
“I don’t really even believe that we’re going to be moved,” Cromartie said. “I don’t think they’re going to remodel these. They told us this before. Like broken promises.”
Nearly 10 years ago, the housing authority tried and failed to obtain a $30 million Choice Neighborhood Implementation Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). According to past Port City Daily reporting, Wilmington lost out to a larger city.
WHA has now given up on the Choice Neighborhood program. Redmon said it is too difficult to obtain. Instead WHA intends on finding a developer to assist its efforts and employ various funding sources, such as tax credits, affordable housing bonds and private dollars.
The end goal is a residential community with neighbors of varying demographics and paychecks, increased walkability and some commercial uses scattered throughout. WHA uses the word “vibrant” to describe the vision.
Yet, the news Hillcrest’s demolition is on the horizon sparked strong reactions from the community, a large part of which does not trust the government to properly tend to displaced tenants. It also ignited fear about gentrification, after seeing similar trends on the northern side of the city.
Although the idea is to incorporate people with higher incomes into the community, the number of affordable units on Hillcrest’s property will probably stay around the same, according to Redmon. Hillcrest spans 26 acres, and she hopes to save some of that land as a greater buffer between the train tracks and the community.
“It is a big piece of land. Don’t get me wrong,” Redmon said. “But it’s not that big.”
Starting in early June, the WHA started hosting meetings with residents and distributed flyers throughout the neighborhood. In a June 8 meeting, concerns were raised that the proposed changes would “push out” the low-income families, according to minutes.
Resident Terri Williams said she got a reminder letter before the Fourth of July about the redevelopment plans while checking on her place. After 13 years living in a home on the front row on 13th Street, Williams said she started taking photos of the mold in her house and showing them to the housing authority. She was transferred to a freshly remodeled unit in April.
“And find out, they’re tearing it down,” Williams said, “like, it’s crazy.”
Cromartie said she thinks it’s great WHA has a plan in place, but she’d like to see it actually come to fruition. She’d also like to get out of public housing altogether. If that doesn’t happen, she said she hopes the redevelopment will at least result in a better and safer place with less crime for her and her family to live.
“I dealt with people getting killed ‘cross the street, next door, behind me,” Cromartie said. “There’s just so much going on out here and my kids, they don’t like it. They’re always, like, on edge.”
The other issue, Cromartie said, is the mold. Cromartie said she hasn’t had much luck with getting transferred from her unit. Her neighbor, LaPosa Green, has lived in Hillcrest 14 years. This May, a month after she had her baby, Green moved into a hotel because of the mold growing inside her unit.
“I’m not concerned for right now,” Green said about potential relocation down the line. “I got somewhere to stay right now.”
Redmon said mold is a problem throughout the area, and she hears similar issues from her counterparts across the state. When a unit tests positive, the protocol is to move the residents out while it undergoes repairs.
Most problems in Hillcrest stem from the property’s age. It was built 70 years ago as temporary housing for the war effort, designed for military and shipbuilders. Currently, around 40 to 50 of the 256 units throughout Hillcrest are vacant while rehab and modernization work is underway.
Meanwhile, WHA’s waiting list remains closed due to the demand.
In April 2020, WHA opened the waiting list for two public housing sites and received 1,045 applications. It had to close the list after two days.
For two days in 2018, more than 2,100 applications flooded in for housing vouchers.
Redmon said opening the waitlists any longer would give “false hope.”
“We get calls –– and, oh my god, I don’t even want to talk about the emails –– from people: ‘I have never asked for anything before, but my income doesn’t cover a place for me to live here,’” Redmon said.
She explained those calls are everyday people who work in local restaurants or even the hospital. Sometimes they are elderly individuals who can no longer afford to keep up home repairs or even make rent.
Redevelopment could add more units to Hillcrest’s land, tackling the housing shortage. Months may pass before WHA finalizes terms with a developer, at which point it can start defining relocation plans for residents and moving through the series of approvals needed from HUD.
“I hope they do what they are supposed to do,” Cromartie said, “getting remodeled and maybe it could change the community.”
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