Getting along and living side by side

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Editors Note: This is the fourth in a series on public housing in Alexandria.

Proposals to build public housing units in most neighborhoods cause consternation. Who lives in public housing, and is crime in those developments a problem?

Chatham Square is touted as a model of success in mixed-use housing developments throughout the country. In the development that used to be known as The Berg, 52 public housing units sit among million-dollar homes. The facades look alike, but the interiors are different. Less expensive finishing materials and appliances were used in the public housing units but, generally, it is difficult to tell the difference.

There is a lot of noise, and ARHA doesnt really respond very quickly to our concerns, said one resident who spent just under a million dollars for his home, and didnt wish to be identified. Also, if we complain, we are often told that we are simply being unreasonable. Thats why I dont want to give my name.

When the development first opened in 2005, there were neighborhood meetings. Those meetings still occur, but few public housing tenants attend them. They are welcome, but they dont usually show up, said another owner.

Melvin Miller, chairman of the Board of the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which manages and/or owns all of the public housing in Alexandria, said, Most of the complaints we get at Chatham Square really come from people who are complaining about the residents at Hopkins-Tancil across the street. When we get a complaint from one of the homeowners at Chatham Square or at Quaker Hill, we respond, he said.

Sandra Johnson lives in a town home at Hopkins-Tancil. I have lived here for 20 years and have seen a lot of changes, she said. Things have gotten better as far as the [lack of] drugs and the crime.

As for ARHAs response to maintenance problems in her unit, she said, Theyre pretty good, but I dont call them for every little thing. If I need to change a light bulb, I just do it myself or get someone to help me. I really like living here. 

Crime in public housing
The Alexandria Police Department is in the process of conducting a survey about crime in public housing. Generally, though, crime is down. North Old Town has a large number of public housing developments.

Andrew Adkins house has 90, mostly four- and five-bedroom, units. There, violent crime is down by 58.33 percent over last year and nuisance crime is down by 30.43 percent. Last year at this time, there were 73 calls for service that generated police reports. So far, in 2007, there have been 68 such calls and reports.

Janet Talbert lives in the James Bland development, just down the street from Andrew Adkins, also near the Braddock Metro station. She has six children, ranging in age from 21 to 1. She has five bedrooms.

I just moved here and really like it because I have more room for my kids, she said. I know there is crime around here and I make sure that my kids come home right after school and dont go out by themselves after dark, she said.

She agreed with Johnson about ARHA maintenance. I havent had any problems so far. Ive had some cockroaches, but I just go to the store and get some things to put out to get rid of them. Any time Ive needed anything else, they come, she said.

James Bland and James Bland Addition have 198 public housing units. Violent crime here has increased 3.33 percent over last year, and nuisance crime has increased by 3.88 percent. Last year at this time, police had received 429 calls for service from James Bland that generated reports. To date, in 2007, there have been 372 such calls and reports.

Working poor
Flora Ortez also lives in the James Bland development. She has four children, three of whom were born in the United States. Ortez is from Honduras.

I like living here because I have a lot of room for my children, she said. Mostly, the people at ARHA are very nice and helpful, even though I do not speak English very well.

I volunteered to help out by cleaning at the Resource Center on Montgomery Street, and the staff hired me and paid me. Now, theres no money so I dont have a job anymore.

The one thing that bothers me is that there are a lot of people who live in public housing who dont have jobs and who dont want to get jobs. I believe that if these people dont want to work, ARHA should make them clean and do other things around here that need to be done. ARHA shouldnt pay people for doing this work if they arent paying rent but should apply some kind of hourly rate to the rent. People have to take responsibility for themselves and their families.

Public housing has helped me a lot because I need a place to live that is safe for my children. I dont want to live here forever, though. I want to start my own cleaning business and save money so that I can buy a house, Ortez said.

Miller responded to Ortezs suggestion. She has a point about putting people to work, but the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development wont let us do that. We used to make people do community service who didnt have jobs, but we cant anymore, he said.

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