CAMDEN, NJ — The Camden City Council on Tuesday paved the way for new housing in Cramer Hill using the powers of eminent domain during a live-streamed meeting — necessary due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

The ordinance that passed on first reading — as council members adhered to social distancing rules — would allow the city to acquire roughly 11 parcels of land for a low and moderate income housing project in partnership with the Michael’s Development Company and the Camden Housing Authority.

It would construct 63 units of housing on two large parcels of land that are currently vacant and sit across from Veterans Memorial School. 

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The decision to meet drew criticism from some locals.

Longtime Camden resident Shawn Burke called the meeting "troubling."

“It’s typical of the way Camden city democrats work and right up their alley to meet during a health crisis when we’re in a state of emergency,” Camden Education Association President Keith Benson told TAPinto Camden. “That said, I do think it feels like a chance to rebuild student capacity and represents an overall good for our schools.”

Camden’s council addressed Gov. Phil Murphy's discouragement of large gatherings on the agenda for the meeting — saying “members of the public will have the option of participating” online.

Benson and others pointed to parents scrambling to figure out home instruction, work from home, and internet access lacking in some areas of the city thus diminishing public input. 

Councilwoman Felisha Reyes-Morton said Thursday over the phone that during the pandemic there is still city business and benchmarks that need to be met.

The deadline she referred to is one linked to funds the city hopes to obtain for the redevelopment of Ablett Village — specifically a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant. 

Attempts to acquire such grant money was recently unsuccessful, Morton said, due to a “lack of site control.”

The special meeting Tuesday, she noted, was already on the books prior to the coronavirus worsening in the manner it has.  

“If we would have taken it off the agenda and put it for the April meeting, we don’t know how much more COVID-19 will evolve,” Morton said. “Hopefully not worse, but we did have the conference call option and if we wait we’ll be in the same situation. We’re working with what we have available.”

Applying for grant money

Camden Housing Authority Director Victor Figueroa said that a $350,000 planning grant was acquired for Ablett Village. The city this spring will have its sights set on a Choice Neighborhood Implementation Grant via HUD for $35 million to build it out. 

HUD awards these grants to support communities that have undergone a comprehensive local planning process and are ready to begin transformation. 

As a point of comparison, developers at Branch Village — a sprawling project in Centerville — applied for $30 million in these same grants and was awarded $13 million. 

Morton said attempts to bring board members of the now-defunct Cramer Hill CDC to the table have been unsuccessful over the years. 

However, she said she has worked with the public not only to develop Ablett Village but wholly in the area as part of the Cramer Hill Choice Plan.

Additional amenities in fewer units

Fifty-seven of the homes involved in the new project would be allocated to residents displaced by redevelopment at Ablett Village — a site that will go from 306 units to roughly 200.

Much of the reduction has to do with decreasing the density at the homes, since they are more or less crammed as it is, Figueroa said.  

“As you may know change is not easy, especially when you’re being displaced and have to rely on others to determine where you’re going to live,” wrote President of the Ablett Village Neighborhood Association Tracey Powell in a letter Morton posted online.

Powell said she is, “100% in support of using eminent domain to recapture the land from our now, non-existing CDC.”

The planned homes expect to cost between $200,000 and $250,000 per unit.

They will comprise 12 one-bedrooms, 39 two-bedrooms and 12 three-bedrooms — in addition to a building for community space and management offices. 

The community room will offer a computer lab, industrial kitchen and a “flexible gathering hall space,” according to city documents. 

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