NEWARK, NJ - City officials helped break ground Thursday on the second phase of the Somerset Brownstones affordable housing development in Newark’s Central Ward, marking the revitalization of a neighborhood some once found too dangerous to walk through.

The $19 million project is a four-building, 60-unit affordable housing development reserved for families making 60 percent less than the area median income. A Section 8 operating subsidy allows 30 very low-income households to pay rent equivalent to 30 percent of their income. Fifteen units will be reserved to provide permanent housing for the homeless, with a preference for homeless veterans.

Mayor Ras Baraka, joined by The Michaels Organization, Council President Mildred C. Crump and Councilwoman LaMonica McIver, said the development marked a turning point for a neighborhood he remembered as being rife with crime and drug addiction.

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“I’m just a little old enough to remember this neighborhood a long time ago and how dangerous it had become,” Baraka said. “We are [a] very, very, very long way from that space.”

McIver said as a high school student at Morton Street School less than one mile away, she was told by her mother to walk on the other side of the street when getting home to avoid the area.

“It looked real different. Real different,” McIver said. “You couldn’t even walk sometimes down this block.”

The Somerset Brownstones project is funded in part by a $500,000 federal grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development along with an $11.3 million in tax credit equity, said Allison Ladd, the city’s Housing and Economic Development director. 

The development sits on the former site of the Douglas Harrison public housing project in an area that was once the most desirable in Newark in the 1930s. When jobs began leaving the city, employees left too, turning the neighborhood into a blighted area by the 1980s.

Residents of the nearby High Park Gardens apartment complex spent nearly a decade calling for the demolition of the public housing project until 2010 when the city demolished the buildings, according to Newark officials.

The first phase of the redevelopment of the site was the 56-unit Harrison Park Square that offers affordable housing for seniors and homeless veterans.

Baraka said the uniqueness of the project was due in part to its location — slightly away from Newark’s bustling downtown district, which typically gets the majority of attention when it comes to new development.

The Somerset Brownstones project and the redevelopment of the site as a whole was also an opportunity to bring affordable housing to existing people in the neighborhood, not force them out as revitalization efforts are prone to do.

“Around the country where new neighborhoods are being built, the folks that used to live there gotta go.,” Baraka said. “But that’s not the story right here.”