By Shane Nicholson
A Rockford Housing Authority regular meeting opened the floor early for comments on the proposed South New Towne Drive development Monday evening.
The meeting, held at RHA’s Jane Addams Nobel Apartments complex south of downtown, was the housing authority’s regular monthly meeting, but the South New Towne development was the hot topic as residents filled a room in the first floor of the building.
“We turned the air-conditioning down to 65 degrees this time,” said RHA CEO Ron Clewer, joking about the less than savory conditions of the last public meeting to discuss the development.
RHA stressed before the meeting that questions would be answered via email and posted to the organization’s website, and the tone in the room responded with a much calmer atmosphere than the previous meeting at the Gregory Elementary School.
“I won’t destroy your neighborhood,” said a RHA resident in an impassioned plea to the dozens in attendance, the first to take the floor. “Please don’t shut me and my family out.”
Similar sentiments were echoed throughout the public forum, with current and former public housing residents making the case for allowing Gorman and Company’s planned development to go ahead on the east side.
“We want a better chance, all of us,” said a current resident of RHA housing.
And some residents of the South New Towne Drive area agreed.
“This probably—hopefully—will be a good thing for all of us.”
But residents concerned about the development raised their concerns about property values and the potential for increased crime in the neighborhood.
“What can RHA or Gorman promise me that my house won’t go from $100,000 down to $15,000?” asked one resident.
“There’s not a single house around a housing project with good property values.”
Another neighborhood resident followed, saying, “Who’s gonna help me out when I have to declare bankruptcy?”
The man, who highlighted his service in Vietnam to the audience, said, “I fought for all you people; this is what I get?” before saying that his children would not allow his grand kids to come visit him now due to fears over the residents who would occupy the new 65-unit development.
“Now I think I gotta buy 1/4-inch steel plate to line my house.”
County board member Joe Hoffman pointed the finger at the head of RHA: “Mr. Clewer, you did not do your job.”
He decried the lack of information presented to the public at the beginning of the project’s development, saying, “The first casualty of this battle was the truth.”
Fellow board member Burt Gerl said that the problems residents were concerned with in RHA developments were not unique. “I see blight in every area of Rockford.”
Gerl added that programs to redevelop abandoned houses throughout the community should take priority over building new concentrated developments. “Segregated poverty simply does not work,” he said in closing.
Clewer told the media prior to the meeting that RHA has already begun looking at developing abandoned homes throughout the community as part of its larger efforts to help low-income tenants.
Some who spoke, while full of praise for the manner of Monday’s meeting, sounded off on the Gregory School crowd saying that the residents in attendance had let their neighborhood down.
“I live in the New Towne area and I’m embarrassed by how (the Gregory School) meeting went,” said a woman who took the floor later in the comments session.
“I really feel that underneath it all is racism.”
“Here we are 50 years later, fifty years after Lyndon Johnson and equal housing having this discussion,” said another attendee.
“What else can you call it when you tell us where we can and cannot go? Where we can and cannot live?”
But the mood of the meeting remained positive throughout, and residents seemed more engaged in a discussion of the impacts of Gorman’s project despite the developer not being present.
“This is a start and a really good start,” said one neighborhood resident who described his own upbringing in government housing projects.
“Hopefully now we can see something good come from this.”