For more than a decade, Santos Cruz watched bulldozers tear down hundreds of rowhouses in Mount Holly Gardens, including those attached to each side of his two-story brick home. Mount Holly officials warned him that his house might be next.
The town announced it would launch a redevelopment project in 2002 that aimed to replace the neighborhood's 325 units of mostly low-income housing with more expensive homes, apartments, and a row of stores.
But 16 years later, the plan is mired in legal problems. And Cruz's rowhouse is still standing, an odd, solitary structure surrounded by new construction.
Cruz, a 55-year-old truck driver and father of five, vehemently opposed the project. He joined fellow resident James Potter and 40 other mostly Latino and African American neighbors in filing a lawsuit contending that the project would unfairly displace minorities. After years of litigation, their case against the township settled one day before the U.S. Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments.
That was almost five years ago. The 20 families who stayed in the lawsuit over the years were promised "replacement houses" in the Gardens in exchange for allowing the town to acquire and demolish their longtime residences. Five opted for buyouts.
Cruz, Potter, and another neighbor, Rebeca Gonzalez, are still waiting. Their replacement houses — three-story, three-bedroom townhouses — were built six months ago and sit empty, just a few hundred yards from their rowhouses. The three are at the bottom of the list of 15 residents slated to get the new homes in the Gardens. The other residents, who qualify for affordable housing, were put in front of them because housing subsidies were used to help finance the construction.
Under the terms of the settlement, each resident was offered "a house for a house" and would be required to pay off any existing mortgages or liens, take on a special $20,000 mortgage that would be paid to an affordable housing fund if they were to sell, and pay reduced taxes.
"I thought I would be in by now… It's a waiting game," said Cruz, who has lived in his home 28 years.
The settlement says the 15 families who accepted the town's offer would be moved into replacement houses by December 2018, or the town would be required to pay each of them $150,000.
George Saponaro, the town's solicitor, said all of the residents should be in their new homes before that deadline arrives. He said the redevelopment plan was designed to remove blight and eliminate crime that had infested the neighborhood and that the town had faced many challenges to put the plan in place.
Cruz, who was instrumental in organizing the residents, said the town should have tackled the crime problem and left the law-abiding longtime residents in the Gardens alone. But now, he said, he is looking forward to moving into a replacement home. "Even though they didn't want us, we're here, and we're part of this neighborhood," he said, smiling.
Cruz said he hopes the move will take place before winter. "This house is very cold and drafty and it would be a waste of money to fix it," he said.
Potter, the president of the Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action group that sued the town with the assistance of South Jersey Legal Services, shares the sentiment. "In the midst of all the delays, I had to replace my roof to keep my insurance in force. I also had to replace my porch and utility room and it added up quickly," he said. He blamed the township for stalling.
Township officials have said the construction delays were due to problems with the soil and then with the utility lines.
Gonzalez was skeptical of the township's explanations. "This has been too long," she said, noting the town warned her they would take her house by eminent domain years ago. "I went to court to stop it. They wanted to give me just $50,000 for my house." She said she won the case but then had to sit by and watch her neighborhood slowly disappear as demolition crews tore down buildings, even on holidays.
Only about a dozen of the original rowhouses still stand, scattered around a complex of 30 new townhomes on Levis Drive, a few blocks from the Burlington County courthouse. Huge piles of dirt and weed-choked acres of cleared land take the place of the apartment buildings, condominiums and a shopping center that had been proposed by the redevelopers.
After the first six residents moved into replacement homes, the next group of five declined to sign the new deeds and move out. They said they were surprised to learn their deeds would have restrictions that would drastically devalue their new houses if they had a need to sell.
"That's not what we agreed to," said Linda Tigar, who is among the five families. "They snuck those restrictions in."
Now, the township and the five families are back in federal court.
Olga Pomar, the attorney who represents the five families, said the deed restrictions would effectively lower the amount of money her clients would get, if they need to sell their house, to below what the town had offered them outright for their rowhouse.
The restrictions "have the effect of robbing our clients of having any meaningful amount of equity in their homes, and are unfair and deprive them of one of the benefits of home ownership," Pomar said. She said the state is requiring the residents to sign deeds that would allow them to earn only about $32,000 if they sell within 15 years of moving in, and to also be subjected to paying back a "recapture," or a portion of the state's housing subsidy even after the 15 years passes.
The other Gardens residents who got replacement homes, she said, did not have such restrictive deeds.
Saponaro said the town agrees that these deeds are too restrictive but said it has no control over that. The stipulations, he said, are tied to an affordable housing grant administered by the state.
Under a consent order reached this month, the five residents agreed to move into their replacement houses within the next few weeks while reserving the right to continue the court fight.