By Donald Wittkowski
Plans by Ocean City to build a small amount of affordable housing in the north end of town in partnership with Habitat for Humanity drew strong opposition Thursday from the surrounding neighborhood.
The two-hour public forum at the Howard S. Stainton Senior Center attracted more than 100 people and was dominated by neighbors who objected to the proposed project.
Under the plan, two vacant, city-owned lots at 240-244 Haven Ave. and 224-226 Simpson Ave. would be transformed by Habitat for Humanity into three single-family homes designated as affordable housing.
Residents of Simpson and Haven avenues said they did not object to Habitat for Humanity or the idea of affordable housing, but they insisted the proposed sites were not a good location for the project.
Speaker after speaker argued that the vacant lots were the only green space left in that part of town and served as a centerpiece for social functions such as neighborhood block parties and as children’s play areas.
“It’s an oasis. As you might know, there are very few oases in this city,” Lynne Pancoast, a resident of Simpson Avenue, told city officials at the forum. “It’s an oasis for the entire neighborhood.”
Jennifer Somers, another Simpson Avenue resident, maintained that the city already suffers from too much development and that more housing in place of open space would simply add to the overcrowding.
“I think maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board,” Somers said while urging city officials to look for other locations for affordable housing.
Jack Bolger, who lives on Haven Avenue, also wants the city to expand its search to other parts of town for affordable housing sites instead of concentrating on Haven and Simpson avenues.
“Spread out affordable housing throughout the island, not in a two-block radius,” Bolger said.
Kim Bloomer, who lives on Bay Avenue, and Valerie Geisler, a resident of Simpson Avenue, both said the vacant Simpson Avenue parcel serves as a gathering point for the entire neighborhood, including block parties.
Geisler said children use the Simpson Avenue site all the time as a play area. The vacant land on Haven Avenue has served as the location for neighborhood Easter egg hunts, she also said.
Kathleen Federico, a resident of Bay Avenue, said she fears the construction of more homes would exacerbate the neighborhood’s already serious flooding problem.
While most of the nearly 20 public speakers at the forum opposed the city’s plan to build affordable housing in their neighborhood, they said they did not object to Habitat for Humanity.
“No one has said we don’t want Habitat for Humanity,” said Doreen Mills, who lives on Simpson Avenue. “It’s not Habitat for Humanity against Simpson Avenue or Haven Avenue.”
First Ward Councilman Michael DeVlieger, who represents the area where the project is proposed, said that the neighbors “spoke beautifully for themselves”.
“I think any objective observer could easily walk out of here with a logical conclusion about how the neighborhood feels regarding this topic,” DeVlieger said.
Shawn Lockyear, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Cape May County, repeatedly told the residents that the organization only wants to build homes that would be compatible with the surrounding neighborhoods.
“We build high-quality houses,” Lockyear said. “We want the house to feel like it belongs in whatever community we’re building.”
Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization, has gained national acclaim for its affordable housing projects across the country. Former President Jimmy Carter’s involvement with the organization has boosted its stature nationwide.
Lockyear went into great detail describing the organization’s rigorous screening and selection process for the homeowners who are part of the affordable housing projects.
She also said that Habitat for Humanity’s projects are a great way for community members to volunteer their services and play a role in the revitalization of their neighborhood with new housing.
“We offer an opportunity for the entire community to work together,” Lockyear said.
The city is discussing a possible partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Cape May County to build the project as it searches for ways to meet its broader affordable housing obligations under the state’s Fair Housing Act.
Ocean City is currently defending itself in a lawsuit with the state Council on Affordable Housing over the total number of affordable housing units that are supposed to be built on the island. The state believes the number should be 1,000 units, but the city is disputing the figure as far too high.
City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson said Ocean City is trying to reach an agreement that would avoid having the town exposed to large clusters of affordable housing, such as a mammoth apartment complex.
Altogether, the city has reserved $3.7 million in funding to meet its affordable housing obligations, said Matthew von der Hayden, manager of capital planning.
According to von der Hayden, the city is exploring options to build affordable housing, including the proposed partnership with Habitat for Humanity.
“We’re here to get more comments before anything moves forward,” he told the forum.
The sites on Simpson and Haven avenues are being considered for affordable housing because they are the only vacant, buildable residential parcels owned by the city, Business Administrator Jim Mallon said.