“I’m really angry. I’m angry because this seems to happen in this town and nobody cares.”
Atlantic City resident Sandra Taliaferro expressed the same sentiments as others facing displacement from their South Inlet neighborhood as part of a major land-acquisition initiative by the Casino Reinvestment Authority.
Taliaferro was among 50 people at a meeting at Shiloh Baptist Church on Wednesday night organized by the local NAACP chapter, South Jersey Legal Services and the Fair Share Housing Center. They arranged the information session to educate the area’s renters and property owners. About 60 households in that neighborhood stand to be relocated, said Olga Pomar, managing attorney for South Jersey Legal Services.
CRDA spokeswoman Kim Butler said staff already has negotiated with most of the property owners. Their renters, however, made up the majority of the people who attended the meeting. Although some live in duplexes or smaller buildings, the Metropolitan and Vermont apartment complexes also will be affected. Most of the units are income-restricted, Pomar said.
Pomar’s organization “has brought a lot of cases challenging redevelopment projects around the state because they tend to move out lower-income people and replace it with housing our clients can’t afford,” she said.
“I’m speaking tonight as if everything will move forward as planned so you’ll know your rock-bottom legal rights. That’s not to say there aren’t things you can’t do, but ... litigation isn’t the only way to change neighborhood planning.”
Pomar was referencing legal research she is conducting alongside local NAACP leaders and other residents, including Tom Forkin, who runs AC Surf School and was city solicitor during Mayor Lorenzo Langford’s first administration.
Forkin and some others have been threatening a federal lawsuit over S-11, state legislation that transferred planning and zoning authority from the city to the CRDA in the area known as the Atlantic City Tourism District.
“I don’t think the issue is over who gets relocated and how much it costs,” Forkin said. “I think it’s … the unconstitutionality of the state law that’s being shoved down our throats. I think that’s where the lawsuit has to start. I think there should be (a request for) an injunction filed immediately. You don’t need to (prove) discriminatory intent — but the effect is here: you’re relocating minority families. … a public park that’s still on the drawing board.”
Mayor Lorenzo Langford supported their efforts.
“There is a question of constitutionality and beyond that, a question of human rights,” he said.
Langford said previously his fears about the process had abated somewhat because of the CRDA’s willingness to work with the city.
Just before leaving Wednesday’s meeting, Langford told a reporter that talks continue. Specifically, the discussion centers on a land swap. Langford refused to say more, such as whether the transaction would yield housing for displaced residents.
He did say, however, that the CRDA is doing an environmental analysis of its holdings. The testing will determine whether the properties can be used for residential development, Butler said.
Even if so, people could face moving as soon as December. The CRDA said previously that residents will get 90-day notices to vacate starting in September.
Affected households must obtain terms of CRDA assistance in writing prior to their move, and make sure their destination dwelling has been vetted and approved by the agency, stressed City Councilman Mo Delgado and others.
Delgado said he intends to meet with the Atlantic City Housing Authority to see what options are available for increasing available housing within the city or close to it. A 50-mile distance from the displaced residents’ homes is acceptable under relocation laws, Pomar said.
While practical information and references were shared Wednesday night, so were anger and suspicion.
“When everyone wants to party, they come to (Atlantic) City. They don’t look at our faces because we live here,” Delgado said. “Be very cognizant of what they throw your way. You gotta be honest with yourself. How much are you willing to be sold out for?”
The first phase of CRDA land acquisition is focused on Lighthouse Park and expected to cost $6 million, 80 percent of which is coming from the Atlantic County Open Space Fund.
But CRDA representatives have said previously that ultimately, it’s possible the park could extend through the entire empty parcel to Connecticut Avenue.
Although limited for Lighthouse Park land deals, displacement is expected to affect more people in future phases of South Inlet redevelopment.
As of now, the CRDA intends to pay renters between $4,000 and $9,600 over three years if needed to help offset increased rental rates or to be used for a down payment if the renter decides to buy a place.
The agency also will pay as much as $750 to reimburse moving expenses, so long as the person moving gets multiple estimates.
If tenants don’t want to move or owners don’t want to sell, the CRDA has the legal authority to force the issue. Known as eminent domain, the practice is controversial, and one the CRDA has used in the past.
Before that, however, the agency meets with owners to try to agree on a sales price and with renters to provide relocation assistance.
The CRDA used that process when it last dislocated residents during 2008 through 2010 to widen Connecticut Avenue to accommodate the traffic increase expected from the opening of Revel, a $2.4 billion oceanfront casino in the South Inlet rising more than 700 feet three blocks from Shiloh Baptist.
No one mentioned that initiative specifically Wednesday night. But several attendees said they’ve lived in Atlantic City or watched the town closely during prior redevelopment efforts that dislocated residents such as the razing of troubled public housing complex Pitney Village in 1996 to make way for the Atlantic City Convention Center. That project displaced more than 200 households, Langford said.
William Cheatham, who sits on the CRDA’s Tourism District Advisory Committee, expressed distress over the prospect of losing his Maryland Avenue home.
His concerns were not about redevelopment efforts directly, but their effects.
“Fewer taxes are being paid — who’s going to pay taxes? The property owners who are left and they’ll be taxed out of their homes,” he said.
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