MILLVILLE - Paul Dice still remembers the short and shocking conversation he had with a Holly Berry Court low-income housing complex tenant a few years ago.
Dice said the woman recounted how she routinely locked her doors between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., and would not reopen them regardless of what kind of noises she heard outside her home. That conversation made an impression.
"I never wanted to hear anyone tell me again that they're afraid," said Dice, who has led the Millville Housing Authority since 2008.
Some things have changed since then at Holly Berry Court: A zero-tolerance policy demanded that rents be paid on time and tenants live up to the terms of their leases. Nuisance guests, ranging from gang members to prostitutes, were blocked from the property through the courts. Some of those offenders even ended up serving time in the Cumberland County jail. Troublesome tenants were evicted. Housing units began to slowly be upgraded.
The majority of Holly Berry Court tenants, who Dice said just wanted to raise their families in peace, became more comfortable talking with security about problems.
And the situation at Holly Berry Court should get even better in a few months. With the help of the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, the authority is planning $5 million in improvement to the facility's 49 units. Among the scheduled improvements are upgraded bathrooms and kitchens.
Residents say Holly Berry Court is a much better place to live.
Tracey Pierce, 46, who has lived at the complex for 15 years, said gang members who used to stare as people walking by are gone.
"You knew what they were doing," she said of the illegal activities in which those gang members participated.
"Before, there was a lot of trouble," said Jesus Rosa, a 12-year Holly Berry Court resident. "Now, it's very good."
Now, many residents - including the 65-year-old Rosa - are growing community flower and vegetable gardens, something they said they could not do a few years ago. Rosa was shy at first, but after a few minutes he is walking through his garden, pointing to tomato, bean and other vegetable plants.
"Look at this," he said, showing off a bright green pepper.
The clean up of Holly Berry Court is part of the zero-tolerance policy the housing authority adopted after Dice became its executive director. The policy is in place at the complexes the authority oversees here and in Wildwood, Cape May County, and Salem, Cape May County.
The first tenant was evicted from Holly Berry Court in November 2010, a sign that the authority intended to stick with the zero-tolerance policy. The actual cleanup of Holly Berry Court started about a year-and-a-half earlier, when the authority opened an office at the troubled complex.
Efforts were not always easy. One housing authority employee was followed home and assaulted. Dice and authority Chief Operating Officer Ivy Evans reported being threatened with violence for enforcing lease policies at Holly Berry Court.
That did not deter enforcement of the policy, Evans said. The authority's efforts were helped when it hired John Mazzeo, a former member of the Vineland Police Department and the Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office, to be the complex's lease enforcement officer, she said. Mazzeo, who is still on the job, helps develop cases that make the authority's efforts to rid the complex of troublemakers more successful in court.
Dice said the process seems to be making it easier for the authority to police Holly Berry Court and its other complexes. Residents at Holly Berry Court are taking pride in their properties and do not want the complex to return to the days when a few miscreants made life there difficult, he said.
Evans said the authority's work is far from done, and its staff is working to build on the success of taking back control of Holly Berry Court.
"You always have to be vigilant," she said.
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