When Rich Potts steps outside his home, he is confronted by a blighted, abandoned house next door that he said serves as a symbol for the decline of Atlantic City’s neighborhoods.
But what bothers Potts even more than the derelict home itself is a plan to convert it into temporary housing for ex-offenders as they transition from prison back to society.
“I think it’s a step back for the neighborhood. It’s counterproductive for what they want to do for Atlantic City. There’s got to be a better use for this property,” said the 60-year-old Potts, who lives at 440 North Carolina Ave.
Directly across the street from Potts is the run-down house at 602 North Carolina Ave. Once brimming with luxury, the home served as the host “Showhouse at the Shore” during a 2002 fund-raiser for the Ruth Newman Shapiro Cancer and Heart Fund.
Hoping to rescue the house from years of decline, a community ministry called AC Miracle House announced three weeks ago that it has been talking to the city about transforming the site into a counseling center and transitional housing for ex-offenders.
Since then, Mayor Lorenzo Langford has given his preliminary endorsement for AC Miracle House’s plan. The city’s planning director, Keith Mills, said the mayor is sensitive to community concerns and would be willing to work with the neighborhood to resolve any problems.
“We would try to have a meeting with all of the concerned parties to try to mediate,” Mills said. “If there is no middle ground, that’s why the Zoning Board is there to respect the rights of residents, to come up with something that, hopefully, works.”
AC Miracle House would need a city zoning variance to convert the property into transitional housing for ex-offenders. Mills noted the group has been working with city planning and construction officials on the project, but he is unsure when a zoning vote may take place.
“Based on my conversations, it could be months before it comes before the Zoning Board,” Mills said.
Ex-offenders enrolled in AC Miracle House’s program would receive spiritual guidance, education, job training, counseling and financial advice during a one-year stay that would eventually reunite them with their families or lead to permanent housing. Mills said the mayor is giving his support because the program would be unique to Atlantic City.
“The city doesn’t have any facility to embrace ex-offenders with regard to the housing, education, training and stability that they need once they are released,” Mills said. “They are expected to have anywhere between 12 to 15 beds in this facility, which is essential to the transition back to mainstream society.”
Potts, however, said he and his fellow neighbors object to having ex-offenders living next door. Potts said he has already begun speaking to City Council members and is thinking about a petition drive to reinforce the neighborhood’s opposition.
“It will tarnish the image,” Potts said of what he believes will happen to the North Carolina Avenue community. “They wouldn’t let this happen in Margate or Brigantine.”
Organizers of AC Miracle House have anticipated neighborhood opposition. In response, they argue that their organization will help to stabilize the neighborhood at the same time it is helping ex-offenders to return to society.
“AC Miracle House will try to police the area to make sure things go right,” said Rondell Showell, an administrator with the group. “We’ll also make sure that the ex-offenders stay rehabilitated and will become a productive member of society.”
Showell and Anita Coleman, founder and chief executive officer of AC Miracle House, said there will be no sex offenders enrolled in the program. Most of the people would be ex-drug offenders and others who committed nonviolent crimes, they said.
“We are hoping and praying they will be willing to give back to the city and become mentors,” Coleman said.
But Potts believes the ex-offenders will make the neighborhood more dangerous. He predicted crime would go up.
Mills said AC Miracle House has told the city there would be constant supervision of the facility, which could help temper concerns among the neighbors.
“One of the key elements that neighbors may not appreciate is that it is a managed facility. There would be management on the premises 24 hours a day,” Mills said.
AC Miracle House has been talking to the house’s owner, Hung Pham, about a multiyear lease. Pham bought the house for $603,000 in 2005 from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, the state agency that built the structure.
At one point, the house was occupied by Gilda’s Club of South Jersey, a place where people with cancer and their families could gather for education and support. The house was sold to Pham after Gilda’s Club moved out.
The house is now boarded up and surrounded by a chainlink fence to keep out intruders. Parts of the property have been vandalized, while the yard has been turned into a makeshift dump.
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