Prospect Homes residents meet with JHA officials, get info on housing options

Mar. 13—JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Some residents of Johnstown's Prospect Homes public housing complex — informed last week that they had 30 days to vacate their homes because of structural problems — met on Monday with Johnstown Housing Authority officials to get information about their housing options.

The JHA scheduled meetings with each resident on Monday or Tuesday to discuss those options, including relocating to another public housing property or receiving a Section 8 rental assistance voucher. Now the residents must make their own decisions about where to live next, in or out of the JHA system. The JHA said it will cover their moving costs.

Still, Prospect Homes resident Kimberly Hardwick said outside the complex's community center on Monday that it's "heart-aching" to have to leave her home of more than five years in a community that she called a "very nice place."

"I'm going to definitively miss this place," Hardwick said. "It hurts my soul. ... It's a smaller (housing project), but it's one of the better ones. It's one of the best ones, I will say that. I'm very hurt and sad that I have to leave the residents that I've been dwelling with. It hurts. I would hope and pray that I could come back."

JHA officials have not yet publicly released details about what structural issues caused the need to vacate the 110 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-owned units at the 19-building complex in Johnstown's Prospect section.

JHA Executive Director Michael Alberts said on Thursday that the notices to vacate were issued "due to preliminary reports received during an ongoing structural inspection."

JHA Chairman Charles Arnone said on Friday that the closures were not caused by black mold, asbestos, lead, radon or airborne disease. He also said that "there are some major deficiencies in the units," that "one particular problem is a big issue" and that "the engineer and architect told us that it could be a much bigger problem than we know of right now."

Nikki Kelley, a Prospect Homes resident for four years, said that details about the problems were not provided during her one-on-one meeting with JHA officials.

"All I know is it's a structural thing," Kelley said. "I guess the buildings are falling apart. There could be a lot of things going on. I know a lot of people have had problems with all that."

Claressa Pridgen said that she has had issues with her unit, including a broken pipe and a collapsed ceiling. She was one of the first residents to meet with JHA representatives on Monday.

"What I can say is while I am not 100% satisfied, I am content with the level of empathy that they are giving out to everybody and the manner of which they are handling everything because, at the end of the day, their deepest concern is to have everybody removed so there are no safety issues," Pridgen said. "That's a plus in my book."

Alberts wrote in an email that "safety and long-term stability are our top priorities during this situation and we want to help every family as soon as possible."

The initial meetings with Prospect Homes residents "will allow us to fully understand how many families are finding housing on their own or will need our continued involvement," Alberts wrote in the email. He continued: "Our local social service agency partners are aware of the situation and are on board to provide resources to our residents in need."

JHA oversees approximately 1,500 public housing units located in multiple neighborhoods, including Oakhurst Homes in the West End and Coopersdale Homes in Coopersdale. All buildings are always near-fully or fully occupied.

"No, we will likely not have enough public housing units for them to transfer to," Alberts wrote in an email interview. "Section 8 vouchers are an option, provided the families can be connected with an appropriate and affordable unit from a participating landlord. We will be doing everything we can to make sure every Prospect resident moves to a safe place, whether temporary or permanent, and will keep in contact with all families until they are in stable permanent housing."

The complete extent of the issues at Prospect Homes is not fully known yet.

"The structural inspection at Prospect isn't complete yet, but we are expecting to have the same inspection performed in the near future at the oldest part of Oakhurst (above Storey Avenue) and will decide after that about similar inspections elsewhere," Alberts wrote.

Deacon Jeffrey Wilson, of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Prospect, referred to the soon-to-be-displaced residents as "an integral part" of the neighborhood.

"This affects not only the entire community — it affects our city," Wilson said. "In this community, you're talking about over a hundred people that all of a sudden will leave a community. You're also talking about approximately 50 of them that are children, so it affects all the churches. It affects the daycare. It affects the bus routes — it affects the city bus routes. Of course, this is cataclysmic."

Hardwick said the relocating residents are "going to need a whole lot of consoling and asking the Lord to watch over us and keep us humble and keep us safe in our different environments."

Wilson, Johnstown NAACP President Alan Cashaw and Johnstown City Councilwoman the Rev. Sylvia King stood outside the community center on Monday and met with Hardwick and any other residents who wanted to talk after their meetings.

"It is a hard thing," King said. "That's why it was important for us to be here today to just offer our support, not only to the citizens, but the housing authority as well. We want to make sure nobody falls through the cracks. That was the purpose of our being here today — be here when they come out if they want to vent. Maybe they have questions about the community. Maybe there are some community services that we may know about that we can offer to them."

There are 47 children living at Prospect Homes who attend Greater Johnstown School District schools. Superintendent Amy Arcurio said the district's "most obvious" short-term issue will be making sure that the relocated children have transportation to and from school. The district supplied the JHA with change-of-address forms to give to the guardians of students who will be moving.

"It's imperative that, as soon as they know their new address and would be relocating, to let us know, because then we would make changes within our transportation system so that we could pick those students up and there would be little to no disruption on our end as far as getting them to school," Arcurio said.

Arcurio called the disruption to the students' home situation the "long-term greater impact."

"It impacts them tremendously because it adds additional stresses, strain on the family system," she said. "Moving is a difficult time for families, even when it's a planned event."