U.S. Block grant to take down Camden's most dilapidated

Mayor Faison at Cramer Hill/CCOP's Crowning of the 2009 Ugliest House

October 08, 2009

Philadelphia Inquirer - Matthew Spolar

In August, an abandoned, crumbling home at 923 N. 27th St. was named the ugliest house in Camden's Cramer Hill neighborhood.

Now, thanks to a federal grant, its days are numbered. The building took the crown in a contest that Camden Churches Organized for People conducted to bring urgency and publicity to the problem of abandoned houses. It was chosen from among 13 candidates by parishioners at participating churches.

The organization demanded it be torn down within 48 hours. At the time, Pat Keating, Camden's public works director, said a recent major demolition had left him with too little money to make that happen.

Late last month, however, $500,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funding was approved for demolitions in the city.

"That's the money I've been waiting for," Keating said.

He will use it to demolish 33 houses on the city's "imminent hazard" list: 12 throughout Cramer Hill and East and North Camden, 12 in South Camden, and 9 downtown.

On the list is 923 N. 27th St. and its decrepit next-door neighbor at 925.

"They're going to be in that first batch," Keating said. The list is set for bidding by demolition contractors. The contracts would then require City Council approval.

"If that comes down, it'll be a big relief for all of us," said the Rev. William "Jud" Weiksnar, the pastor at St. Anthony of Padua Church, who spearheaded the contest won by 923.

But the contest should not end efforts to rid Camden of abandoned properties, he said.

"The reason for the ugly-house contest was to draw attention to a situation most people [in Camden] had become used to - living with dangerous or abandoned houses right next door," he said.

In Cramer Hill alone, 57 houses were in just as "dangerous" condition as the 27th Street home, Manny Delgado, director of the Cramer Hill Community Development Corp., said in August.

As many as 9,800 buildings in Camden - 35 percent of the city's structures - are vacant, and most of those are abandoned, estimated Stephen Singer, head of the Camden research firm CamConnect.

Liza Nolan, executive director of the Camden Community Development Association, helped bring together a group of local stakeholders in April to form Stabilizing Neighborhoods by Addressing Abandoned Properties.

One of the group's goals is to make sure the city effectively uses a 2004 state law that makes it easier for municipalities to sell or take over abandoned properties.

But Nolan acknowledged that demolition was largely a financial issue.

"Camden has had these challenges for quite a long time, so now there is a real need for some solid dollars to address these problem properties," she said.

Last fiscal year, Keating said, his department demolished 97 buildings. Since July 1, 10 have been razed, with 11 others out to bid.

Keating said the building at 923 N. 27th St. would likely have been on the list of 33 even without the attention brought to it by the contest, but he still applauded the efforts of Camden Churches Organized for People.

"God bless them. I love that stuff," he said. "That's how you keep people engaged. You need these folks to do what they do."