New construction transforms Booth Street

Attractive new apartments are ready to occupy on Booth Street, renewing hope for an area that, despite good intentions some 40 years ago, fell into blight and was plagued by crime.

It was in the early 1970s when 100 apartments were constructed on 10 acres by what Don Bibb, director of the Wicomico County Housing Authority, called “standard federal housing.”

“For years it showed well and it was run well then management just went downhill. Over time, it just progressively got worse to a point where more than 50 percent of it was boarded up. There was a high crime factor.

“Salvation for the area was in the creation of this new, mixed-income, Stone Grove Crossing,” a rental assistance demonstration program, Bibb said.

The county partnered with tax credit developer Pennrose Development, based near Philadelphia, and went through necessary channels to obtain matching state funding.

Pennrose paid $341,000 for 5.38 acres for Phase I. There are plans to build Phase II next to Phase I. Currently, funding is being found to raze the old units and revitalize the area.

While the new complex was being built, residents who lived in the old, deteriorating units were provided with temporary housing and will have the option to rent at the new development.

Pennrose will be the landlord. Units will be routinely inspected and unemployed tenants regularly asked if they are looking for a job.  The Housing Authority will assist in checking tenants’ qualifications and making sure data is up to date, Bibb said.

Conceived of more than two years ago, Stone Grove Crossing is admired by community leaders including Mary Ashanti, president of the Wicomico County chapter of the NAACP.

“Tearing down the old buildings and replacing them with up-to-date townhouses goes a long way in repairing the reputation in that area. It gives an air of hope. I think the advisory board will have a sense of winning because they will have a fresh start,” Ashanti told the Salisbury Independent.

During the years, many good people served on the Housing Authority Advisory Board and tried to bring living conditions up to par, but with little success, she said.

“Replacing the old buildings was the only way to change the negative reputation of that area. Management must see that tenants take care of the property, no exceptions,” she said.

“It starts by people viewing the new buildings as townhouses and not as projects. The word ‘projects’ has always had a bad connotation, whereas Booth Street townhouses, or any other positive name, will help people to view it in a positive light,” she said.

County Executive Bob Culver and County Administrator Wayne Strausburg recently toured the new, $18.5 million development where one-bedroom, two-bedroom and three-bedroom income-based units will rent for $825 to $1,019 per month.

Rent amounts will be determined by income and not include the cost of utilities

A person earning $25,000 per year wouldn’t pay more than 30 percent of his annual income for rent, Bibb explained, as he showed Culver and Strausburg select living quarters.

“Monthly rent of $825 for one bedroom, that’s fairly modest, isn’t it, Bob?” Strausburg asked Culver, who nodded in agreement as the two walked through the units and complimented the color schemes and layout, looked into rooms and asked questions.

To be eligible to live at Stone Grove, one can’t earn more than 60 percent of the area median income, which, Strausburg said, is about $55,000.

Even the unemployed will be required to pay proportionate rent based on public housing requirements.

Stone Grove has nine buildings in this completed Phase I. The first eight buildings each have nine units and the ninth has 12. Units range from 735 to 1,058 square feet.

The larger dwellings have two floors and several units are handicapped accessible.

The apartments feature hardwood look flooring, black appliances with smart burners and coordinating countertops, sprinkler systems, light brown carpeting and neutral off-white walls. All have central air-conditioning, a heat pump and washer and dryer.

Harkins Builders, based in Marriottsville, Md., is the contractor and the same company that built River’s Edge Apartments and Studio for the Arts on Fitzwater Street. The architect is Architecture by Design in Ellicott City.

“It’s been a long road,” Bibb said, explaining a concept plan for Booth Street extends back to 2007.

“It was originally built by a local contractor with federal dollars. In those days it was not designed to be a long-term project. It was meant to be short-term to get people on their feet financially, then they would move out, into something better.

“But the way programs have been run over the years, any incentives for people to get out and do better stagnated,” Bibb said.

In the late 1990s, the Clinton administration put together a “quality reform program that was supposed to put term limits on federal housing communities, but it never passed,” he said.

Stone Grove is just one example of what’s happening nationwide, he said, “to change from blighted to mixed-income communities.”

“This is a new era of opportunity for increasingly affordable, decent housing and a restabilized fabric of the community.”


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