Chester housing headquarters named after federal judge

Delaware Times
April 23, 2018
By Colin Ainsworth

Chester housing headquarters named after federal judge

CHESTER >> The Chester Housing Authority headquarters in the 1100 block of the Avenues of the States now bears the name of the federal judge who guided the once-troubled agency through a 20-year transformation under court receivership.

Those entering the now-Norma L. Shapiro Building are greeted at its entrance by a plaque commemorating Barbara Muhammad, Ella Thompson, Yvonne Carrington and the late Ernestine Tilghman, the four CHA residents who led the class-action lawsuit that resulted in receivership.

The plaques were unveiled at a ceremony Wednesday by the sons of the late Judge Shapiro, and Muhammad, Thompson, Carrington and Tilghman’s daughter Vita.

“Judge Shapiro saw that the former CHA for what it was – an organization vitally needed but left to fall into disrepair,” said CHA Executive Director Steven Fischer.

“She fixed it, but not in a vacuum,” he said, outlining Shapiro’s working relationships with city mayors during the receivership and the establishment of a community board to serve as “her eyes and ears.”

Federal Judge Cynthia M. Rufe called Shapiro’s coordinating of local, state and federal officials with the best interests of residents in mind a “true collaboration.

“This building represents that collaboration, forged over many years, and always guided by the iron will of a judge who cared as much for the people who lived here, and how they lived, as for the law,” she said.

Shapiro ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in an April 29, 1994, decision in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Pennsylvania. The lawsuit accused the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (which took control of CHA in 1991) of an illegal policy of “de facto” demolition, according to Times reports. The vacancy rate in CHA properties at the time was 25 percent, when HUD’s own regulations considered higher than 3 percent to be “deficient.”

Vacant units numbered 97 of a total 1,700 in December 1987, growing to 405 by late 1992 and 440 in July 1993. The “de facto” demolition of boarding vacant units left CHA properties in limbo, not being properly maintained and unsure if adequate housing remained for displaced residents in the event proposed rehabilitation projects were to take place.

“The journey of the Chester Housing Authority since the late 1980s is without a doubt one of the great turnarounds of a government-assisted program gone bad that our country ever witnessed, thanks to Norma Shapiro,” said Fischer. “From units of housing that no one wanted anymore, to closed waiting lists for the past decade – in housing, a picture of reform and transformation can’t be any clearer than that.”

“As someone who was a product of what at the time we called the projects … (Shapiro) helped transform the projects into housing developments,” said Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland, who was raised in the Ruth L. Bennett Homes in the city’s West End. “People can raise their families in pride, and we thank Judge Shapiro for listening to four ladies who put everything on the line to make lives and housing better for the people of Chester.”

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