Driving through the neighborhoods administered by the Chester Housing Authority, one might not believe that 23 years ago properties were in such disrepair that the federal government was forced to take over their operation. Now, after even the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development failed in maintaining the projects, a series of court-appointed receivers have helped turn around the organization that was once fraught with corruption and ineffective in its mission.
Executive Director Steve Fischer has been with the Chester Housing Authority since 2005, and in his decade at the helm of day-to-day operations, Fischer has seen incredible progress. Norma Shapiro, the federal judge who oversees the housing authority as part of a lawsuit filed by residents against HUD in the 1990s, had been looking for someone to lead the organization into the future. A decade ago, Fischer had left a housing authority in upstate New York after 17 years, and was at a crossroads in his life."They had been looking for an executive director for quite a while," Fischer said. "I was not necessarily sure I wanted to keep working in this business."After a series of meetings with city officials, Fischer was convinced to take the job and has helped continue the efforts that began in the mid-1990s, when the courts determined a lack of maintenance had resulted in the "de facto demolition" of hundreds of housing units in the city. The conditions of the projects and the rampant drug trade in some areas of the city were so bad, that at one point victims of a fire in a housing authority unit refused relocation to the notorious McCaffrey Village because of the widespread violence and deplorable living conditions.Since the court takeover, the housing authority has renovated, remodeled or completely rebuilt all of the properties in its portfolio. The once-modern Chester Towers spent about a decade piercing the sky, serving as the gateway to the city. After less than 40 years, the towers were demolished and replaced with a series of smaller buildings that surround the housing authority's three-story administrative offices along the Avenue of the States. The Ruth L. Bennett Homes were renovated to modernize them from the pre-World War II barracks style. McCaffrey Village was replaced with Wellington Ridge, which boasts a mixture of rental units and homes to own. Highland Gardens stands as an island surrounded by a sea of dilapidated rowhomes.Much of that development was kick-started by the housing authority's first court-appointed receiver, Robert Rosenberg, who still serves in the authority's development wing. Since then, spotty federal grant funding and a thorough house-cleaning has enabled the housing authority to better serve its residents.Currently, the housing authority manages 2,366 units of subsidized housing, which accounts for nearly 20 percent of all rental housing in the City of Chester. More than 800 of those units are public housing scattered over 10 different developments, while more than 1,500 are part of the Housing Choice Voucher Program. The housing authority also supports about 100 homes that have been purchased through first-time homebuyer programs.The roster of properties includes the William Penn and Bennett Homes, which were both constructed in the 1940s and renovated in 1990s. They are the largest housing authority properties at 160 and 261 units, respectively.The demand for housing in Chester is such that the housing authority's waiting lists have been closed since 2001, with rare and short openings in recent years. The most recent opening occurred at the end of 2013, with previous openings in 2012, 2011 and 2008. At the same time need is so high, funding is being cut back. The massive Hope VI grant program, which helped with the housing authority's renovation projects in the 1990s and 2000s, is not as plentiful as it once was. This has caused Fischer and his colleagues to search for new ways to stay afloat."These days our government support is being cut back so much, if we hadn't started to think outside the box, we certainly would have to start now," Fischer said. "The community needs us. That need is never going to go away. So we need to figure out a way to survive."Upon his arrival, Fischer identified several areas of concern in the housing authority's administration. Namely, its size."My initial assessments of our internal administration, I could see a lot of inefficiencies," Fischer said. "We moved to address that."The housing authority's staff is less than half of what it was in 2006, but the reduction did not require any massive layoffs. Instead, a combination of attrition and some performance-based terminations led to a much more efficient operation. Those who remain are doing more with less."I am very proud of who remains because they are a group of highly dedicated people who don't say no to taking on extra work," Fischer said. "It's a leaner and meaner organization, but it's passionate. Everyone here is cognizant that they're working for a Housing authority that at one point was considered the worst in the country."Unique approaches to increasing revenue have been effective, Fishcer said, including adding new businesses as tenants. At the housing authority's main office on Avenue of the States, a three-story building sandwiched between two new residential projects, a pharmacy and a dentist's office share the office building. "When you come into the city, right away, you see two new businesses, with plush new storefronts," Fischer said. "These are things that couldn't have been hoped for if you go back enough years."A successful child care center was recently relocated to a vacant multi-unit building in the Bennett Homes, as well.Aside from bringing businesses in as tenants, the housing authority under Fischer's direction has also identified ways to sell the authority's services to other businesses in the city, and beyond. The snow-ridden winter of 2013-2014 offered several opportunities to capitalize on Mother Nature's wrath. The housing authority's snow removal efforts were efficient enough this winter, that after clearing its own properties, Fischer was able to contract his own employees out to perform the service for other businesses."It was like a good old New York winter," said Fischer. "It gets a lot of overtime for our staff. It's an opportunity for our work force to make extra money and it brings revenue back."Improving the housing authority's image in the community was key to exporting its services, which also include landscaping and may one day include housekeeping."It starts by first doing a good job for yourself. Now people are paying us to do it for them," Fischer said. "We have a growing client base and it's a job creator."This pragmatic approach is essential to continue providing housing services to the people of Chester, he said."If we think like we're a business and we need to excel at what we do to survive, then that's what we're going to do," Fischer said.The housing authority also has issues to deal with, like rent collection problems, absentee landlords and, most of all, crime. With a widespread drug trade and the gun violence that goes along with it, keeping his residents safe is a top priority for Fischer. That's why the housing authority has its own police force with full arrest powers. In existence since 2001, the housing authority police answered more than 17,000 calls in 2013. "We still have a lot of problems we deal with," Fischer said. "There's still a high crime rate in the city. That's why we have our own police force. It's a necessity. "Issues in Chester have caused problems for the housing authority, which Fischer says can't operate in a vacuum."Besides safety, education is one of the biggest issues facing the residents of Chester and, by extension, the housing authority. The school district has been one of our biggest hurdles," Fischer said. "But that's improving. The past year has been encouraging on that front. We feel like the Chester Upland School District has a much better plan in place now. "Improving the quality of life for housing authority residents is a cornerstone of Fischer's philosophy. Various community-based projects, including meeting groups for mothers and fathers and health-focused activities are run by residents themselves.The Anume (A New Me) program is managed by residents who host weekly sessions to get people exercising and focused on their health. Participants support each other in their health goals, whether it be losing weight or eating better. The activities represent Fischer's approach. "This latter phase of the receivership has turned its focus from the bricks and mortar to the people," Fischer said. "When housing authorities have people think of them, they want people to picture their buildings and not cringe. We want people to see the faces of the people living here. They're happy and they're vibrant. They're moving their bodies and they're moving their lives."In the future, Fischer would like to see the housing authority's roster of properties move more toward private ownership. He'd like more landlords and less public housing. Eventually, he wants to see much more private homeownership."In 10 years, I'd like to see 100 new units of home ownership," he said. "Those will be taxpayers receiving now government subsidy." He wants people to think of the housing authority as a business. "One of the goals should be not to be thought of as a government agency. We're a business. We're a property management business," Fischer said. While two decades ago, people were suing to not have to live in Chester Housing Authority projects, today is a new era for the authority. Rather than trying to get out, people are trying to get in. "No one wanted to live. Now they're lining up to live here."