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Trust Issues

East Liberty neighbors says government not coming clean about plan for former drug front

Trust Issues
This apartment building at 5620 Rippey St., in East Liberty, was once owned by a convicted drug dealer. The federal government wants to turn it into housing units for ex-convicts.
Residents of East Liberty's Rippey Street might not object to a group of ex-cons moving next door . . . it's the federal government they don't trust.

"We've gotta find out what's going on," says East Liberty resident Ronald Smith, 67. "The government is sneaky -- it's treacherous."

The apartment complex at 5620 Rippey St. is shielded with plywood. Its windows, even its front door, are barred and boarded.

Although the building appears abandoned, recent news that the federal government is trying to convert it into ex-offender housing has residents focusing their attention on the neighborhood eyesore, and the people who own it.

The federal government seized the Rippey Street apartment building in May 2006 from convicted cocaine kingpin, Terrance Cole, who had owned the building since 2002. It was one of several area properties authorities say Cole acquired through his drug dealing.

Kendall Pelling, planning coordinator for East Liberty Development Inc. (ELDI), expressed interest in purchasing the property after ELDI learned that the U.S. Marshal Service might auction off the building. He sent an e-mail to the Seized Assets Division of the U.S. Marshal Service on May 16, 2006, introducing ELDI and Mellon's Orchard Neighborhood Association (MONA), and their plans "to present an offer" if the building went up for sale.

MONA is a volunteer neighborhood association that works with ELDI, a community development corporation dedicated to revitalizing the area.

But, Pelling was told multiple times after sending the letter that the building "was not ready to be put up for auction" It wasn't until Pelling met with Ted Johnson, chief of U.S. Probation and Pre-trial Services System, on May 11, 2007, that Pelling learned about the ex-offender housing proposal.

Instead of auctioning off the apartment complex, the government is seeking to donate it to Renewal, Inc., a national organization headquartered in Monroe, La.

Representatives from Renewal, Inc. told Pelling and Pat Buddemeyer, former president and active member of MONA, that they will seek funding from Allegheny County to use about 20 apartments as transitional housing for ex-offenders. The company would manage and supervise the complex.

According to Pelling, residents were told by federal officials that "there would be no violent offenders and no sex offenders" living in the building. Potential residents of the apartments -- all of whom have completed a halfway-house program -- would be responsible for paying their own rent and utilities, and they must be employed through the probation department's work-force development program.

Officials from U.S. Probation Services and Renewal, Inc. attended a June 7 neighborhood meeting where they explained the program to about 50 East Liberty residents. According to Buddemeyer, officials answered questions, but they did not offer a written description of the plan.

Participants agreed to hold another meeting, where the program would be further discussed and eventually voted on by neighbors. Buddemeyer said that Johnson "pushed for the earliest possible date." They agreed on June 13.

Before the June 13 meeting, held at the Urban League charter school in East Liberty, Pelling compiled a list of 32 questions neighbors raised after the June 7 meeting. But at the end of the two-hour long meeting, all 32 questions remained unanswered.

Residents say the reason so many questions about the proposal remain unanswered is that federal officials haven't completely cooperated with the community.

Residents were particularly upset that no representatives from Renewal, Inc. or U.S. Probation Services attended the June 13 meeting.

"At the last minute, [Johnson] chose not to attend or send another representative[,] ... saying that his office had been inundated with phone calls from the media and he was unprepared to deal with it right now," wrote Buddemeyer in a June 19 e-mail.

According to Doug Williams, CEO of Renewal, Inc., after the first meeting, people began "twisting the intentions" of the program, and that played a part in their absence at the second meeting.

"We decided not to attend the second meeting because it's being spun the wrong way by other people," Williams told City Paper.

Williams asked that questions be directed to Johnson.

Johnson's vague reason for not attending: "All the players were not available."

Most residents' questions concern building supervision and the program's expected fast turnover rate.

Bonnie Martin, 40, has questions about the building's management. She lives directly across the street from the complex, in Rippey Garden Apartments.

"What are the rules? Who is the supervisor? How is it going to be monitored?" she asks.

"I don't know about the project's management," agrees Weia Boelema, 60, sitting on her porch two houses from the apartment building in question. "It's so uncertain at this point. We just don't have a grab on it."

Pelling says residents will stay in the apartment complex only for a transitional period of approximately three to nine months.

That concerns Boelema.

"We want stability, not this high turnover," she says.

Some residents want to know if there are already similar ex-offender housing programs in East Liberty.

"We've been trying to get information about that from the county," Pelling says. "But it's not as easy as it should be. That is a key question that needs to be answered."

Another important question revolves around alternative options for the apartment building. If the ex-offender housing plan is terminated, what happens then?

Pelling says there is a chance ELDI could purchase the building. He says the group could renovate the building into affordable rental units, supportive housing (such as halfway houses), rental units or condominiums. Another option is to demolish the building and develop new single-family homes. He is cautious, however.

"Development is difficult and risky," Pelling says.

Residents had hoped that by the end of the second meeting, on June 13, they could vote either "yea" or "nay" on the ex-offender housing plan. They did not. Instead, they proposed a third option: If federal officials will actually work with the community, a deal for what is best for the neighborhood can finally be reached.

"It's possible they might say, 'It's either our way or the highway,'" Pelling told residents at the meeting. "And if so, we can oppose it and say, 'Well, then take the highway.'"

Residents agreed with Pelling, and many accepted the idea that a positive solution could not be reached without cooperation between the East Liberty community and the federal government.

The meeting let out with residents cheering for the agreement they had reached.

"We've heard how our neighbors feel," Buddemeyer said after the meeting. "We will do everything in our power to insist [the federal officials] partner with us or stop the project."

On June 14, Pelling drafted a letter -- signed by more than 40 residents -- to Johnson and Williams, saying that "the community will not support the program as it is currently proposed." Pelling asks for a "detailed" written description of the plan.

Pelling's e-mail also says that Renewal, Inc. and U.S. Probation "must formally express a commitment to enter into a true partnership relationship with MONA and ELDI."

Johnson says that he read the letter on Mon., June 25, and that he plans on "sitting down and meeting with his staff in-house" on June 27. Another meeting between both sides will not be set up until after Johnson's staff meets to discuss the letter from ELDI and MONA.

From what ELDI, MONA and East Liberty residents know so far about the proposal, there is one thing that still has them greatly concerned: As Buddemeyer says, "even if we oppose the plan, they could do it anyway."

Although Pelling hopes Renewal, Inc. and U.S. Probation Services will heed the wishes of the community, he understands that they don't necessarily have to.

"There is no law that requires supportive housing to comply with community desires," he says. "That raises concerns for me."

When asked by City Paper whether the project would be terminated if East Liberty residents voted against the ex-offender housing, Johnson declined comment.

The lack of a written outline of the plan has only spurred residents' concerns.

"It's hard to discuss without a written document from them," Buddemeyer says. She feels a verbal agreement is insufficient.

"What someone tells you verbally is nonbinding," she says. "We would like to have in writing exactly what this program is. This is way too important to do in a handshake."

A. Odell Richardson, of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, wants East Liberty residents to understand the importance of ex-offender housing.

As director of employment, training and entrepreneurial development, Richardson says providing housing for ex-cons greatly increases their chances of becoming productive citizens.

"This is like starter housing," he says. "It's a place for them to get back on their feet."

Richardson cites the Re-entry Assistance Management Program (RAMP) as somewhat similar to the proposal for East Liberty. Through RAMP, Richardson says, the U.S. Department of Justice funded the Urban League to provide employment, housing and health services to 35 ex-offenders who were placed in various sections of the city.

The Urban League is not affiliated with the East Liberty housing proposal.

Richardson described RAMP as "extremely successful." Out of the 35 people targeted by the program about a year ago, he says, only three were rearrested. That rate of recidivism -- the rate at which prisoners are sent back to prison for another crime after release -- is drastically lower than the average.

A 2002 study by the Federal Bureau of Justice showed that about two-thirds of prisoners released in 1994 had been rearrested within three years, and that more than one-quarter had been sent back to prison.

Richardson says there are three primary issues that help keep an ex-offender out of trouble: housing, employment and a mentoring structure. With this proposed East Liberty program, he says, the ex-offenders would receive all three. And although many people get jobs after prison, a job alone can't help them completely transition into society.

"They can have a job, but if they don't have a home base it becomes tricky," he says.

Norman Conti, assistant professor at the Graduate Center for Social and Public Policy at Duquesne University, says the biggest problem concerning ex-offenders is that they are "highly stigmatized.

"They're criminals," he says. "It's hard for people to get past that. Is [the ex-offender housing program] going to re-integrate them or stigmatize them more?"

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