Terrell Homes: Ideal example of how public-private partnerships are redeveloping aging cities

Terrell Homes, originally named FDR Apartments after our wartime president, Franklin Roosevelt, was built in 1946 as an Army barracks and later renamed in honor of its tenant and apartment manager, Millard E. Terrell.

At the time, the East Ward neighborhood, along the Passaic River, was brimming with a large, vibrant African American population. Streets were home to such notables as jazz singer Miss Rhapsody, along with frequent visits from Sarah Vaughan, a parishioner at Mt. Zion Baptist Church on Thomas Street.

In recent years, one of the top priorities of the Newark Housing Authority has been to honor the rich history of this property by replacing and upgrading the aging, 275-unit affordable housing complex for the next generation of residents.

As outdated as Terrell Homes had become, the housing authority did not want to abandon land sitting in an ideal neighborhood. This is prime riverfront property, a short walk from the Essex County Riverfront Park in the bustling Ironbound section, as well as Penn Station and other new developments.

Last month, we were pleased and honored to celebrate the future of Terrell Homes on this site. We joined with our public and private partners to break ground on 69 units of affordable housing for people ages 55 and up. We expect residents to move into the “new” Terrell Homes in about a year, as part of this first phase.

While one could consider this another East Ward redevelopment article, or maybe an enterprise story about the many ways in which Newark is striving to keep a gentrifying downtown affordable to residents of all incomes, I see it another way.

To me, this is a story about partnerships. It is about like-minded people working in city and state government, private and venture finance and real estate development, who have given Terrell Homes a new life.

I am amazed at how many parties have offered their vast resources, leveraging resources and talents since the federal government approved the demolition of Terrell Homes in 2020.

The Newark Housing Authority went through the difficult process of relocating families during the pandemic, ensuring the process was done with compassion and with all the necessary supports required, especially for elderly residents who had lived at Terrell Homes for decades.

NHA then selected the Alpert Group of Fort Lee, known for developing about 3,500 affordable housing units in the tri-state area over the past 50 years, to construct the first two phases of affordable senior housing on the site. An experienced and dedicated developer, the Alpert Group is covering all predevelopment costs and absorbing all risks related to construction, finance and completion guarantees.

And here is where the public-private partnership really took root.

Recognizing the importance of such a project, the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, which finances affordable rental housing, awarded the project federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits, which yielded $15.7 million in equity.

NJHMFA’s support also included construction and permanent financing totaling nearly $11.5 million and $5.7 million, respectively. Moreover, when Terrell Homes faced a seemingly insurmountable project financing gap, NJHMFA identified $4 million in unused federal subsidies in the state’s coffers and advocated for its reallocation to support this critical project. This injection of critical capital in 2021 paid for environmental remediation, as well as site and foundation work, completed in 2022.

As NHA navigated the pandemic, facing spikes in construction costs, reduced manpower and higher interest rates, we needed more external support. We applied to the New Jersey Economic Development Authority “Aspire” state tax credit program and generated $6.5 million in equity for the project.

The city has been a tremendous partner, as well, providing a tax abatement. Mayor Ras Baraka, who attended the groundbreaking to voice his support, was quoted as saying, “We need to transform our city into things that look like this, because I think we all deserve a beautiful place and a beautiful community that’s safe and wonderful.”

I must express my deepest appreciation to the NHA’s board of commissioners, which has been heavily involved in every step of this public-private partnership. We are so fortunate to have an effective chair, Norma Gonzalez, a lifelong Newark resident who drove the important outreach to all of our stakeholders and kept overcoming obstacles during a pandemic and beyond.

I can’t say enough about the NJHMFA, led by its executive director, Melanie Walter. This state entity is known as one of the leading housing finance agencies in the entire country. Marking its 40th year, the NJHMFA has helped hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans with affordable housing and mortgage assistance.

NJHMFA has financed more than 66,000 affordable apartments, creating tens of thousands of new safe, environmentally sound affordable units for New Jersey seniors, families and individuals with disabilities.

Approximately 10% of all low-income renter households in New Jersey live in apartments NJHMFA financed, as do approximately 6% of all New Jersey renter households. As older affordable housing properties like Terrell Homes reach the end of their useful life, NJHMFA has undertaken a statewide effort to partner with developers and communities to finance the rehabilitation and reconstruction of thousands of affordable apartment homes to ensure the residents of New Jersey’s great cities continue to have access to rich, beautiful, diverse communities.

This work has improved thousands of lives: families have found stable homes, neighborhoods have been revitalized, and individuals have found support in their time of greatest need.

Terrell Homes has also received a boost from Enterprise Community Partners, the tax credit syndicator for Phase 1.  I also want to recognize TD Bank, which purchased the tax credits for this project. The bank, with locations in Newark, is a true impact investor.

Without this collaboration at all levels, we would not be able to move forward with our vision for the “new” Terrell Homes. The continuation of this work throughout New Jersey depends upon the partnership and ingenuity of local housing authorities, developers, local officials, state partners, and continued funding and support at the state and federal level.

Leonard Spicer is executive director of the Newark Housing Authority.