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As Sandra Taliaferro prepares to move out of her apartment to make way for redevelopment efforts near Atlantic City’s newest casino, she recalls the state of the city when she moved there as a teenager more than 50 years ago.
“You weren’t allowed to go across Atlantic past a certain time,” said Taliaferro, who is black, explaining that the city remained partly racially segregated.
Modern redevelopment efforts are having a similar effect, she said. “Now it’s not race; it’s money. You’ve got your side, and I’ve got my side of town.”
At 66, Taliaferro is one of the main critics of the way the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority has handled plans to overhaul her neighborhood, which sits in the shadows of the year-old Revel Casino-Hotel.
The battle is the latest conflict here in which low-income or middle-class residents believe developers and officials are casting aside their homes like the plastic houses in Monopoly, the board game inspired by Atlantic City real estate.
Linda Steele, president of the NAACP’s Atlantic City branch, counts more than 500 housing units that have been cleared since the late 1980s to make way for projects including an outlet mall and convention center — a significant number in a city with 40,000 residents.
Many of the disputes have been local news, but some of the disputes attracted wide attention. In the 1990s, Donald Trump joined residents in a futile attempt to fight an Expressway expansion to serve a casino planned by his rival, Steve Wynn. The road was built, and so was a casino, though not by Wynn; the swanky Borgata is now the most profitable casino in the city. And then there’s the case of Vera Coking, a widow who refused to sell her house to Penthouse owner Bob Guccione, prompting him to build the steel skeleton of a building right around it. Trump later tore down that frame to put up his own casino but never prevailed in getting Coking to sell.
The marriage of the casino industry and its host city has been complicated since gambling arrived in 1978. After decades of growth, casino revenue has fallen precipitously since 2007. And the city remains a place where signs of poverty co-exist with symbols of excess — limousines zipping past pawn shops and homeless people. The poverty rate is 29 percent, even higher than in 1980.
The opening of Revel has inspired plans for the surrounding South Inlet area.
A group that includes former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal has approval to build a $75 million entertainment complex, and the CRDA is trying to assemble and clear other land to sell to developers. The first step is obtaining about 70 units of housing, mostly in the two-story Vermont Plaza and Metropolitan Plaza apartment complexes. About a third of the families have moved out.
CRDA’s executive director, John Palmieri, said there aren’t specific plans for how that area might be transformed. “We want to create a neighborhood here,” he said. “It’s no mystery. It’s a beautiful location.”
As Revel opened last year, CRDA planned to use its revenue share — 1.25 percent of gambling winnings — to pay for a $50 million bond to buy and clear several blocks. But Revel has struggled, losing money, laying off workers, filing for bankruptcy and changing executive teams.
So CRDA is using a more modest $8.5 million from unrestricted funds to remake the neighborhood and is willing to use its eminent domain powers if owners decline to sell.
Many residents received eviction notices with deadlines to leave by last week, but they can stay longer to find suitable places, said Palmieri, who acknowledges they have a right to be angry.
Palmieri says his organization helps relocate the displaced residents, offering house-hunting help it doesn’t have to and paying more for moving and new places than is required. His staff says three tenants who have moved out of South Inlet have used CRDA funding for down payments on homes of their own.
Also, when developers ask for financing or other approvals, CRDA requires that they set aside some housing for lower-income residents.
Taliaferro, retired from a career that included jobs as a casino dealer and bartender, said she understands the reality that upscale stores and houses could help tourism, but she wants the agency to build affordable housing. And she says the CRDA keeps finding her undesirable places in areas infested with rats or crime.
The timing of this redevelopment plan has also been troublesome to some.
After Superstorm Sandy ripped through the coast last year, there aren’t enough suitable rental homes, housing advocates say.
Meanwhile, residents say several buildings in the redevelopment area have blue tarps on their roofs to cover holes ripped by the storm. The owners refuse to make repairs with the buildings slated to come down, said Taliaferro, who lives in the Metropolitan Plaza complex.
Tanya Coleman, who lives in the Vermont Plaza complex, said property managers have been unwilling to fix her leaky air conditioner, which is causing mold to grow in her bedroom.
Management companies for both apartment complexes didn’t return calls to The Associated Press.
Coleman, a casino dispatcher, has been packing boxes so she’s ready to go once the one-bedroom apartment she found is granted a certificate of occupancy.
She’d rather not leave her home of four years, but she doesn’t want to stay in its current condition.
“Let’s be real,” she said. “This is about casinos and making money for them. It isn’t about the people that live here.”
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