With federal funding cuts, security fears rise in York's public housing


Despite cuts to federal funding, residents of York's public housing developments still live in well-maintained buildings, said York Housing Authority executive director Craig Zumbrun.

But some services the agency used to provide to tenants are slipping away.

Some residents of the public housing development Parkway Homes miss the extra police presence provided by a dedicated unit that was dissolved last December when funds ran out.

Families affected: Jennifer Gumbs, a personal chef and caterer who has lived with her 12-year-old son, Jonah, at Parkway for the past five years, didn't hesitate to say she feels unsafe in the development.

"There's still a lot of drug activity, and when I first moved here there was a great deal of gang activity," she said. "There's not so much of that anymore, but the drug activity is ridiculous."

Gumbs said she notices the same dealers on her street over and over again. "It's mostly people who don't live on this street, coming here and setting up shop," she said.

She worries for her son's safety.

"He likes to play basketball, and he likes to be outside," she said. "I tell him when the streetlights come on he needs to be close to home — I really don't want him out."

When there was a bigger police presence in the neighborhood, the crime "seemed to have died down," Gumbs said. But now, with police less visible there, "people feel like they can do whatever they want."

There's been an increase in criminal activity on her street since the dedicated unit was dissolved last December.

"It didn't happen immediately, because it was cold out," she said.

But as it's gotten warmer, Gumbs, who leaves her front door open to let the light in, said she sees drug deals going on "in broad daylight."

Dealers will even park in front of her house, if her car isn't in its usual spot, to sell to people on her street.

Security cameras would help, she said.

The YHA has applied, unsuccessfully, four years in a row for a grant to install security cameras in its public housing developments.

Staying inside: Kia Whitaker, a certified nursing assistant who currently is not working, has lived with her two sons at Parkway for about two years.

She and her sons were forced to leave their home in West Manchester Township about three years ago. Before the family came to Parkway, they lived at a shelter and then found housing through the Bridge of Hope program.

Whitaker said she doesn't like for her sons to spend time outside and hopes to leave Parkway Homes as soon as possible.

"It's kind of disconcerting that we have to stay inside," she said, but it's the only way she feels safe. The boys spend weekends with their father, who lives in Etters.

Last week, Whitaker was upset because her older son, who is 14, was jumped by three kids on his way to school. She isn't sure she'll be able to go back to work because she now wants to homeschool him to keep him safe, she said.

Whitaker hasn't noticed a change in the level of crime since the police contract expired, a fact she attributes to staying inside all the time.

"We do hear fights outside," she said.

The contract: The dedicated unit was paid for through a contract between the city police and the housing authority.

The authority used about $250,000 from its capital fund to leverage a grant for which the city applied.

Grants paid for about 75 percent of the contract, the first three years, and the YHA paid for the fourth year.

When the contract expired in December of last year, the YHA was not able to renew it.

"We have not abandoned that area," Police Chief Wes Kahley said. "We're covering it the best we can — we didn't take our neighborhood officers out of there. But there is no longer a dedicated unit."

The dedicated neighborhood unit at Parkway was part of a larger neighborhood enforcement program that Kahley said has "paid a lot of dividends in the city."

Through the program, neighborhood officers, who don't have to answer 911 calls, are given time to "problem-solve" in their designated areas, Kahley said.

They work with community leaders and other citizens to figure out what issues a community has and connect residents with the resources they need.

"We'd love to go back to that (at Parkway Homes)," Kahley said.

Causes of cutbacks: Every year, the federal subsidy to the YHA from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) decreases, and there's no evidence to suggest it will reverse course, said Zumbrun and Marion Oberdick, chairwoman of the YHA's board.

Over the past five years, the authority's funding for public housing has decreased nearly 20 percent, according to a report by the agency's controller.

The cuts to funding, together with new restrictions on what the agency can use different pools of money for, have hurt the agency's ability to provide services to the low-income people it helps to connect with affordable housing.

The agency has had to cut back on security services because of a new federal rule that lowers by two points each year the percentage of its capital fund that the YHA can use to pay for operating expenses.

This year, that percentage is down from 20 percent to 16 percent. In a few years, it will be 10 percent.

"Before, we were able to fill gaps (in our diminishing operating budget) by shifting capital-fund money to pay for operating expenses," Zumbrun said.

Parkway isn't the only place that has been affected by cutbacks.

The housing authority pays a private security firm for evening and weekend night patrols at Broad Park Manor, which houses elderly residents.

The firm formerly patrolled the area 16 hours a day. That's down to about 10 hours a day now, Zumbrun said.

A troubling trend: Zumbrun is concerned that the most vulnerable people in the area are increasingly being left without support.

The agency is left in a frustrating position, applying for competitive grants it is unlikely to get and asking for money from a federal agency that funds it less and less.

"We aren't permitted to lobby, per se, but we do try to explain to legislators how (decreases in funding) affect us on the ground," he said.

Legislators also might not realize that if they don't vote to fully fund the agency, it will affect the economy because the agency will spend less money paying private companies and buying supplies.

"Everything is connected," he said.

— Reach Julia Scheib at jscheib@yorkdispatch.com.