For three years, Newtowne 20 resident Mae Bridgers kept asking when they were going to do something.
By “they,” Bridgers meant developers, the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis, the city itself, or the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Anyone, really, who could move forward the timeline to replace the ugly, aging brick buildings where she and 78 other families lived in a federally-owned housing development off Forest Drive.
Wednesday morning, Bridgers was among the residents celebrating the fruits of her activism at the grand opening of Wilbourn Estates, a new and rebuilt Newtowne 20, renamed after former HACA director Beverly Wilbourn. When Bridgers moved in, she marveled at the freshly paved streets, bright white trim and neat gray siding on the buildings that replaced the former dingy brick block apartments.
What she’d seen on blueprints finally existed in three dimensions.
“That man actually did what he said he would do,” Bridgers said when she sauntered to the dais. Her praise was aimed at Patrick Stewart, the vice president of the development corporation Pennrose.
“This man listened,” Bridgers said. “We thank the lord for him.”
Stewart, Bridgers and nearly every other speaker described Wilbourn Estates like a phoenix rising from long-cold ashes. Some acknowledged that those in power had failed the residents.
“This community has lived through and endured hard times,” Stewart said. “This community has seen plans and visions that for a lot of reasons didn’t come to fruition. And understandably, for those reasons, they weren’t ready to believe that anything was gonna happen here.”
Standing here today, he added, “means something big.”
After years of postponed plans, the old Newtowne 20 was demolished in March 2021. The last 42 families moved out a year before after a gas leak threatened the entire complex. All were offered temporary housing in other HACA-owned properties — Eastport Terrace, Harbour House, Robinwood or Morris H. Blum Senior Apartments — while the $25 million construction project got underway. So far, more than half have returned.
“I want to thank our residents,” HACA director Melissa Maddox-Evans said. “We required them to believe in something they could not see.”
The Morning Sun
Mayor Gavin Buckley also expressed regret that the community was neglected for so long. He placed the blame on systemic racism, which led to isolating federally subsidized housing communities like Newtowne, and the federal government, which he said made improvements difficult. “The money was getting less and less from HUD, and the buildings were getting older and older and nothing seemed to be happening,” Buckley said.
The opening of Wilbourn Estates comes at a challenging time for HACA and the city. Many residents have struggled to make rent during the pandemic and Anne Arundel County has yet to process many rent relief applications, Maddox-Evans said, limiting cash flows. Legal troubles also linger for both the city and the housing authority. A 2019 lawsuit led to a U.S. District Court judge imposing a federal consent degree on HACA. Now the authority and the city are co-defendants in two more suits that accuse the city of wrongful death and discrimination. In April, a federal judge denied the city’s motion to have those lawsuits thrown out.
The City Council has scheduled a closed session to discuss updates on the lawsuits Thursday. But Wednesday was a day for celebrating the complex web of public and private partners who pulled together to rebuild one of the HACA communities. Bank of America provided a $10 million loan and additional equity for the project. The state, county and city also ponied up support. The end result is new homes for 78 families.
“Truly, it’s a team effort,” said Alderwoman Sheila Finlayson, a Democrat who represents Ward 4. “It took everyone’s commitment to make this come to fruition.”
Additional overhauls for the remaining HACA properties are in the planning stages. Pennrose will continue to manage Wilbourn Estates, which includes a basketball court, playground and a community center. All of the one, two and three-bedroom units are spoken for in some sense, Stewart said, although the company is still taking applications.
Michael Clinkscales, a single mom and disabled cancer survivor, was among the lucky new tenants who was not a previous resident of Newtowne 20. She moved in last week, happily leaving behind an adjacent privately-owned apartment community that has fallen into disrepair. Now there’s no more looking at dead trees out the window, no more exhausting trips to the laundromat with a toddler.
“It’s perfect,” Clinkscales said of her new three-story townhome with a washing and dryer. “I’m very grateful.”