No haven for crime

Most of the 60-year-old public housing units of Tasker Homes are gone. So is the project’s network of streets that ran askew to the roads in the rest of the community.

The Philadelphia Housing Authority’s multimillion-dollar aesthetic changes to the site are obvious. Now the agency is beginning to work on the culture.

The housing authority’s executive director, Carl Greene, and other officials were at Tasker Homes, 30th and Tasker streets, Monday morning to announce PHA’s new quality-of-life initiative. The centerpiece of the effort is the agency’s participation in the Citizens Crime Commission of the Delaware Valley’s anonymous tip program.

Crews have begun posting notices throughout all of the agency’s developments that encourage residents to call the Crime Commission’s hotline, 215-546-TIPS, if they have information on offenses such as vandalism or graffiti. All tips are anonymous and those that result in arrests or convictions will pay rewards up to $500.

People who witness violence or other serious crimes should still dial 911.

"We have taken down the invisible wall that exists around public housing by eliminating the architectural isolation," Greene said. "Now we are blending the developments into the surrounding community … We want people who live in public housing to use the law enforcement tools that are available to all Philadelphians."

PHA is in the midst of a multi-year, $1-billion plan to rebuild and remodel its roster of properties throughout the city. The agency will build 3,000 new units and renovate another 3,000. More than 8,000 units in densely populated high-rise and low-rise projects already have been demolished.

At Tasker, the agency plans to spend $160 million to demolish the original 1,000 low-rise units on the 40-acre site and build 546 new homes.

The first phase of construction includes 245 houses, all of which will become rental units occupied by former residents who had been displaced. Other homes to be built in two subsequent phases will be for homeownership and will be sold at market-rate prices. Construction is scheduled to be completed by December 2006.

Also in the last 10 years, PHA has demolished 20 of its high-rise towers — including the three at the old Martin Luther King Plaza, 13th and Fitzwater, and two of the Southwark Towers, near Fourth Street and Washington Avenue.

Sixteen public housing high-rises remain in the city. Among them are the two towers at Wilson Park, 25th and Jackson streets. There are no current plans to demolish any of these sites.

Greene said the old-style high-rises "incubated the element and components of crime."

Serious and violent crimes at public housing sites have decreased 28 percent in the last three years since PHA began demolishing its densely populated communities, Greene said. Incidents of less severe crimes, like vandalism, have decreased 29 percent during the same time.

Crime statistics continue to be notably higher at public housing sites than in the surrounding communities, Greene added.

"So a 28-percent reduction is great, but we need to do even more," he said.

As the face of public housing changes in the city, so does the role of PHA’s police force. Greene believes the partnership with the Citizens Crime Commission will enhance PHA’s existing public safety program and called the agency’s force the "police of communities."

The housing police will work in conjunction with the city police, he said, but will only respond to crimes related to public housing. Previously, city police had relied on PHA’s force because of the officers’ familiarity with sites like Tasker Homes where the streets were not contiguous with the rest of the neighborhood.

PHA is spending $13 million to reroute Tasker’s new roadways so they are integrated into the rest of Grays Ferry.

Through this quality-of-life initiative, PHA also is encouraging its residents — many of whom believed they had to contact PHA police in the event of an emergency — to now use 911.

Richard Zappile, PHA’s chief of police, also attended the announcement at Tasker Homes on Monday. He said he and his officers have been reaching out to the community, helping them start townwatch programs and neighborhood organizations.

"Our goal here is to reduce the incidence of crime," Zappile said, "to empower our residents to work with us, to be true partners with the housing authority and the housing authority police department."

To promote its quality-of-life effort, PHA is planning rallies at each of its sites. It also will distribute booklets that outline the program and the responsibilities of public housing residents.