A strong foundation

Tuesday, April 6, 2004

On the other side of the fence, they've seen drug deals, hookers and street fights. They've watched some of the houses that make up their south-side neighborhood deteriorate behind chipping paint, ignored lawns and boarded-up windows.

But inside the 6-foot tall, black wrought-iron fence that encircles Fort Hope Apartments in Cape Girardeau is a starkly different world -- one that residents describe as peaceful, well-maintained and largely crime-free despite what takes place in abundance just beyond the complex's borders.

"It's the best place you'd ever want to live," said resident J.B. Pounds. "I've seen a little of everything go on out in the streets, but not inside the fence. Inside, it's nice."

Now, the group that built the affordable housing complex, Phillips Development Corp. of Little Rock, Ark., is building its second low-income housing development in Cape Girardeau, this one a 7-acre, $4.1 million low-income subdivision consisting of 19 duplexes bordering Missouri and Jefferson avenues.

While some neighbors worry about the effect low-income housing might have on property values, the crime rate or the neighborhood's character, the city's top law enforcement officer says those people have nothing to worry about.

"If they run this as well as Fort Hope, they're going to have good neighbors," said Cape Girardeau police chief Steve Strong.

Strong pointed out that Fort Hope Apartments, built at 801 Good Hope St. in 2001, has helped clean up a longtime problem area. The former site of the old St. Francis Hospital once was home to vagrants, drugs and vandalism. There were even rumors of satanic cults and gang activity going on inside the building that was demolished to make way for Fort Hope.

"It's a big change from what occupied the space before," Strong said. "If I met the criteria, I would move into Fort Hope. I would have no fear about living there."

The new Napa Ridge development will include single-car garages, a community building and a playground and picnic area. At a city council meeting last August, only one member of the neighborhood voiced concerns about Napa Ridge, saying that she was afraid the development would create more stormwater runoff, sending water deeper into her back yard after a downpour. She also worries about extra traffic congesting her neighborhood near Jefferson Elementary School.

On Monday, Eunice Curry, who lives at 432 S. Missouri, said she still has those concerns, but she understands PDC is going to build a retention basin that will allow no more water to runoff than already does.

"But we'll wait and see what happens after the first good rain," she said.

Curry said one of her neighbors is afraid the low-income label might hurt their property values. But she didn't share that concern.

"Not if it's handled like the one over on Good Hope," she said, echoing other comments from neighbors. "I'm not opposed to the project. I've been over to Fort Hope twice, and it seems like it's well run. I just have concerns about how much traffic it will create and how it's going to hurt the stormwater problem."

The Fort Hope Apartments are, by all counts, a success. The 44 apartments are rented, and there is a waiting list more than 30 names long. A list is being compiled of those who want to move in when Napa Ridge is completed this fall.

Much of the credit goes to site managers Bob and Linda Whaley, who have managed the apartments since they opened. The couple also have agreed, with the help of some creative scheduling, to manage Napa Ridge.

Whaley said Fort Hope is the way it is because they adhere to a strict, no-nonsense policy. He and his wife make sure the lawns are well-kept, the parking areas clean and the residents happy.

"We don't put up with too much in here," said Bob Whaley, a retired Southwestern Bell supervisor who carries the office cordless phone with him at all times.

The secret is tough screening of prospective residents, he said, to keep problems from ever starting. The gate helps keep out people who don't belong there, he said. People have to have cards to walk into the complex, though cars can automatically open the gate.

Criminal and credit checks are conducted on every renter. Those with felony convictions are not allowed to move in. Residents also are given a lengthy list of rules that includes the caveat that residents can be evicted if three complaints are made.

"If you get three complaints, the fourth is an eviction notice," Whaley said.

Bob Whaley, who is from the Cape Girardeau area, said he and his wife moved back from St. Louis to take the job. "We didn't know what we were getting into, honestly," he said. "But we thought we could handle it, and we have. We've had the help of the police, and the residents by and large are quiet and peaceful."

Last year, he had to call police 20 to 25 times. Since evicting three or four troublesome residents, he's only had to call police three times. He said most of the calls last year were domestic disputes and none was very serious.

The residents said they don't mind the strictness and think it has made Fort Hope a nice place to live.

James Willis, originally of Cairo, Ill., has lived at Fort Hope since it opened. He lost a leg to diabetes and is confined to a wheelchair. He likes being on the ground floor. At age 67, he also enjoys that the younger neighbors call him "Pop."

"There's never too much noise," he said. "It's peace and quiet here. And when my garbage disposal went out last year, they got right on it. I don't want to live anywhere else."

Whaley plans to run Napa Ridge the same way. He is troubled, however, that plans to put a gate around Napa Ridge may have to be scrapped because of miscalculated cost estimates.

"That gate really makes a difference," he said. "I hope we get it there, too. It's nice to keep a lot of that other stuff on the other side of a fence."



Fort Hope apartments: To qualify to live in Fort Hope Apartments, a single person must make less than $23,040 per year. A family of four can make no more than $32,880. Rent at Fort Hope ranges from $240 for a one-bedroom apartment to $355 for a three-bedroom apartment.

Napa Ridge duplexes: To qualify to live in one of the duplexes, the same financial requirements as Fort Hope apply. However, rent is slightly higher, with two bedrooms costing $420 and three bedrooms at $445. The Napa Ridge residents will have garages, more square footage and yards, which are the reasons for the higher rents.

For more information, call Fort Hope Apartments at 334-4138.

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