Sherman Hills under scrutiny

Roger DuPuis rdupuis@civitasmedia.com

August 28, 2013

WILKES-BARRE — It’s a familiar story.

A violent crime rocks Sherman Hills. Residents and community leaders ask what can be done to crack down on lawlessness at the privately owned apartment complex off Coal Street.

That is the scenario once again this week, following a Saturday shooting that left two girls, ages 5 and 2, injured. This time, city officials held talks with complex management.

What safety measures will be taken following the incident, and the talks? What can be done? What will be done? Those closest to the situation aren’t saying.

Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton and city officials met with Sherman Hills management on Tuesday “to recommend measures that will improve the security conditions of the complex,” city spokeswoman Liza Prokop said in an email. Details were not disclosed.

A woman who answered the telephone at Sherman Hills’ offices Wednesday said she would relay a message to the manager that a reporter wanted to speak about the Tuesday meeting and what changes might be implemented as a result. That call was not returned.

Eliminate federal funding?

The Times Leader was able to put one popularly discussed solution into better context Wednesday: Simply eliminating federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funding to the complex isn’t an option.

That’s because the agency doesn’t directly fund the private development, according to Lisa Wolfe, spokeswoman for HUD’s regional office in Philadelphia. Instead, HUD subsidizes individual tenants’ rents, Wolfe explained. Of 344 units at Sherman Hills, 341 currently are home to HUD-subsidized residents, she said.

HUD is aware of Saturday’s shooting at Sherman Hills and has been monitoring the situation, Wolfe said.

Applicants for HUD funding are subject to a criminal background check, Wolfe said. Thus, the key question is whether individual applicants are in compliance.

HUD does have other, more broad tools at its disposal. The agency has a contract with private complexes, such as Sherman Hills, to provide housing for HUD-funding recipients. As part of that relationship, HUD does conduct periodic inspections of the property, Wolfe said.

“Basically, they are in a contract with us to provide safe, decent, affordable housing,” she said. The inspections are more general in nature than security-oriented, Wolfe said. The agency does take note of security issues and improvements, she said, and will offer help and advice on making appropriate improvements.

The most recent inspection was performed earlier this summer, Wolfe said. The report is still pending, but, Wolfe said, she expected to see its conclusions soon.

HUD officials can choose not to renew a contract with a property, but that is not a slow process, Wolfe said, as the agency does not want to leave residents scrambling for a place to live. Rather, the agency will first do as much as it can to work with property owners to correct and improve any issues, Wolfe said.

“One of the challenges is, as in any community, it’s tough to find affordable housing,” she said.

Resident uneasy

For Sherman Hills residents, Saturday’s incident is just one more traumatic experience — and one that leaves many leery about talking with the stream of reporters who have buzzed around the complex seeking quotes since the shooting.

Precious Brown, on the other hand, wanted to be heard. The 20-year-old said she moved to Sherman Hills more than a year ago from Edwardsville. She knew about its history, but concerns about crime were outweighed by other factors: It was closer to her job, and she had friends and family already living there.

“This community? It is nice. It’s the drama that has to stop,” Brown said during an interview outside the complex.

Putting a fence around the complex and admitting visitors through a gate would be one good step, said Brown, who said that residents generally aren’t the problem. “It’s the people that are coming in,” she added. “We’re good people.”

At the same time, the violence is taking its toll. Brown worries about her relatives’ young children in the wake of Saturday’s shooting, and she admits that the complex probably is not a place she would want to raise a family.

“My apartment is beautiful. I love my apartment,” said Brown. “But I would like to leave here one day, once my money situation is stable.”