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Barbara Muhammad among honorees for revitalization of public housing

By Michael Z. Muhammad -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: May 8, 2018 - 1:28:59 PM

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Plaque with honorees recognized by the Chester Housing Authority

CHESTER, Penn.—“The sun was shining on the rest of the city but it looked like it was dark in the William Penn Housing project. It looked like the sun didn’t shine in there. It was rundown and neglected” was the description of the public housing project provided by former Chester child welfare social worker James Dickerson.

Public housing in Chester was characterized by rat and roach infestation, lead paint poisoning of children, drug dealing and despondent residents. This hellacious environment inspired Barbara Muhammad, longtime member of the Nation of Islam, to act. She along with three other women filed a class action lawsuit and became known the Velez plaintiffs. Public housing in the city of Chester has never been the same as a remarkable change for the better occurred.

Barbara Muhammad

In April, the Chester Housing Authority unveiled a plaque in the building located at 1111 Avenue of the States  to honor Ms. Muhammad and her three comrades, the late Ernestine Tilghman, Ella Thompson, and Yvonne Carrington, for their work. The women filed the lawsuit in federal court in 1989. The courageous action of these women led to all of the public housing sites in Chester being rehabilitated. Chester Housing Authority operations went from a “troubled” rating to “standard” to “high.”

The program April 18 highlighted how with the legal challenge and other work by these women, Chester Housing Authority attained a 95 percent quality rating after the lawsuit and life for the public housing residents improved. The lawsuit resulted in:

· 1,000 new or affordable units acquired

· Restoration of hundreds of abandoned private market rental units

· 300-plus households relocated to lower poverty areas and

· 100 homeownership units.

“Regarding education within five years of the lawsuit, high school dropout rates lowered from 14.5 percent to 4.4 percent. They further lowered to 2.13 percent in 2010,” according to Steven A. Fischer, Chester Housing Authority executive director.

Special ceremony was held April 18 in Chester, Pa.
“The quality of life was also dramatically enhanced for residents with a decrease in violent crimes on CHA sites with the aid of a new CHA Police Department. One stop shops, neighborhood networks, computer labs, welcoming centers for community and family gatherings, healthy lifestyle initiatives, day care centers, summer food programs, after-school programs and the inauguration of the Ruth L. Bennett Community Farm Resident Training Academy were instituted,” added Mr. Fischer.

The program included an invocation by Rabbi Kelilah Miller of Ohev Shalom synagogue. Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland offered remarks and the guest speaker was Eastern District of Pennsylvania judge Cynthia Rufe. A building cornerstone honoring the late Judge Norma L. Shapiro was unveiled. Her judicial receivership of the Chester Housing Authority from 1994-2014, as a result of the lawsuit, served more than 2,300 low-income households. Under her tenure significant changes occurred and that was the reason why the building was named in her honor.

When the commemorative plaques honoring the four women were unveiled, Mr. Fisher quoted former President Obama: “We are the change we seek,” he said. Sheila Church, Chester Housing Authority board of commissioners of Commissioners, made closing remarks.

Barbara Muhammad, a Delaware resident and member of Muhammad Mosque No. 35 in Wilmington, talked about the original lawsuit and the challenges with The Final Call. The basic thought was tear down the public housing complex because it was in ruins and people there lived in wretched conditions, she said. The lawsuit, instead, preserved public housing and improved resident quality of life, she said.“We also created advocacy around lead abatement which meant no lead-based paint could be used in the rehabilitation of any properties,” Ms. Muhammad added. “The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan has shared with us that we must not build buildings and not build the people. So the quote used by Mr. Fisher was inspired by our efforts because we always used to say ‘we are building these houses, but we have to build the people.’ ”

“So the positive outcomes cited in the ceremony came from purposeful planning. It is why they can give such a substantial report about the quality of life as it exists today in comparison to the time we took up the lawsuit and the level of deplorable conditions that the people were in,” she explained. “We built five senior properties inspired directly by Minister Farrakhan who had a high interest in this area.” 

It wasn’t just about the housing, stressed Ms. Muhammad, but changing the condition of the residents.

She shared how her overarching motivation was based on the Minister’s desire to make our communities better places to live. “This is a victory story for me because I took it more in the vein of what we are being taught. Self-improvement is the basis of community development,” Ms. Muhammad continued.