VHA steps up security for Waltersville|[03/28/08]

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 28, 2008

A lack of takers for public housing at Waltersville Estates has led the Vicksburg Housing Authority to step up security once again at the apartment complex.

“We have more vacancies at Waltersville than any of the others,” said James Stirgus Sr., executive director of the VHA, which manages five area housing complexes. “We just can’t get people. They will not live there.”

The North Washington Street apartments have 24 vacancies, which is what Stirgus called “much worse” than any other time since he began heading the federally subsidized program nearly 20 years ago. All VHA tenants pay at least some rent based on an income scale.

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The fenced complex has had 24-hour security in the past and the new approach is a cardholder-based gating system. Thursday, police, fire and other emergency responders were briefed on how it works and how they can gain access.

Albert Williams, head of architecture, engineering and management for VHA, blamed the vacancies on a high call volume to police for crimes, such as vandalism, drugs and fighting.

“A lot of that has decreased, but we want it to stop completely,” he said.

Officials of the two companies hired for about $60,000 to install the system at the 124-unit complex conducted the briefing at the VHA headquarters on Elizabeth Circle. Emergency personnel will be given special codes to allow them to enter in case of emergencies. Residents of Waltersville have already been given cards to allow them access through four gates. At night, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., a guard will remain on duty to increase security during that time.

Williams said the new system will limit the number of “unwanted visitors.” One of the ways it will do that, said Parker Ginn, operations manager for Jefcoat Fence, one of the companies hired to do the work, is through something called controlled egress, a tool that requires a cardholder to exit the gates before being able to swipe in another person with the same card. Ginn said this will prevent residents from swiping their card and, then, passing it to someone who doesn’t have access. The software, which can be monitored and controlled from VHA headquarters, requires usages to enter and usages to leave to alternate.

“We’re trying to resolve some serious problems for the police department and the housing authority,” Stirgus said. “We have (people) going in and staying, who are not supposed to be there. And, we’re not collecting money on them.”

Having vacancies not only creates problems with crime, but also problems with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the program’s primary funding source. If there are vacancies, it makes it appear there is no demand for the housing.

“Not only are we not getting income, we get a deficiency from HUD for not having people,” Stirgus said.

The security fence was installed in 1997 for $171,336.

A site visit is planned for Monday morning so Ginn and John Thompson, vice president of B&E Communications Inc., can demonstrate the new system to emergency personnel and VHA staff. It will also be the first day for residents to use their cards to enter the complex.

In addition to Waltersville, VHA manages 150 homes at Rolling Acres, 34 at Valley Court, 50 at Urban Court and 56 at Cedars Estates. Stirgus said two of those public housing complexes have one vacancy each, while the others are filled to capacity.