Homelessness. Substandard housing. Families and senior citizens struggling in a tumultuous economy. These facets of modern-day life are not new to the Allentown Housing Authority (AHA). Indeed, it was similar circumstances more than 70 years ago that led to the creation of AHA and the first public housing project in the City of Allentown - Hanover Acres.
Dedicated by then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1939, Hanover Acres marked the local beginning of a federal effort to curb the homelessness and substandard housing that plagued Allentown and many other cities in the 1930s. Authorized and financed by the National Recovery Act of 1933 and the United States Housing Act of 1937, the Allentown Housing Authority was created to oversee construction and operation of this new effort to give residents and families a chance to escape slum housing and find new lives in decent, safe and affordable homes.
The 322 apartments built on the east side of the Lehigh River were intended for what was then considered the "temporarily poor" - those once-middle class families and residents left in dire financial straits or without housing because of The Great Depression.
The outbreak of World War II and the subsequent influx of war workers for plants such as Bethlehem Steel, Mack Trucks, Vultee-Convair and other factories contributing to the war effort sparked the construction of Riverview Terrace adjacent to Hanover Acres. Its construction helped ease a housing shortage in the city.
After the war ended, the need for public housing in Allentown diminished significantly and the existing apartments met the needs of low income families during the period between 1945 and 1963. However, the city in 1963 created the Allentown Redevelopment Authority and introduced a new program to revitalize long-blighted areas of Center City - an undertaking that required demolition of blocks and blocks of substandard and blighted homes and neighborhoods. As part of the plan, the Allentown Housing Authority was called on to construct a new public housing development - to be called Cumberland Gardens and located off Susquehanna Street in the South Side of the city.
Meanwhile, a real need for senior citizen housing became evident during the same period and construction began in 1965 on a new high-rise on Allen Street on a vacant property known by local school children as "the Jackson jungle" because of its overgrown vegetation and proximity to Jackson Elementary School. The new building, dubbed the John T. Gross Tower for the mayor under whose administration construction began, opened in 1967.
Between 1965 and 1976, four other senior high-rises were built and occupied in various locations across the city, including Towers East adjacent to Gross Tower; the 700 Building at 7th and Union streets, Walnut Manor at 15th and Walnut streets and Central Park on Wahneta Street on the East Side.
In 1973, responding to a growing need for more senior housing and affordable family homes, AHA undertook construction of the 700 Building and 76 apartments named Little Lehigh because of their proximity to the feeder stream of the same name that empties into the Lehigh River less than a mile away.
Beginning in the early 1980s, AHA began acquiring scattered sites in and around the City of Allentown, implementing a focused rehabilitation program and created a non-profit entity to oversee senior living sites and other offerings in Catasauqua, Slatington and other areas. It also served as an administrative and maintenance agency caring for the existing developments serving families, individuals, senior citizens and low income physically disabled residents. During that period Congress amended the Public Housing Act with a new concept in public housing that has since come to be known as Section 8. This program allows low income residents and families to rent apartments and homes outside of established public housing developments through federally subsidized rent programs administered locally by AHA.The next major change came in 2005 when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approved a $20 million grant through the HOPE VI program to demolish and rebuild Hanover Acres and Riverview Terrace. This $87 million project, undertaken by Pennrose Properties Inc. of Philadelphia, includes 269 rental town homes and twins for public housing, and 53 homes offered for sale to income-qualified buyers.