Friday, January 23, 2015

The transformation of public housing in Memphis

     By 2016, the demolition of the last of Memphis’ large public housing developments for families could end the “warehousing” of some of the city’s poorest African-American residents and literally wipe clean the last vestiges of family public housing forever.
     The William H. Foote Homes, located on Danny Thomas Boulevard north of Mississippi Boulevard, was built in 1940 for low-income families. It is the last of the city’s public housing developments that was home to innumerable families from the onset.
University Place, built on the site of the Lamar Terrace
housing project. (Photo: Wiley Henry)
     The first tenants who took a survey were “gratified” to transition to their new digs with “inside toilets, adequate heating, and electricity,” according to a newspaper article during that period on an addition to Foote Homes.
     But the blueprint for housing the city’s indigent families is being revamped. There was merit in public housing; however, arguments abound over whether or not poverty, errant behavior, unsanitary conditions, and criminal activity come into play when there are large concentrations of people.
     “Crime is a result of poverty to some extent,” Robert Lipscomb, director of Housing and Community Development (HCD) and executive director of Memphis Housing Authority (MHA), reasons. “So we have to reduce poverty. And when you do that, you will see a reduction in crime.”
     Lipscomb is the face of public housing dismantlement and a proponent of replacing them with modern mixed-income communities. “We have to make sure that people have a good place to live, a choice of where they want to live,” said Lipscomb.
Lamar Terrace before it was redeveloped into University
Place. (Photo courtesy of Memphis Housing Authority)
     Although more than 400 families remain at Foote Homes, the fate of the 420-unit development is contingent on a Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that will be used to raze the development and replace it with a new community of mixed-income residents.
     Memphis was among four finalists vying for the grant in 2013, but was not one of the three cities that HUD selected. Lipscomb, however, is determined to secure the grant. A new development team is working diligently to meet the Feb. 9 deadline for the next round of funding some time in June or July.
     If Memphis is awarded the HUD grant, Lipscomb said, “We’ll be one of the first communities to get rid of public housing – and that says a lot about Memphis.”

MHA’s deteriorating housing stock…

     Lipscomb got his marching orders to clean up public housing nearly 20 years ago when Dr. Willie W. Herenton was the mayor of Memphis. Most developments were in disarray and conditions festered steadily to a point where they’d become blighted havens for youthful indiscretion, drugs and criminal activity.
     A Jan. 13, 1997, audit of MHA, from 1983 through June 30, 1996, was explicit and stated unequivocally that “MHA is not fulfilling its primary mission of providing decent, safe and sanitary housing for low-income families.”
     Squalor pervaded the developments and residents seemed resigned to live in such horrific conditions – those who remained. Of the 22 low-income housing developments that MHA owned and operated at that time (more than 7,000 units altogether), the large family developments suffered the most from interior and exterior decay, according to the audit.
     Several units were boarded up due to a lack of demand; others were extremely dilapidated. And deteriorated plumbing, electrical, walls/ceilings, and floors, among other infractions, were declared “unsafe.”  
     HUD’s Office of Inspector General had made it crystal clear that “MHA’s housing stock and grounds are in poor condition due to age, lack of maintenance and ineffective use of modernization funds, and have been for many years.”
     There was rampant theft, too, and people were vacating the developments, Lipscomb added.
     HUD put the city on notice with a recommendation that MHA be declared “in default of its Annual Contributions Contract (ACC), and initiate steps to obtain new management of MHA’s maintenance and modernization operations.”
     Translation: HUD was threatening to take over MHA’s operations.
     “The OIG report was horrible,” said Lipscomb, who was asked by MHA’s board of directors to replace Jerome D. Ryans, who was MHA’s executive director. Lipscomb took over in February 1999. Prior to his new duties, he’d run the city’s Housing and Community Development agency and left in 1996 to take a post at The LeMoyne-Owen College, his alma mater.
     “We were on HUD’s ‘troubled housing list’ for years (along with MHA’s Section 8 program) and was about to be taken over by HUD,” said Lipscomb.
     Problems were widespread. At the behest of Herenton, the city’s first African-American elected mayor, Lipscomb went to work. One of the mayor’s goals was to increase affordable housing for Memphis citizens.

Transforming public housing…

     MHA is the second oldest housing authority in the United States. The Memphis City Commission created it in 1935.
     The serious deterioration of public housing over subsequent decades and the “horrible” OIG report, however, precipitated a move by the Herenton administration to create something different for the city’s low-income residents.
     By the time the second African-American mayor moved into City Hall, the city was well on its way to becoming a “A City of Choice,” a tagline Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has used to pitch Memphis. The pitch includes transforming MHA’s public housing stock into a beautiful oasis of mixed-income communities with manicured lawns and ample amenities.
     Lipscomb is now working in tandem with Mayor Wharton to finish the job. The mayor once called the transformation of public housing a “revolution.” He is just as determined to make affordable housing a reality for low-income residents as his predecessor.
     LeMoyne Gardens was MHA’s first development to be demolished after receiving a $481,000 HOPE VI planning grant in 1994 and a $47.2 million HOPE VI Implementation Grant in 1995. LeMoyne Gardens was redeveloped with public and private funding and renamed College Park. A statue of Dr. Herenton, the fifth-term mayor, stands upright on its base facing his alma mater, The LeMoyne-Owen College.
     MHA has received five HOPE VI grants altogether from HUD, which set in motion the “revolution” that transformed public housing. “We had to do something,” Lipscomb said.
     Hurt Village, for example, was transformed into homes and apartments called Uptown, which was redeveloped in phases to include Metropolitan Apartments, Magnolia Terrace, Greenlaw Place, and scattered site rental units.  
     Lamar Terrace morphed into University Place. Dixie Homes was replaced with Legends Park Place and McKinley Park (on-site homeownership phase). And Cleaborn Homes is now called Cleaborn Pointe at Heritage Landing.
     Lauderdale Courts, another large family development, was redeveloped as Uptown Square with the use of mixed financing. It is also located in the Uptown area. Altogether, all five HOPE VI grants totaled $144 million.
     The unsightly developments were transformed into aesthetic environs, both residential and commercial. The HOPE VI grants were a game-changer for MHA. Still, there are other residential communities in its housing stock that have been – or are being – redeveloped, rehabilitated, or renovated.
     Foote Homes is the last family development to be demolished, which is targeted for a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant. The grant “supports those communities that have undergone a comprehensive local planning process and are ready to implement their ‘Transformation Plan’ to redevelop the neighborhood.”
     The Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant replaces the HOPE VI grant. The Feb. 9 deadline is looming and Lipscomb and his team are making haste to meet it.
     “Around 2016, you’ll see some evidence of people moving forward,” said Lipscomb, keeping a positive attitude that the last age-old family development will go by way of the wrecking ball.

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