The University of Memphis professor leading the resistance to a still-forming plan to demolish the city’s last large public housing project says the city’s approach to transforming public housing since the late 1990s hasn’t worked.
“This neighborhood has been demonized by those folks who have a private interest in seeing public money used to move a low-income neighborhood out and to redevelop this really in a gentrified manner,” Ken Reardon said of the Foote Homes public housing development and surrounding neighborhood.
Reardon, who began the review of the Vance Avenue-Foote Homes area under a contract with the city of Memphis before it terminated the contract, commented on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.” It can be seen on The Daily News Online, www.memphisdailynews.com.
Reardon and the Vance Avenue Collaborative he formed are at odds with the administration of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. over the future of the public housing development.
Wharton and his director of Housing and Community Development, Robert Lipscomb, have called for “an end to public housing as we know it.”
The approach, backed with federal funding, began in the late 1990s with the demolition of the LeMoyne Gardens public housing project during the administration of then-Mayor Willie Herenton under the direction of Lipscomb. The funding has been used to leverage private investment to create mixed-use, mixed-income communities where a certain percentage of the residents are public housing.
Lipscomb was invited to appear with Reardon on the program hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, but he declined several invitations.
“If you want to achieve an income mix you can do so without dislocating the most vulnerable, poorest and fragile of the elements. Build infill around it,” Reardon said.
“There’s 6,000 individuals who live very happily for the most part in that neighborhood. There’s a strong sense of community. … The fact that the neighborhood is still there given the fact that for the last 40 years the city has not reinvested in basic infrastructure … is a testimony to the strength of this neighborhood and its resilience.”
The federal funding, which began in the 1990s under President Bill Clinton’s administration and continued under President George W. Bush and now Barack Obama’s administration, is from a program called HOPE VI. Federal officials granting the money through all three presidential administrations have praised the Memphis efforts on the public housing front. And they’ve cited it as an example to other cities.
Late this year, the city will prepare its application for federal funding under the “Choice Neighborhoods” federal program, the successor to HOPE VI.
Lipscomb has told Memphis City Council members that he and Wharton have made no decision yet on the future of Foote Homes. But when the city secured the federal funding to demolish the neighboring Cleaborn Homes public housing development, Wharton and Lipscomb each said they hoped to secure federal funding for the demolition of Foote Homes.
Reardon suggests the program is a rejection of the HOPE VI philosophy. And he argued the mixed-use, mixed-income communities of College Park and University Place that replaced LeMoyne Gardens and Lamar Terrace, respectively, haven’t worked.
“They are little tiny houses on the prairie surrounded by under-utilized or vacant properties. That strategy clearly does not work,” he said. “Let’s try something different.”
Meanwhile, an application for a much larger area of development planning by the city that includes Foote and Cleaborn Homes, is pending before the Community Redevelopment Agency.
The board of the agency delayed action this month on the “Heritage Trails” plan after leaders of other smaller redevelopment areas using payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements expressed concern over the use of tax increment financing for the Heritage Trails plan. The TIF funding would also use a portion of property tax revenues generated in the area over a 20-year life of the project. That is the same property tax revenue pool affected by the PILOTs.
The collaborative’s plan would leave Foote Homes and its residents in place with no relocation. Some of the federal money would be used for a renovation of the property, which would remain public housing. Other funding would be used for counseling and other support services Reardon and others say are essential for housing residents.
In his group’s survey of residents and business owners, Reardon said the collaborative didn’t find a clamor for creating new housing in the area.
“That in and of itself is not sufficient to address the most significant problems in the neighborhood,” he said. “And residents did not identify housing as their top priority, second, third, fourth or fifth.”
The top priorities were crime, quality schools, access to “living wage” employment and support for neighborhood-oriented retail.