HUD Official Calls Memphis Public Housing Efforts ‘Extraordinary’

By Bill Dries

Ronald Sims, deputy secretary of the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development, came to Memphis just days before Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton left office last month.

Among his hosts were two of the contenders in the coming special election, Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and interim Memphis Mayor Myron Lowery, who still served as chairman of the City Council at the time.

Ronald Sims

It’s a familiar situation for Sims, who resigned as county executive of King County, Wash., in February to work for the Obama administration. Sims was county executive for 12 years and was running for an unprecedented fourth term when the White House called.

Sims was in Memphis to tour Legends Park, a mixed-income, mixed-use development being built where the old Dixie Homes public housing project once stood. HUD funding through the federal HOPE VI program was used to start the transformation and to leverage private investment.

Q: How do you feel about Memphis’ work on Legends Park and related developments?

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A: This project is very emblematic of where HUD is going. It has all of the issues of community development. We are going to be a community development agency. That’s why we are called “Housing and Urban Development.” We’re going to do development in rural areas as well as urban areas. We’re going to be a development agency. This project is one of the bright shining examples in the United States today of how to do it – mixed income, brand-new neighborhoods – we’re heading in this direction. And I’m glad Memphis is at the cutting edge of where HUD is going.

Q: Will agencies other than HUD be involved?

A: (HUD) Secretary (Shaun) Donovan has been working very hard to get the U.S. Department of Transportation to agree to marry their transportation funding with our housing projects. … If you look at the work of the Department of Health and Human Services – they will be working with us on homeless issues as well as medical. We’ll look at EPA on its clean air and clean water agencies. The Department of Agriculture is working with us to make sure we get fresh food available to every single neighborhood and urban area. … We’re out of our convenient silos and trying to actually say, ‘How do we tackle the problems of America?’ because the president is dedicated to improving the quality of life of every citizen in the United States.”

Q: You may have heard of the city’s Triangle Noir project, which involves the transformation of Foote Homes and Cleaborn Homes, the city’s last two big public housing projects. Have city officials been lobbying you for money for that during your visit here?

A: Oh no, nobody’s been lobbying us (laughing). The answer is yes. But it’s not just the people in the housing authority. We had a wonderful dinner last night on Mud Island with the people who put that together to talk about vision. Memphis is on the radar screen all across the country. They were asked to go to the Brookings Institution (a Washington, D.C., think tank) and that was very deliberate as to some of the people doing remarkable work and sharing it with people from other cities. Did they lobby? No. They simply talked about where they are now and the vision they have for Memphis and Shelby County and it is, to us, a remarkable vision. In my opinion, it’s worth a celebration. They did it right. They did it cost-effectively. And the citizens of Memphis won. The return on investment, the improvement in neighborhoods and what they’re fashioning is extraordinary. … It is our job at HUD to make sure this is happening all across the country and we’re going to do that.