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VOL. 129 | NO. 101 | Friday, May 23, 2014

Out With the Old

Public housing overhaul nears end with newest development

By Bill Dries

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A small group of people gathered last week in the front room of a new Southwest Memphis housing development for senior citizens.

The demolition of the Walter J. Simmons public housing development this past January in Southeast Memphis is part of the end game for a cycle of great change in Memphis public housing over the last 20 years.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The scene marked the ending of one era in public housing and the start of another as the doors opened to the newest facility in the nearly 20-year makeover of public housing.

The formal opening of Fairway Manor, which sits on Fairway Avenue just west of South Third Street, marks an end to a 20-year cycle of change in public housing, including the area of Southwest Memphis where Graves Manor and several smaller public housing developments once stood.

“It was all horrible,” city Housing and Community Development Director Robert Lipscomb said at the opening of Fairway Manor. “Look at it now.”

This past January, the city began demolishing the former Walter Simmons development at Lamar Avenue and Knight Arnold Road in Southeast Memphis to make way for moving the city public works department to the public housing site vacant since 2003.

With the exception of Foote Homes, all of the city’s larger public housing developments have also become mixed-use, mixed-income housing developments. All of them but Lauderdale Courts were demolished and rebuilt from the ground up. The brick buildings in Lauderdale Courts, now Uptown Square, were preserved because they are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Lipscomb, who doubles as the Memphis Housing Authority executive director, noted that the cycle of change is near an end.

“I’m not ready to go, though,” he said as he reflected on what he called a “15-year journey.”

The chairman of the Memphis Housing Authority board during that time, Ricky Wilkins, however is considering a change.

“I’ve pretty much done what I came here to do,” said Wilkins, an attorney who was appointed to the housing authority board in the early 1990s by then-Mayor Willie Herenton. “We started with the idea that we could make housing better for all citizens in Memphis that were living in public housing. We have completed all but one.”

“We started with the idea that we could make housing better for all citizens in Memphis that were living in public housing. We have completed all but one.”

–Ricky Wilkins

Wilkins is challenging U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen in the August Democratic primary for the 9th Congressional District.

Cohen, who secured the federal funding for Fairway Manor and the other projects, also attended the Fairway Manor opening. Though political foes, he and Wilkins both want to see the city get a last infusion of federal funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to demolish and rebuild Foote Homes as a mixed-use, mixed-income development that is part of the larger Heritage Trail redevelopment project.

The city’s application for a federal Choice Neighborhoods grant to do that was not selected by federal officials earlier this year. Cohen and Lipscomb are each reviewing the city’s application and talking with HUD officials to go over how to improve the next application.

“Hopefully that will happen next year,” Cohen said of the grant. “This is a great day for this area and this project because this gives people an opportunity to live in much-nicer housing.”

John Gemmill, field office director for the Memphis HUD office, said Fairway Manor – a Memphis Land Bank property – also influences the conditions of affordable housing that is not public housing or some combination that includes public housing.

“It’s good-looking. It’s attractive. It’s charming,” Gemmill said. “People are attracted here rather than just looking for a free house. That’s how every property in the city ought to be. Most property that people in the low-income brackets have to live in is not subsidized. They are being forced to take what little money they have and find something for $200 a month or whatever. Hopefully this will compete against those things.”

In the same area, the Memphis Land Bank also owns and has helped secure the private investment and development for the remakes of the old Horn Lake Heights, Ford Road and Cypresswood public housing developments.

Like Fairway Manor, Gemmill said, those three developments are designed to influence the quality and standards of non-public affordable housing.

“These are for people who are making half of the median income – family income below $30,000 – and probably most of the people here are well below that,” Gemmill said. “The options without the government assistance are pretty horrendous. But they are worse than they have to be because there aren’t enough efforts to hold those landlords to a higher standard.”

Wilkins said the remake of public housing has been about more than bricks and mortar and demolition.

“We put in place partnerships to work with our residents, to work with them about keeping their properties clean and taking care of the investment that the public has made to make the housing communities better, and to monitor them and to make sure that the inspections are done timely,” he said. “So, if there is a problem, we catch it early on and fix it before it become too much of an economic burden.”

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