VOL. 132 | NO. 203 | Thursday, October 12, 2017
By Bill Dries
Heavy machinery has been moving dirt around for a few months now on the E.H. Crump Boulevard lot that was once the site of the Fowler Homes public housing development. Leaders with the city of Memphis and the Memphis-based Church of God in Christ (COGIC) got around to the formalities Wednesday, Oct. 11, of breaking ground for construction of Mason Village – a $12.5 million development of 77 affordable townhomes on the site.
Mason Village is scheduled to be completed in July after six years of planning, financial calculations, competition for financing and other uncertainties – not the least of which has been recovery from the recession of 2008.
“These projects are very difficult to finance,“ said Saki Middleton, president of John Stanley Inc., the developer in the joint venture with COGIC. “I can truly say this is one of the toughest projects in terms of the financing.”
Bishop Charles E. Blake, center, presiding bishop of the Church of God In Christ, arrives at the groundbreaking where 77 affordable townhomes will be built Downtown. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)
The church is no stranger to such efforts. It has its own community development corporation that has built 400 units of housing in Los Angeles.
Lula Ballton, executive director of COGIC’s community and economic development division, said with financing now in place construction should move ahead with relatively few hitches.
“Affordable housing is difficult because the thing that makes housing happen is financing,” she said. “It costs the same, whether poor people live in it or rich people live in it. Finding the resources, putting together a means to build, to put the developers in a position to get both public and private equity into a project, tends to be the most difficult part.”
Ballton says large public housing developments like Fowler Homes, which was demolished in 2004, went into planning what Mason Village would look like.
“We didn’t take into consideration communities,” she said of mid- to late-20th-century public housing. “So we didn’t have green space. We didn’t have people able to walk out the front door and be outside. … Our goal as a faith community is to address issues around the beloved community. The seniors are comfortable. The children can play outside and everybody is operating in an atmosphere of peace.”
Mason Village has senior housing on one side and LaRose Elementary School on the other side. Across the boulevard is a recently renovated Memphis Health Center. The area includes the ambitious, multi-phased South City development that includes mixed-use and mixed-income housing on the sites of two larger former public housing developments – Cleaborn Homes and Foote Homes.
Like Mason Village, the city of Memphis is involved in that as well.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said the church’s partnership has been essential as the city put up $4 million in a Housing and Community Development division loan as well as 19 vouchers to allow those who would qualify by income for public housing to live in Mason Village.
“To me, our destiny is in the core city,” Strickland told a group of several dozen people Wednesday.
Martin Edwards, executive director of the Health, Education and Housing Facilities Board that provided the property tax exemption necessary to lower the rents, echoed that sentiment.
“We must do more inside our city,” he said. “The density of this city is so important to the growth of the city. We’ve got to come back.”
Bishop Charles E. Blake Sr., the presiding bishop of COGIC, pointed to the orange roof of Mason Temple and the construction site as proof of the church’s continued commitment to Memphis.
Artist’s rendering of the Mason Village development by Self-Tucker Architects. (Submitted)
“In a day of a shortage of steel and other supplies, at its completion, Mason Temple was the largest building owned by a black Christian denomination in the United States,” Blake said of the church built in 1941. “As you can see, the Church of God in Christ did not just start building today. It has been an intricate part of this community for more than 76 years. Mason Village will allow us to continue to build in the community that we have called home for more than 70 years while helping our neighbors.”
Part of the planning was rent calculations and a specific desire to break away from the size standards of public housing.
Middleton said the townhomes are designed for families.
“They will be in-market standard housing and they won’t be struggling, paying 50 percent of their income for rent,” he said. “It will max out at 30 percent. This will allow folks to save and truly live the American dream and feel good about where they live and take pride in their community.”
Ballton said the design is important as well.
“Generally, public housing provides only two bedrooms no matter how many children you have or the size of families,” she said. “So we have three bedrooms, two bedrooms, one bedroom and we have green space and a community place where people can meet.”
The ripple effect could be more substantial.
“Most of us remember even our childhood based on where we live,” Ballton said. “We create neighborhoods again.”