The City Council on Tuesday (Nov. 6) will be asked to adopt a resolution requesting that the Land Use Control Board hear the Vance Avenue Collaborative plan. The one-sentence notation on the Council's agenda gives no indication of the emotional intensity attached to the request.
For residents of the historic Foote Homes public housing development, the issue hits home. It involves the way forward for many who have lived there for years. The Council will weigh in on a redevelopment plan to forward to the U.S. Department of Housing and Development for HOPE VI funding.
Two stakeholders – Memphis Housing Authority Director Robert Lipscomb and Professor Ken Reardon of the University of Memphis City & Regional Planning department – are knocking heads big-time. Tuesday's pending action comes on the heels of an Oct. 16 meeting of the Memphis City Council's Planning and Zoning Committee. By a 4-0 vote, the committee directed Lipscomb to go back to the drawing board and find out what the residents feel is best for the future of the historic housing project in south Memphis.
HOPE VI is a HUD tool for revitalizing public housing projects and it includes the element of a transformation into mixed-income developments. Reardon is spokesperson and one of the chief organizers for the advocacy group lobbying for the residents, the Vance Avenue Collaborative. He says HOPE VI has become outdated.
"What we have learned is that the promise of HOPE VI has been deeply compromised over the past years. They feel great in the short term but over the long term we find out that it creates more problems," Reardon told The New Tri-State Defender. "There is an incredible amount of hurt under the project's plans because they are based on an enormous amount of displacement."
The Vance Avenue Collaborative is comprised of 22 organizations based in the 38126 south Memphis zip code, where the 426 units in Foote Homes have served as a landmark for decades. Lipscomb, who is also Director of Housing and Community Development for the City of Memphis, was blunt in his criticism of the collaborative's work.
"They've been practicing divide and conquer, putting out misinformation telling people they are going to have to move right now, they're going to lose their homes and more," said Lipscomb.
Memphis Housing Authority (MHA) has mailed a letter to all of the residents explaining its position.
"We don't even have the grant yet," Lipscomb told the TSD during a recent conference call that included MHA Hope VI Coordinator Quincy N. Jones and Mark Straub, senior development officer for Pennrose Properties, a private development firm working with MHA on the redevelopment of Cleaborne Homes.
"I'm hopeful that we are going to get it (the HOPE VI grant), but that is just part of the misrepresentation of facts that has been spread through the neighborhood. They (the Vance Avenue Collaborative) were on a whole different track from us. They did their plan and ours hasn't been completed yet. They intentionally usurped our planning process."
The difference between this HOPE VI process and previous ones the city has successfully negotiated is that the previous ones involved implementation grants, money to be acted upon, said Lipscomb. "This grant (for Foote Homes) provided funds for planning, which is exactly what we have been doing for months."
Reardon said neither he nor other members of the collaborative have told residents they would be moved out. "We haven't been telling them that. They've been hearing it from family and friends that have gone through it," he said.
Ironically, MHA brought Reardon and the University of Memphis into the mix. With Reardon as team leader, students and faculty from the Department of Anthropology and the Graduate Program in City and Regional Planning conducted a 15-month survey for the city. Reardon contends that work was brought to an abrupt end because Lipscomb was told something he didn't want to hear.
"When we reported (the findings) back to Mr. Lipscomb, that there was a significant majority that did not want the typical city development plan, which is to relocate, demolish, then rebrand the neighborhood as mixed income, which provides for very little opportunities for employment and for people to return, we were then terminated," said Reardon.
"We have not been able to have direct contact since. HUD (The Department of Housing and Urban Development) has cited Memphis as one of the better programs applying for funds because of the extraordinary number of people participating and the diversity of the stakeholders in the project."
HUD, said Reardon, wanted to know how so much energy and participation had been successfully generated in Memphis.
"We prepared a 30-page paper outlining our process. We've had six neighborhood cleanups, created a community garden that is feeding 15 families and are about to launch a refurbished MATA bus called The Green Machine that will provide access to quality fruits and vegetables to the area," he said.
"Without the Vance Avenue Collaborative there really is no corporation to keep the residents involved. There is a policy group that is supposed to be guiding this process (for MHA) but since June there haven't been any meetings. There's a team of consultants that are supposed to be carrying out detailed follow-through for the planning process and all of their meetings have been canceled. So there really is a severing between the neighborhood and the city."
Reardon amplified on his contention that HOPE VI has some serious shortcomings.
"The idea (of HOPE VI) is that by moving poor people near middle-class families into what is called areas of opportunity it would improve the work ethic for some and expand opportunities," he said. "But the fault with that is the extraordinary strides in mechanization and globalization have killed livable wage jobs and it's become much more difficult for people to find jobs and advance and they feel even more like outsiders over the long term."
Creating new roots is not easy, residents told the study group.
"They find that they are no longer part of an impact community where people share and help each other out," said Reardon. "(They are) distant from historic churches where many of their families have been part of for generations, and more distant from services they need and part-time employment (such as that available in the hospitality industry downtown or at the FedExForum.)"
Also, 82 percent of the residents are without transportation and have to depend on MATA, which has had to cut services, to get around," said Reardon.
"Add the fact that they are told they have to move, that it's involuntary and you have no choice," said Reardon. "Research leading all the way back to the origins of the public housing programs show that people suffer considerably from terrible depression under such conditions, often leading to depressive states and self destructive behavior. How would you feel? We all would like to feel we have some control over the basics of our lives and able to help our children."
Lipscomb said it burns him up that Reardon and the collaborative "are painting themselves up like they care more about my own people than I do. The whole concept of the grant, if we get it, is to give people choices. If we just repackage it, what positive change have we created?
"Second, the goal is to disperse poverty," said Lipscomb. "We know that concentrating poverty doesn't work, that it is a dismal failure. We will never create any change if we do not try.
"They were telling people they couldn't come back. That's not true," he said. "We want to give people choices, even to the point that we went to MLG&W and had vouchers created that included a waiver, so if anyone has a bill owed they can still get utilities in their name."
At issue is change, which is hard for people to accept, said Lipscomb. "They're making the argument that this is good enough for you people. Think about what that means."
Fourteen-year Foote Homes resident Linda Farmer listened intently while attending the Oct. 16 Planning and Zoning Commission. She has lived between Cleaborne Homes and Foote Homes all of her adult life.
"I was relocated to a Section 8 home before but it didn't work, and some of it was my fault I admit," said Farmer. "But the bottom line is that it is just too expensive. And all landlords aren't the same. I have raised my family here and done a pretty good job I think. People think just because we may not have as much it's because we're stupid or lazy. That isn't the truth. This is home. You can't just up and create home....I want them to just leave us alone."
The resolution before the Council on Tuesday is sponsored by City Councilman Edmund Ford Jr. (District 6), who Reardon credits "for even having the guts to hold the (earlier planning and zoning) meeting."
Reardon harked back to the Planning and Zoning Commission's Oct. 16 decision, calling it the first time the city council has voiced an opinion so early in the process.
"Usually they're kept in the dark until the eleventh hour and then Mr. Lipscomb comes in after his private planning sessions and says (to the council), 'If you don't sign off on this, the city will lose millions in federal funding,'" said Reardon. "And they sign off, trusting Mr. Lipscomb to manage it properly. This was a red letter day."