Pushing Back Against the Demolition Juggernaut

Memphis has knocked down all but one of its public housing complexes — and the housing authority assumed that a Choice Neighborhoods grant would be license to demolish the last one. But the community had a different idea.

For the past 15 years, the city of Memphis has been in the forefront of a national movement to transform the face of public housing using federal HOPE VI funds.

During this time, the Memphis Housing Authority (MHA) has been praised by local civic leaders, state housing officials, and HUD representatives for its success in securing more than $155 million in competitive federal grants to replace five older public-housing complexes with new mixed-income developments.

But not everyone thinks that this has been an unmitigated good thing. MHA’s HOPE VI program has demolished 2,465 public housing units, displacing 1,299 former public-housing families. Unfortunately, only one in five of these displaced families have been rehoused within the newly developed HOPE VI complexes.

When the Obama administration announced plans to replace the HOPE VI program with Choice Neighborhood Planning and Implementation Grant Programs, few Memphians were surprised by the MHA’s decision to seek these funds to address conditions within and around Foote Homes, the city’s last remaining public housing complex. But in one way or another, everyone has ended up surprised by what happened next.

Do You Mean That?

First, local leaders were caught off guard when MHA invited the Vance Avenue Collaborative, a grassroots citizens organization, and the University of Memphis Graduate Program in City and Regional Planning (where I teach) to partner with it in applying for a $250,000 Choice Neighborhood Planning Grant. The grant would pay for the development of a comprehensive revitalization plan for the historic Vance Avenue neighborhood in which Foote Homes is located. The Vance Avenue neighborhood is a historic African-American community where many of the city’s most important African-American cultural and civil rights figures lived and worked, including Robert R. Church, Ida B. Wells, Benjamin L. Hooks, Rufus and Lorene Thomas, and Mavis Staples.

Skeptical of the MHA’s commitment to democratic planning and cooperative development, community leaders and university faculty were initially reluctant to join this effort. However, believing MHA would proceed with or without them and reassured of the seriousness of the authority’s newly-articulated commitment to collaboration by senior university officials, representatives of the Vance Avenue Collaborative and the planning program eventually agreed to participate. They worked with an MHA consultant during the Winter of 2010 to prepare an application that would support a highly-participatory, resident-led planning process.

In March 2011, the MHA/Vance Avenue proposal was selected as one of only 17 Choice Neighborhood Planning Grants funded from a pool of 119. In July 2011, senior HUD officials came to Memphis to review the project’s proposed governance structure, evaluate its preliminary work plan, and establish a working relationship with local project participants. During an evening meeting attended by more than 125 residents and community stakeholders, local leaders presented their preliminary assessment of existing conditions and an initial list of potential redevelopment projects, which featured an innovative proposal for transforming a city bus into a mobile food market to address local food access problems. HUD staff praised the project for the quality of its data collection and analysis and its high level of citizen and stakeholder engagement. They also shared their excitement regarding the concrete steps the community had already taken to address the food security challenges confronting the neighborhood.

From Fall 2011 to Spring 2012, the Collaborative’s Neighborhood Sub-Committee undertook an ambitious set of outreach activities to elicit additional stakeholder perceptions of existing conditions, future redevelopment possibilities, and preferred revitalization strategies. With the assistance of university students and faculty, local leaders engaged more than 1,000 community stakeholders in a series of participatory planning activities to formulate a common vision for the neighborhood’s future. They conducted oral history interviews with area elders; a community-mapping exercise to identify neighborhood assets, problems, and untapped resources; a neighborhood documentation campaign in which 65 residents generated more than 1,500 photographs of the community’s defining characteristics; and 200 interviews with local residents, business owners, and institutional leaders to better understand their vision of a healthier and more vibrant Vance Avenue community.

One of their key findings was that a majority of local stakeholders had a strong desire to see the Foote Homes preserved and improved rather than demolished.

Planning to Preserve

Local stakeholders’ support for the preservation of Foote Homes came as no surprise to the university planners, who had been working in the neighborhood since 2009. The reasons were numerous.

The complex, which had undergone a complete restoration in the mid-1990s was, despite MHA’s claims to the contrary, in very good shape. In fact, it offered poor Memphians wishing to live downtown one of their best affordable housing options. Many current residents had chosen to move into the complex when being relocated by MHA during earlier HOPE VI projects because they needed access to the medical and social services offered by public and nonprofit agencies in the nearby downtown and medical districts. A significant number of Foote Homes residents were also dependent upon jobs offering flexible hours available within the downtown’s thriving hospitality, tourism, and arts sectors.

Meanwhile, residents and their neighbors were also aware of the small number of former public housing tenants who had been able to move back into city’s recently completed HOPE VI projects. They also knew about the serious problems previously relocated families encountered living in communities that looked nothing like the “movement to opportunity” neighborhoods described by MHA’s executive director and his staff. Through family, friends, and church members relocated by MHA, residents heard horror stories regarding the shelter problems, street crime, utility costs, and social isolation many former MHA residents confronted in their new Section 8 housing, without the support of extended family members, long-time neighbors, local religious leaders, and social service providers whose empathy, understanding, and resources they could depend on to get them through tough times.

Many Foote Homes residents, neighborhood stakeholders, and city residents also opposed the project’s demolition on historical grounds. A significant number of former Foote Homes and Vance Avenue residents had played critical roles in the city’s Civil Rights Movement, a history the MHA chose to deny in seeking and receiving permission to demolish Foote Homes and its sister project, Cleaborn Homes, from the Tennessee Historical Commission.

Finally, many Vance Avenue residents, business owners, and institutional leaders opposed the project because of the devastating impact relocating 40 percent of the neighborhood’s population would have upon the area’s many historic African American businesses and institutions, especially area churches.

And so, the planning process proceeded following the lead of the neighborhood’s stakeholders.

In April 2012, local residents and their university supporters organized a well-attended neighborhood assembly at which local stakeholders committed themselves to working together to transform the Vance Avenue neighborhood into the nation’s leading example of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.‘s “beloved community.” Following this meeting, local organizers convened a series of issue-specific meetings during which local stakeholders identified and developed 33 immediate, short-, and long-term improvement projects designed to achieve this goal.

Among these, signature projects included the significant improvement of Foote Homes, featuring energy conservation enhancements, kitchen upgrades, rear deck additions, and the creation of private backyards to accommodate children and family recreation; the day-lighting of the Desoto Bayou to eliminate storm-related flooding while creating an attractive new linear greenway connecting Vance Avenue to South Memphis and Downtown; and the establishment of a cooperatively owned and managed urban agriculture business, generating jobs and improving access to healthy locally-grown foods.

An Independent Plan

When MHA officials realized the extent to which the data generated by this resident-driven process supported the preservation and improvement of Foote Homes, a public housing complex that they had long ago targeted for demolition, they fired the university planners, informed residents that the process of citizen consultation was over, shut down the Vance Avenue Choice Neighborhood Initiative website, and cancelled the future meetings of the project’s community advisory board and planning consulting team.

While the city’s withdrawal from the community planning process surprised few neighborhood leaders, it angered many residents, especially those who had played a pivotal role in encouraging their neighbors to set aside long-held skepticism of city-sponsored planning to actively participate in the process.

Now they had a choice to make about how to move forward.

All of the data needed to prepare a fully developed revitalization plan to realize Dr. King’s vision of the beloved community was already in hand. So the university faculty who had provided most of the project’s staff support undertook a series of one-on-one meetings with the leaders of three dozen community organizations that had been most deeply involved in the Choice Neighborhoods planning process to gauge their interest in seeing these data used to produce a resident-generated plan. All but two of those interviewed felt this was an important effort to undertake so there could be a credible alternative to what was expected to be a city-generated HOPE VIÐlike plan to raze the 426 units at Foote Homes.

And so, with the strong support of the Memphis Branch of the NAACP, which has been located in the Vance Avenue community for nearly 100 years and had been an active contributor to the planning process, representatives from numerous local churches, social service agencies, and many neighborhood businesses, along with university students and faculty spent August and September 2012 transforming thousands of pages of physical maps, demographic data, interview summaries, and community meeting transcripts into a 125-page document called the Vance Avenue Community Transformation Plan.

On September 13, 2012, more than 150 community residents, neighborhood stakeholders, media representatives, and other interested parties crowded into the Saint Patrick Community Center to hear a detailed presentation of this plan. Following a spirited hour-long discussion of the plan’s major findings and recommendations, those attending the meeting voiced their strong support for the plan.

In It to Win It

With the endorsement of the community, the Collaborative’s leaders and their university supporters needed to design a campaign for encouraging the city to adopt their resident-generated plan. Eight neighborhood-based organizations, as well as representatives of AFSCME Local 1733, the union representing MHA’s blue-collar workforce, and the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, an important civil rights organization founded shortly after Dr. King’s death, participated in an initial strategy meeting.

The facts on the ground included the complete absence of public debate surrounding the city’s previous decisions to demolish the LeMoyne Gardens, Lamar Terrace, Dixie Homes, and Cleaborn Homes public housing complexes and the respect and power enjoyed by Robert Lipscomb, who had served two mayors as both the executive director of the MHA and the director of the city of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development. A former hospitality industry executive, Lipscomb has been credited with transforming MHA into one of the region’s most respected public housing agencies, generating millions of dollars in state and federal grants for affordable housing and economic development projects. Unfortunately, he had done so using a top-down management style that had offered public housing tenants and their allies little input into agency policy and decision-making.

Convinced of Mr. Lipscomb’s reluctance to share power, especially with those representing poor and working class communities, those attending the meeting decided to explore how the Vance Avenue community might involve the City Council and the Memphis/Shelby County Land Use Control Board as independent third parties to evaluate the pros and cons of the city’s HOPE VIÐinspired plan and the resident-generated preservation plan for Foote Homes and the surrounding Vance Avenue neighborhood.

Collaborative members subsequently prepared a pamphlet describing the two contrasting visions for the Vance Avenue community: the Housing Authority’s HOPE VIÐlike proposal featuring relocation, demolition, rebranding, and mixed-income redevelopment and the Collaborative’ s preservation plan featuring a wide range of economic and community development proposals without displacement. The brochure invited local institutions to voice their support for an independent third-party review of these two contrasting plans by Memphis’s elected City Council. Within a month, more than 30 local organizations, including many area churches, human service organizations, labor unions, peace and justice groups, and environmental groups signed written endorsements indicating their desire to see the two plans considered by the council through an open, transparent, and democratic process.

With a growing base of community support, Collaborative members approached one of the neighborhood’s local councilmen, who chaired the City Council’s Planning and Zoning Committee. After hearing about the rift that had developed between neighborhood residents and Housing Authority officials over the future of Foote Homes, Councilman Edmund Ford agreed to hold a hearing on the resident-generated plan. He said if it produced sufficient support in his committee it could be recommended for positive action by the full council and ultimately forwarded, with a positive recommendation, to the combined City of Memphis/Shelby County Land Use Control Board (a.k.a. Planning Commission) for action before returning to the full council for final adoption.

Before the hearing, the Collaborative held a press conference to present its plan to the public. On October 2, 2012, more than 75 residents, civic leaders, elected officials, and journalists gathered at St. Patrick Church in the heart of the Vance Avenue community to hear residents, businessmen, religious leaders, and unions offer a range of arguments in favor of the residents’ plan. Collaborative leaders also presented the outline of a community campaign to secure its adoption, which featured petitions and organizational endorsements, calls to the mayor’s Citizen Support Center, an application to the Tennessee Historical Commission to place Foote Homes on the National Registry of Historic Places (an effort that was initially rejected by this state agency), and one-on-one meetings with City Council members. The press conference generated extensive print and TV coverage, including an AP story that appeared in more than 20 metropolitan newspapers across the country, prompting several unlikely business and political leaders to contact the Collaborative indicating their strong support for a third-party review of the plan. Among the callers were leaders of two more affluent neighborhood associations, a highly influential developer, and a major Democratic Party fundraiser.

In the weeks following the press conference, community residents and their university supporters met with each of the Council’s Planning and Zoning Committee members who, to varying degrees, appeared supportive of the residents’ plan. On November 6th, approximately 75 Foote Homes and Vance Avenue neighborhood residents and their allies met at Saint Patrick Church for a prayer service on the morning when the Planning and Zoning Committee was to consider their plan. Before leaving the church, each individual picked up a placard reflecting the iconic design of the 1968 “I Am A Man” sanitation workers strike signs. They read “We Are A Community: Improve Ð Don’t Remove Foote Homes.”

Leaving the church singing “We shall not be removed,” supporters of the resident plan walked first to the front of Clayborn Temple, the site where Dr. King first pledged his support for the sanitation workers’ struggle and from which the 1968 strikers organized daily nonviolent marches to City Hall. Following the placement of a bouquet of fresh flowers beneath the plaque memorializing this internationally recognized labor and civil rights struggle, the group observed a moment of silence for Dr. King, who died blocks away on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, and all those known and unknown sons and daughters of the South who gave their lives for the cause of social justice.

Following the same route to City Hall used by the 1968 sanitation workers, the group travelled 15 blocks through downtown Memphis to attend the Council’s Planning and Zoning Committee hearing, where dozens of other supporters of the Vance Avenue Community Transformation Plan had already gathered. In an overflowing hearing room, community residents described the importance of preserving and improving Foote Homes through the adoption of the resident-generated plan. “More than a year ago, the city invited us to work with them in preparing a comprehensive redevelopment plan for our area; during the past year we mobilized more than 1,000 local residents to complete this task. We now need your help, as our elected Council, to guarantee local residents a voice in this process,” stated long-time community leader, Gil Carter III.

“In the coming years, hundreds of millions of local, state, and federal funds are going to be spent on economic and community development projects in our district. Current and future residents must be among those who benefit from these expenditures. Our plan seeks to insure this outcome,” asserted James Smith, a local resident and active member of the Vance Avenue Choice Neighborhood Management Team.

Following a brief discussion involving the council, Councilwoman Janis Fullilove, a former Foote Homes resident, offered a resolution recommending positive consideration of the Vance Avenue Community Transformation Plan by the committee and the full council. Over the strong opposition of MHA’s Lipscomb, who accused Collaborative leaders of “engaging in divide and conquer tactics as old as the Bible,” the Planning and Zoning Committee voted 4 to 0 in favor of the resolution recommending positive action on the residents’ plan to the full council.

Elated over the positive vote of the Planning and Zoning Committee, Collaborative members subsequently attended a meeting of the Memphis/Shelby Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) where MHA representatives were requesting favorable action on their competing plan, known as the Heritage Trail Community Development Plan, which featured the demolition of Foote Homes, reestablishment of the street grid through the project’s former campus, and the funding of numerous unspecified infrastructure projects within the study area.

MHA proposed the establishment of a Tax Incremental Financing District covering downtown and several adjacent areas to raise the $102 million needed to fund their plan. Their proposal would claim approximately 98 percent of the increased property tax revenues generated by downtown development during the coming 20 years to cover the costs of their Heritage Trail Plan, further complicating the city and county’s efforts to fund basic police, fire, library, parks, transit, and educational services.

Questions raised by Collaborative members, the Downtown Memphis Commission, and the South Main Association prompted the CRA’s chair to advise Lipscomb to meet with local stakeholders to prepare a redevelopment plan and finance strategy that all segments of the community could support. Lipscomb responded to this suggestion in a letter to municipal officials by stating that he was too busy meeting with local stakeholders to sit down with representatives of the Vance Avenue Collaborative. After repeated presentations of variations of MHA’s TIF District Application failed to secure the endorsement of the CRA, the Authority’s application was place on “indefinite hold” status.

Encouraged by their success before the City Council and the CRA, Collaborative leaders are currently working hard to engage Mayor A.C. Wharton, City Council leaders, county commissioners and HUD’s Choice Neighborhood’s staff to encourage Lipscomb to abandon his plans to demolish Foote Homes. While residents realize this is an uphill battle that few low-income communities tend to win, they point out that their neighborhood has a long and impressive history of beating the odds!

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