When company comes these days, Maiden Pierce will finally be able to serve food on her fancy dishes. Pierce is discovering many unknown comforts in her new two-bedroom townhouse, but it is the dishes that stand out in her mind today.
"Look at my colored dishes," boasts Pierce, pointing to them in her new cabinet. "Now I can use them. I never could before. Just had to keep them packed away and take them out and look at them once in a while."
The new townhouse comes courtesy of the government, which is charging the Pierces $11.60 a month in rent. It is a rent the family can afford, with the less than $800 a year Lonnie Pierce will bring home from his job at a Farragut garage.
More importantly, their daughters Lonnetta and Margaret Ellen will have a safe place to grow up.
"We had no bath where we lived," Pierce says. "The toilet was on the back porch and there was no hot water except what I heated on the cook stove. I'm certainly enjoying this nice place."
Nice it was to many black families back in 1940, when College Homes opened in the Mechanicsville neighborhood next to Knoxville College.
Nearly 60 years after the Pierces moved into their dream home, the College Homes project is now being labeled a failure by Knoxville's Community Development Corporation, which runs the city's public housing. For many, the red brick buildings have become the blight they replaced. The 320 units are slated to be razed this year, to test the newest theory in public housing: a federal program dubbed HOPE VI, which will pump $37 million into the community.
On paper, the HOPE VI plan reads like a godsend that will chase despair from Mechanicsville, turning it into a neighborhood that nurtures the poor and unemployed, teaching them how to hold down a good job, raise a family, and buy a home.
But to build this dream community, KCDC will first have to destroy the one already there—scattering families and wrecking the seemingly indestructible buildings. Skeptics (and even some supporters) wonder whether those forced to leave College Homes will be allowed back.
KCDC is giving a 60-year-old dream another crack, but can it avoid making the same mistakes?
A small group of residents fear it can't. They are trying to derail KCDC's plans to tear down their homes.
"You're uprooting 320 families. Just think if it wasn't in the projects. Just think if it was over in West Knoxville," Phillip Johnson says.
"When you get a low income conglomerate of people, usually we go away pretty quietly. Just move on. In this case, we believe we have the victory," Johnson says. "They took everybody for granted. It's like line everybody up and shoot 'em."
The buildings of College Homes were erected in lines that meander along the sloping Mechanicsville neighborhood. The facades face each other, separated by grassy courtyards; the backs are lined with clotheslines and narrow drives. The original slate roofs still sit on top, a shingle missing here and there.
Walking behind the townhouses when there are no people around (an increasingly common experience as more people move out), the place can feel like an old prison.
But wander far past the iron fence surrounding the development, and you're bound to see signs of life.
In one sun-baked courtyard on a March afternoon, a few residents sit out on their porches. Others wait impatiently on the mail, which is late today. Scattered plastic grocery bags inhale wind, float along the ground for a few feet, then collapse into the lawn.
The raps of Too Short blast from Brian Jones' apartment. Sitting on his steps, Jones watches his pet bird Briananna hop on the sidewalk.
His 60-year-old neighbor, Edward, bums some change and returns a while later with a 40-ounce bottle of beer, wrapped in a grocery bag. Gray and black whiskers sprinkle the collar of his white Tori Amos T-shirt. He doesn't know who the singer songwriter is—he found the still usable garment rummaging through UT dumpsters one day.
Jones' sister, Laura Brown, drops by to visit with her 2-year-old twins, Annecissa and Laurecissa, in tow. Wearing matching jumpers and yellow butterfly hairpins, the girls stare at their uncle's bird.
Children are beginning to play on the slide and monkey bars across the courtyard, and for an outsider the drugs, guns, and gangs that people associate with College Homes seems farfetched.
But Brown, who lives on a quiet street in Mechanicsville, assures that things aren't the same as they used to be. Now 27 years old, she spent years 4 through 14 at College Homes and remembers playing hide 'n' seek and riding her bike without a care late at night.
"It wasn't like it is now. You could sit out on your porch at night," Brown says.
"Can't do that now," chimes in Jones over the music. "You could leave your door open all night," she continues. "If you do that now, your house, your TV, all your furniture will be gone in the morning."
"They let different people in here. Back then, it was families. Neighbors looked out for each other. Now it's kids having kids. Families got so much younger. And then drugs came in," she says.
Others remember better times as well.
In 1940, a 9-year-old Lois Goodman moved with her family from a shotgun shack with a toilet on the back porch into the newly built College Homes.
"It was like moving into a palace," Goodman remembers. Back then, segregation limited when and which parks black people could use. As a consequence, many congregated at all-black College Homes, she says.
"We played ball in the courtyard. It was a real nice neighborhood. People from all over Mechanicsville came to College Homes for recreation," says Goodman, who lived in the development from '40 to '51 and again from '55 to '65. "Everybody helped each other."
Goodman, and many others who grew up in College Homes, talk about how adults watched out for—and disciplined—all the kids who lived there.
David Stephens remembers sleeping as a boy next to the front screen door on hot summer nights, a fan blowing air over him and his brother.
"It was a nice place to grow up," he says, taking a break from packing boxes for his and his mother's move to Love Towers. "There were no guns. Even the gangsters didn't have guns."
McArthur Douglass, College Homes manager for three-and-a-half years, says there have been violent moments. A few years ago, competing dealers would shoot at each other from their apartments while children played in the courtyard.
But Douglass insists crime and violence aren't as bad as outsiders think. Working with the Knoxville Police Department and using rules like one-strike-and-you're-out, KCDC has pushed most of the drug dealing out of College Homes. Now, the corner of University Avenue and College Street just outside the project is where most of the dealing goes on. Crimes that do happen in the projects are usually committed by people who don't live here, he adds.
It is not hard to find working folks who want to stay in College Homes. Some families pay $500 or $600 a month rent—30 percent of their wages. "I try to get them to move out. That's more than my mortgage," Douglass says. "But they're of the mindset that if I lose my job, at least I have a roof over my head."
Still, the dangerous image keeps other families that could bring stability away.
Fred DeBruhl, Sr., president and C.E.O. of KCDC, says part of it is a failure of the old model of public housing. In the '60s, the federal government began demanding rents of 30 percent of working people's income.
"For people who worked, that wasn't a good deal anymore. The laws forced us to house the poorest of the poor."
With fewer family residents, DeBruhl says KCDC housed poor single people, most of whom were unemployed and had drinking or drug problems. Only 23 percent of College Homes residents work.
On top of that, KCDC says College Homes is too difficult to maintain. The structure has the highest utility and maintenance costs of any of its developments; and it would take more than $24 million just to modernize it.
Goodman believes more sinister forces were at work inside KCDC. She says the bureaucrats were anxious for a grant to try something new.
"They only put in the uneducated, the unmarried, the very, very poor, the disabled, and the senior citizens. They dumbed down the community," Goodman says.
Hope for the Hopeless
HOPE VI was tailored to address the failings of traditional public housing and is being tried throughout the country. In 1992, a federal commission found that 86,000 (or 6 percent) of the country's public housing units were run-down structures, cursed with crime and unemployment, and surrounded by deteriorating neighborhoods.
As a result, Congress created the HOPE VI program. It loosened the restrictions on local housing authorities and allowed more innovation in sheltering the poor.
Since '92, billions in HOPE VI grants have been allocated throughout the country.
The money has been used in a variety of a ways: Cleveland converted a mid-rise building into a "social service mall," where 20 agencies offer G.E.D. classes, daycare, AIDS counseling, and other services; Seattle razed public housing units and constructed homes matching the surrounding neighborhood; Atlanta leveraged its grant with low-income housing tax credits and private funds to demolish and construct twice what it could have with the grant alone.
The U.S. Government Accounting Office reports that it could take a decade to know how successful these approaches are. Some cities have created beautiful neighborhoods. In many places, critics have said HOPE VI merely shuffles the poor
to another part of town, says Sheila Crowley of the Richmond Better Housing Coalition in Virginia, where a HOPE VI grant is being administered.
Like College Homes before it, Knoxville's HOPE VI is supposed to clear away the structures marring the community and create a stable Mechanicsville—now a neighborhood of both well-kept historic homes and dilapidated crack houses. The $37 million program is fueled by $22 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and supported by the University of Tennessee, nonprofit organizations, and businesses like Dollar General Corp. and First Tennessee Bank.
On College Homes' 15 acres (plus another 12 acres KCDC will acquire through eminent domain that will displace three churches), KCDC intends to build 80 rental homes for working families and 50 units for elderly or disabled. This will reduce the density from 24.6 units an acre to 6.9.
The homes will be modeled in Victorian and bungalow styles after those in surrounding Mechanicsville. "You won't say, 'Oh, there's public housing.' You really won't know," says Rebecca Wade, HOPE VI coordinator. The houses will have porches and large picture windows to encourage people sit outside and keep an eye out for their streets, neighbors, and children.
On land KCDC will buy in Mechanicsville, it will build another 100 homes, half for rental, half for sale to low income families. And in white middle- and upper-class neighborhoods throughout Knoxville, KCDC will construct another 50 homes for rental or sale—an attempt to more evenly distribute the poor.
To qualify for the new housing, you cannot make more than 80 percent of the median income ($30,450 for a family of three, but families KCDC serves are poorer than that, says Wade). You also must be either working or getting job training. An arrest for drugs or violence in the past three years knocks you off the list.
The new homes will be incubators for working families, slowing nudging them toward self-sufficiency. Families must advance from training to entry-level job within two years and be homeowners or private renters five years after that.
"Our goal is to help low-income people become more than low income," says Wade.
"That's going to take a little while, but we want to start moving them on a path," adds DeBruhl. "So hopefully, they don't live in public housing the rest of their lives."
The homes KCDC sells will be worth around $90,000, but using a variety of home ownership assistance programs, Wade guesses low-income people could buy them for $50,000 to $70,000.
To help people find and keep work, KCDC will train them in specific jobs. Two job placement specialists will help them find and retain work. Families will be guided in social and financial skills.
When residents find jobs, their rent won't automatically go up as it does in the traditional system. Loans will be available for some tenants to start their own businesses.
KCDC also hopes 25 percent of the workforce building the new homes will be KCDC residents. Eight of the houses will be built by students getting hands-on construction training.
"This gives us a chance to make a difference. Not just a brick and mortar difference, but a people difference," DeBruhl says.
(Training and support services total $1.5 million of the $22 million HUD grant, or just under 7 percent. HUD allows housing authorities to spend 20 percent of the grants on training and services, Crowley says. "Most of them, if any at all, have not spent 20 percent on services," she says. "Who gets those services: the people on public housing now or the people who move into the new stuff? That's an important key.")
A major player in the HOPE VI partnership is Restoration Outreach, an organization headed by preacher James Davis. For seven years, the group has been trying to help Mechanicsville residents rise above poverty by offering Bible-inspired education, support, and recreation for people of all ages—daycare, after school programs, and preacher-led job counseling, among many others. It is also opening a health clinic on College Street.
"HOPE VI has the potential to be a major catalyst to make a productive community," says the organization's chief operating officer, Jon Lawler, son of the wealthy developer Rodney Lawler. "We're trying to reverse some trends. We're going to redesign what public housing looks like. Right now, it is not neighborhood-friendly. You would not walk through there at night—past a bunch of hopeless people stacked together."
Creating a new environment can change that, but it will require an effort from everyone—KCDC, the churches, businesses, and the poor themselves.
"The lowest of the low never get out because they have no hope. So they just exist," says Lawler, who moved into the neighborhood two-and-a-half years ago to be more a part of his mission. "Our belief is people weren't created just to exist.
"You can't reward people for not taking responsibility for themselves. We can't just allow people to subsist. We have to require something of them," he says.
The goal of HOPE VI echoes the one voiced six decades ago by Knoxville engineer L.W. Frierson: "We expect [College Homes] to make better citizens out of them. And lifting them thus will give them new incentives. They will keep their homes clean. They will strive harder to hold their jobs. Their children will become better men and women. And from this improvement… the cities and the government will draw its dividends."
With the $3.6 million it used to build College Homes and Western Heights, Knoxville began in the late '30s the decades-long process of demolishing its slums. Many had no running water, electricity, or toilet. Roofs leaked and walls were crumbling or covered with mold. In the worst slums, shacks stood along muddy streets, infested with rats and mice. Sewage often leaked beneath or alongside the homes, with the stench and flies rising into unscreened windows.
An unattributed 1935 report of Knoxville's slums found in the McClung Collection says they accounted for 1.6 percent of the city's area and just under 10 percent of the population. From 1920 to 1935, 55 percent of the city's murders, 40 percent of the tuberculoses cases, and 27 percent of juvenile delinquency occurred here. And 41 percent of all infants who died lived there.
One structure destroyed was "Easley Hall," a three-story tenement home with 28 rooms. With only two toilets and no running water, sink, or tub, it housed 73 people. A News Sentinel writer described it like this: "Three stories high, the building has but one entrance and that in the front of the first floor. The walls are out of plumb and the roof looks like it might cave in at any time. It is heated by stoves and in many instances the stove pipes extend out the windows. Other dilapidated frame buildings butt up to it on each side. And the building authority report labels it a 'perfect firetrap.'"
Housing projects also benefited Knoxville—and the country—by creating jobs, few of which went to black workers.
According to John Moeser, an Urban Studies and Planning professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University, the motives behind public housing were more complex than they seem. Moeser and Christopher Silver wrote The Separate City about black communities in the South.
Public housing was a way of containing the growing black population, which threatened to spill into white neighborhoods.
"It was essentially warehousing. Public housing was a means by which to essentially concentrate those eligible for public housing in one location, rather than dispersing. What that meant was other neighborhoods would be free of responsibility," Moeser says.
"Public housing throughout the U.S. tended to be located in areas where there was the least political resistance," he adds.
In Knoxville, some black residents did oppose the way College Homes was built.
The Flashlight Herald, one of two black newspapers of the day, questioned why Mechanicsville was selected, when there were worse sections of town. "Somehow or other we can't get 'steamed up' about the slum clearance projects either here or elsewhere. The areas selected for the projects are not really slums to our notion or at least they are not the worst selections."
The newspaper pointed out that Mechanicsville had the stability of two schools, five churches, two community centers, and a library, while more run-down sections had nothing but muddy streets.
Not all the homes destroyed were shanties. Virginia Campbell was a little girl living outside the condemned area in Mechanicsville when College Homes was built. "Some of them didn't have half a roof on them. Some of them were nice houses," Campbell says. She remembers her parents—her mother a teacher, her father a doctor—and other adults were skeptical of the project. But most were happy when they saw the results, Campbell says.
Others were upset by the lack of jobs black residents were given and the general short shrift they received.
Dr. N.A. Henderson and A.A. Felding of the Knoxville Housing Authority's "Negro Advisory Board" resigned after nine months, because they said the group was never consulted. They were not asked about the selection of the site for Austin Homes or informed about the visit of the U.S. Public Housing Director. In fact, the advisory board met only once—and their recommendations were never followed, Henderson and Felding wrote in their resignation letter.
Two months later, several black leaders and groups were protesting the KHA and the city for the lack of jobs given to black workers and general living conditions of black Knoxvillians.
The Flashlight Herald of April 13, 1940, says that one black group picketed the new development, urging people not to sign up for housing. "It is possible that when you saw less than 50 Negros at the dedication of your million-dollar College Homes projects, you probably
observed the lack of interest on the part of the Negro," the paper stated. "Yet when you remember the very large crowd of Negroes that pleaded before City Council asking that a Negro be appointed to the local housing authority—you can't but know the sincere interest the Negroes must have once had in your project."
Taking a Stand
In a deep voice much more intimidating than her slim body, Juliet Johnson is yelling, punctuating every other sentence with "ya know what I'm sayin'," though she rarely waits for a response. She is not mad at her visitors, but growing up the second youngest in a family of 10 children, Johnson had to shout to get her point across.
She's been yelling a lot lately, and the people in charge of spending $37.2 million in public money probably wish she'd shut up.
A week earlier, the 46-year-old was elected president of the College Homes resident council. Since then, Johnson and a handful of others—including her younger sister and mother—have been trying to stop the demolition of their homes.
"You gonna force this down our throats. Well I'm choking. I'm puking it up. Blaahhh," Johnson bellows, sticking her tongue out.
The couch in her College Homes townhouse is covered with folded laundry. Two mountain bicycles (her 7- and 9-year-old sons') lean against the wall. In the center of the room, a muted TV sits on top of a large-screen television (which Johnson doesn't play because it uses too much electricity).
Johnson, who is not related to Philip Johnson, has lived in College Homes for most of her life except for a short stint when she rented a home for $350 a month. She makes $5.48 an hour working in the kitchen at Maynard School and doesn't believe she'll ever make enough to be a part of HOPE VI. Plus, she likes her home just fine.
KCDC is offering College Homes residents a chance to live in one of its other projects, or a voucher, which they can give to private landlords as part of their rent. Several residents have jumped at the chance to leave, but many like Johnson worry about the intangibles they'll lose.
It means being dislocated from their network of friends, finding new schools for their children, scraping together costs KCDC won't provide (such as rental and utility deposits), figuring out new ways to get to work or the store (many don't have cars), and moving to a neighborhood where they may not be welcome, in a house that could be run-down.
"They misled us. They dressed [HOPE VI] up like a little birthday cake. They misinformed us," Johnson says. "You all are playing with people's lives. Then when we try to find out what's going on, we're the trouble makers."
The resident group would like to buy, or manage, College Homes on its own. Their desire for self-sufficiency has pitted them against KCDC. By law, KCDC has to offer the residents a chance to buy any structurally sound development it wants to tear down. If the group succeeds (very few believe it can), the promised HOPE VI grant will remain in Washington.
It is not a far-fetched scenario. A group in D.C. owns its project, while others are paid by the local housing authority to manage them, says Tanya Davis, program director for the National Association of Resident Management Corp.
KCDC says it already offered to sell College Homes to the residents (for $2.2 million) and has made it clear the agency plans to move ahead with HOPE VI. Attorney Mark Siegel is working for the residents, trying to force KCDC to comply with the laws he says it's violating.
KCDC officials dispute claims they deceived residents or kept them in the dark. They say that they've held numerous community meetings and surveyed a quarter of the residents door-to-door.
They insist that any resident who wants to come back can. The only requirements are that they be working or be in training and agree to work toward self-sufficiency. Elderly and disabled have no requirements.
Lawler says its understandable that many residents are upset.
"No one can argue that a mixed-income community is [not] healthier than all low-income. The fear is, 'Who are these people moving into these $85,000 homes—probably a bunch of rich white people coming to take over,'" says Lawler, who is white. "You can understand the fear there. [Blacks are saying], 'Every time we have worked with middle- and upper-class whites, they've taken advantage.'"
Lawler says he hopes people like the Rev. Davis can convince middle-class blacks to move into the neighborhood, to be community leaders.
A few blocks from College Homes, Sandra Moore and her husband converted a condemned flophouse at Western Avenue and College Street into the Prince Medical Center nine years ago, serving a population few cared about. (They will soon be competing with the clinic Restoration Outreach is opening).
Moore says while College Homes needs revitalization, HOPE VI will gentrify it.
"That's the whole object of it. There's no other way you can say it—gentrify," she says. "College Homes is plagued with violence, drugs, and a number of other things. But that gives you an example of what the housing authority's been doing. It's progressed over the years and lacked the attention it should have received. Now it's a lot easier to tear it down rather than look at alternative solutions for it."
Moore says HOPE VI can't be looked at in a vacuum. It is just one of several projects in the works for central Knoxville, including a new convention center, baseball stadium, and justice center, that will all benefit businesses.
"A lot of public funds will be used in this area. Whose going to have control over those dollars?" Moore says. "Damn sure ain't no poor people."
The resident's group is trying to convince people to refuse to leave College Homes. So far, they say there are 15 families who are sticking it out.
Others are thrilled to pack up. "Anything you can do to get away from the projects is good—it's not like we're living in Beverly Hills," says Ricco Harshaw. "It'll motivate a lot of people to get out of a bad situation. If you're around bad people, sooner or later it will have an effect on you."
The sunny afternoon Jones and his friends were enjoying is giving way to a cloudy twilight that threatens to burst out on the warm March evening. No one's thinking about running for shelter. In another part of the development, two women sit on the curb beside a dumpster and worry about where they'll be in a few months.
Dianna Taylor, who works at Silvers Furniture Co., says she's looked at several apartments but she wouldn't take her children to any of them.
"They're dumps. [Landlords] think we're coming from College Homes so we'll take anything we can get," Taylor says. "The projects to me are not bad. Why should I take my kids to a place where we're not secure, I don't know nothing about the neighbors or the schools?"
Talking about their life in College Homes, the women speak of drugs and danger in one breath, and then of friendship and community in the next, and perhaps today in College Homes you must live with both.
"Everybody's friendly. It ain't all about drugs. There's love here. Some of these people are like family," says Taylor's friend, who does not want to be identified. "When I have problems, there's people here to talk to. I don't even drive. She's getting ready to take me to the store now."
"I don't want to lose the people I've been close to. Ain't going to be nobody to take care of ya," she adds, beginning to cry.
The courtyard beside them is getting noisy. Kids ride bikes over the sidewalks, chase each other across the lawn. It's a pleasant sound, but for the woman it rings eerie as well. You don't normally see that many children playing outside, and she reads it as a sign of upheaval.
"It's like something's ready to happen," she says.