Hope Springs Slowly

Three years after the HOPE VI project in Mechanicsville demolished College Homes and displaced its population, former residents aren't sure whether they'll ever be able to move back.

Shirley Davis lives in a small green house with a small yard and a front porch on a quiet, tree-lined street in Bearden. Most of her neighbors are retired, and they wave when Davis goes to the mailbox in the afternoon or when she walks the half-mile to the grocery store on Kingston Pike. It's a modest neighborhood, but it's quiet and comfortable.

Inside, a large sectional sofa and an entertainment center take up most of her living room. Davis, a slight woman with close-cropped gray hair and reading glasses, has been in the kitchen, cooking bacon, and the smell drifts to the front of the house. The heat is turned up high, even on a warm February afternoon, because Davis is anemic and has a hard time staying warm. She pulls a chair away from the kitchen table and sits down, lighting a cigarette.

"I'm not all that young—I'm 52—but I'm the youngest one around here," Davis says. She leans back in her chair and takes a deep draw on her cigarette. "I really love it here...I'm kind of sick, and I need the peace and quiet."

It's been nearly three years since Davis moved here from the College Homes housing project on University Avenue in Mechanicsville, where she had lived for nearly 30 years in a small brick tenement-style apartment. Davis and 300 other College Homes residents were moved out in 1998 so Knoxville's Community Development Corp., the local public housing agency, could demolish the projects and start work on the federally-funded HOPE VI program to build more than 200 new housing units on the site and in the surrounding neighborhood. KCDC says the $37 million project will encourage home ownership, commercial development, and economic stability in one of Knoxville's most visible inner-city neighborhoods. If it works out as planned, HOPE VI will be a new standard for public housing in Knoxville.

It will be years before anyone knows whether this new approach works better than the old housing projects. "You can build an expensive facility, but if you don't change the thinking, that's all you've done, built an expensive facility," says Alvin Nance, the new president and CEO of KCDC. Nance, a former community development executive at SunTrust bank, only took the KCDC job in December, but was chair of the agency's board when it applied for HOPE VI funding.

Despite the promise of HOPE VI, many people in Mechanicsville are already concerned that, even with the new buildings and expanded social services that encourage home ownership and self-sufficiency, substantial changes in Mechanicsville will be hard to make.

And many former College Homes residents, who were promised priority on the new housing, are concerned that they won't be welcome back.

When College Homes was built in 1940, it was considered an innovative approach to public housing. The new red brick buildings were a bright contrast to what they replaced, dilapidated houses without running water or electricity. The apartments—320 in all—each opened onto a shared courtyard where children could play and housewives could hang their laundry to dry. College Homes was a model for other housing projects that followed, and, much like HOPE VI now, was supposed to foster a sense of community pride and a sort of proxy feeling of home ownership for residents who had previously rented run-down houses or slum apartments in the same neighborhood.

Things changed in coming decades, though. In the 1960s, new federal public housing requirements demanded 30 percent of working people's income for rent. The regulation was intended to prod people out of public housing, to make the projects a temporary relief during hard times. But the effect was that working families moved out, and housing projects were soon filled with people who were unemployed, disabled, or burdened with drug and alcohol problems (and exempt from paying for their housing at all). In the 1970s and '80s, drug traffic in Mechanicsville, and particularly in College Homes, increased dramatically.

"It was good when I moved there," Shirley Davis says. "In the summertime, there were things for kids to do. The fire department would open the fire hydrants for them to run through, and they didn't have to run when the drug dealers started shooting. In the mid-'80s, though, there were a bunch of men who were drinking, and then the kids started growing up and selling drugs."

HOPE VI, started by Congress in 1992, was part of a massive federal reworking of traditional public housing, designed to address the growing number of run-down housing projects and the cycle of public dependence that had kept generations of families locked in public housing. The program has funneled billions of dollars in federal grants into local housing agencies in the last nine years, encouraging innovative approaches to public housing and social services.

In Cleveland, Ohio, the local housing authority converted a high-rise tower into a social services mall, where other agencies provide GED classes, day care, and AIDS counseling. Seattle housing officials tore down its existing housing units and built new homes to match the surrounding neighborhoods. In Atlanta, the housing agency leveraged its grant with low-income housing tax credits and private money to demolish existing housing and then build twice as many units as it could have with the grant alone.

With its $37 million in HOPE VI money, KCDC intends to fill the former College Homes site and surrounding property with 255 new housing units, as well as build new homes on vacant lots throughout Mechanicsville. The new homes will be primarily single-family houses and duplexes in Victorian and bungalow styles, to match the rest of the neighborhood, and will be a mix of rental and ownership. The goal is to create a mixed-income, racially-integrated neighborhood where people will take pride in their homes, go to work every morning, and sit on their front porches and talk to neighbors.

"You won't be able to tell a renter from a purchaser," says Joyce Pollard, vice president of social services at KCDC. "People will want to engender community. They'll keep their houses nice on the outside and the inside, and the community will be safe, and the children will be out on the sidewalk like they used to be...Any time you crowd people together, that accounts for a lot of crime. It would have been very difficult—no matter how many safeguards we took, nothing would have worked so well as what we have today."

Eligibility to either rent or buy a HOPE VI house will be tougher than it was for College Homes: except for the elderly or the disabled, everyone must be employed or working toward a high school diploma or GED certificate, or enrolled in a job-training program through the KCDC-sponsored Passport program.

With Passport case managers, prospective HOPE VI tenants set goals—either to get a GED or job training or to find a job—and work out a plan toward that goal. Within two years, Passport participants must be employed, and within five years they have to be out of the HOPE VI program, either renting or buying a house on their own.

If HOPE VI works, KCDC plans to follow the same pattern on a smaller scale with other housing projects. Nance says other locations don't have enough space to replace the units lost through demolition with single-family homes, so apartment buildings could replace the apartment-style complexes of existing housing projects. "Right now HUD has mandated some deconcentration in public housing," Nance says. "Elsewhere there aren't that many available lots. There's not enough space to offset the units we'd tear down. The concentration of buildings hasn't made the environment any more pleasant a place to live in. I'm in favor of going in and taking down whole buildings, and putting in amenities and niceties they don't currently have and still provide social services so we can assist in changing lives."

So far, four houses have been built on University Avenue, adjacent to the now-razed College Homes site, at the bottom of the hill where Knoxville College stands. For the first time in years, the college is visible from University Avenue. On the corner, across from the new CVS drug store, the new Eternal Life Harvest Center church building (the old one was torn down along with College Homes), is under construction.

Three of the new houses are duplexes. They're all solid two-story houses with small yards in front and back, in the nice pastel colors that might be found on renovated Victorian houses in Fourth and Gill or, for that matter, elsewhere in Mechanicsville. They have newly-sown grass that hasn't filled in yet, but besides that and the concrete front porches, they're not much different from the 80- or 100-year-old houses like them throughout the neighborhood. All but one of the units in these new houses have been filled.

About 30 more houses have been built throughout Mechanicsville. The rest, filling in the College Homes site, are scheduled to be finished by 2004. That's two years later than KCDC originally projected. KCDC expects construction on the next phase to begin by May.

Shelia McCallie lives in a HOPE VI house on the corner of University Avenue and Dora Street, just two blocks away from the former College Homes site. McCallie, 40, moved into the house with her teenage daughter in December from the Lonsdale Homes housing project in northwest Knoxville. She recently lost her data-entry job, but she's looking for something else so she can remain in HOPE VI and work toward buying a house. She wants to buy one on the former College Homes site, at the top of the hill near Knoxville College.

McCallie's rent for an apartment in Lonsdale Homes was more than she's paying now to rent a HOPE VI house. "When you're working, all the programs that are supposed to be helping you don't help," she says. "You're stranded out there by yourself. You don't get food stamps or Medicaid. It works better for people who don't have anything."

She lived in Mechanicsville for a few years as a child, and she's glad to see the neighborhood look more like it did when she was younger.

"When you have a nice place, you want to take care of it," she says. "When you feel good about yourself, and take care of your little area, it spreads to the next person. The projects are so compact and there are so many people in there together, with no playgrounds or anything. There's nothing they can do."

McCallie understands that some of the people moved out to make way for HOPE VI resent the loss of their old homes. But she also says that's a sign of the dependence on public housing that HOPE VI is designed to break. "I lived in the projects for eight years, and it was eight years too long," she says. "That's when you settle and say it's good enough for me. But it isn't good enough for me. I can't fathom being in a housing project for 30 years. If you were in a house for 30 years, it'd be paid for."

The people moved out of College Homes were promised priority for HOPE VI housing, and 20 of the 33 families who have moved into HOPE VI so far are former residents. But the overall enrollment in the Passport program isn't as encouraging: of the 82 families and individuals who have signed up, only 32 are former residents of College Homes.

The agency has conducted regular surveys to keep in touch with former residents and sends a monthly Passport newsletter to keep them informed. But once people leave KCDC's housing program, it's difficult for officials to keep track of them.

Most of the 300 residents who were still in College Homes in early 1998 were moved to other housing projects. Many of them, including Juliette Johnson and her sister, Julia Chesson, who were among the last to leave and tried to fight the demolition, moved to Western Heights. Others were moved to KCDC-subsidized private housing on Sutherland Avenue, or on Cedar Lane in North Knoxville, or to apartments in Lonsdale. A handful have moved off the KCDC public housing rolls and haven't been tracked by KCDC. Five former residents have died.

One reason former residents are reluctant to move back is a lingering resentment and distrust of KCDC after College Homes was torn down.

"I really didn't like it at the time," says Curtis Hurston, who had lived in College Homes for 50 years when he moved out in 1998. "But I had to accept it."

Many elderly residents, who would be first among those moved back by KCDC, don't want to go to the trouble of moving for the second time in three years. "I don't think I'm moving back," says Katie Bailey, who had lived in College Homes since 1950. She's now moved to an apartment off Sutherland Avenue. "It was nice there before they tore it down. I enjoyed my little apartment. But I'm a senior citizen, and all this moving gets to me. My grandson takes care of me, and he says I won't be moving anymore."

Like Bailey, Hurston is now living in an apartment along Sutherland Avenue. He's on the waiting list to get into a HOPE VI house, but he understands why many former residents don't want to go back.

"I talk to a lot of former tenants," he says. "A lot of the younger ones aren't real particular about going back or not, but the senior citizens are too old to move. About half of them don't want to go back."

Shirley Davis says part of the problem is that KCDC paid for people to move out but isn't paying for them to move back. Another common complaint is that the job training offered by KCDC—much of it for minimum-wage or low-paying office jobs—is inadequate, especially for low-income people who want to buy their houses. The new homes for sale (the 40 already complete are mostly rental houses; in the end, 140 of the 255 will be available for purchase) will be worth between $70,000 and $90,000, and will be available to Passport participants based on their income. One of the families—not former College Homes residents—working toward buying one of the houses on University Avenue got a $15,000 subsidy from KCDC, plus $5,000 in matching funds from a savings account through the Passport program, to help meet the $75,000 cost of the house. The goal is to offer affordable housing to families making less than 80 percent of the median income of the neighborhood—about $30,000. Even with financial support and job training from KCDC, though, many of the people who were moved out of College Homes—with little education or work experience—probably won't be able to afford to move back.

Alvin Nance says private development that is expected to accompany the construction of the HOPE VI houses will create economic stability in the neighborhood and bring in better jobs. The neighborhood is in the city's federally-designated Empowerment Zone, a 16-square-mile section of Knoxville's central city that could receive as much as $100 million for economic development over 10 years.

"That will open up opportunities for employment," Nance says. "We can push the city to focus attention on opportunities for empowering people, and what greater opportunity is there than people moving back?"

But so far the prospects are uncertain. A Pilot gas station and convenience store on the corner of Western Avenue and Middlebrook Pike and a CVS drug store are, three years after the destruction of College Homes, the only new businesses in the area. A handful of old neighborhood retail businesses—a barber shop, a diner, a hair salon—line University Avenue, but there are few other job opportunities around.

In fact, there's already been grumbling that none of the construction jobs for HOPE VI offered work to residents of Mechanicsville. "What makes a depressed area depressed is that there are no dollars, no retention," says Sandra Moore. She and her husband, Dr. David Moore, have run the Prince Medical Center on Western Avenue, on the edge of Mechanicsville, since 1988. "There's no employment in the area. But when you have large projects, a portion of the money should remain in the community. But it's not happening. They're not allowing that wealth to spread. When the construction's done, that money's going to be gone."

If HOPE VI turns out the way KCDC expects it to, Mechanicsville will be a thriving, mixed-income neighborhood. People will be close to downtown, near new commercial development, the University of Tennessee and Knoxville College, and Knoxville's two major interstates. A once-depressed community will come back to life.

But some people fear that, even if HOPE VI does all it's supposed to do, the people who will benefit from the new neighborhood won't be the same ones who used to live there. With the five-year limit for renting in HOPE VI, Moore says, the new homes will soon be open to people from outside the public housing lists, and within a few years the program may not be helping the people it was intended to help. "You move the folks out who have little or no potential to purchase the new houses," says Moore, who calls the project "urban renewal with a new name."

"All those folks are gone, and they're still dependent on housing programs...The idea is to move in folks with the means, income, and potential to lease a house with the option to purchase, or to just go on and buy one."

Pollard concedes that many of the original residents from College Homes won't be moving back. "There's always that risk," she says. "But I think the answer is that they have the opportunity, and if they choose to not avail themselves of that opportunity—at least the self-sufficiency component proposed by social services—well, we're not in the business of making people do anything, nor can we make people do anything."

At the same time, there's the risk that the five-year limit will keep a cycle of low-income people moving in and out of the neighborhood, reducing the chances for mixed-income stability and home ownership.

Many former residents fear that's the more likely case. If so, they say, Mechanicsville with HOPE VI houses may not be much different from the neighborhood with College Homes.

One of the biggest obstacles for HOPE VI will be the drug traffic that has plagued Mechanicsville for 20 years. John Huston lived in College Homes for 10 years. He moved to Lonsdale when the projects were torn down and would like to move back. He's on disability and would be a prime candidate for renting a new home. But he's wary of KCDC's efforts. "They ain't going to stop nothing," Huston says. "Those guys up on the corner at Douglas, they'll penetrate that new neighborhood, you know what I mean? They think they're getting rid of them. But they're not getting rid of them. I'd go to Vegas and put a thousand dollars on the penny that it ain't going to make any difference. That's their stomping grounds, and they'll be back up in there."

In many ways, the expectations for HOPE VI aren't much different from the expectations for College Homes 60 years ago. But people who blame KCDC's negligence for the deterioration of College Homes don't have much faith in HOPE VI, either.

"Superficially, HOPE VI looks good," Sandra Moore says. "But there are a lot of problems under the surface, a lot of problems long-term. If you're pumping multimillion dollars into a problem, you're not supposed to have a problem."

Shirley Davis doesn't know whether she's going to move back to Mechanicsville or not. Since she moved to her new neighborhood, her health has improved. She's working for the first time in years, as a part-time courtesy clerk at a nearby grocery store. But as much as she enjoys living in Bearden, away from the poverty and the drug-related violence that haunted College Homes in recent years, she still misses the neighborhood where she had lived since the early 1970s. Davis' four children and eight grandchildren still live in Mechanicsville. Her car doesn't run, so she has to get a ride from her sister or take the bus to go see them, and she doesn't get back to the old neighborhood as much as she would like.

Davis is a perfect candidate for HOPE VI housing. She's a former College Homes resident, and with her new job, she's taken a step toward the self-sufficiency needed for home ownership. But she's ambivalent about whether she'll sign up for KCDC's Passport training program, a requirement for renting or buying one of the new homes that will be built under HOPE VI. "I know I'm going to go back," she says. "That's where my heart is. I just don't know when. And I want to have the same peace and quiet I have here."

Davis' conflicted feelings about HOPE VI are fairly typical of many former College Homes residents. She's happy where she is now, and she's glad that KCDC is making an effort to change the social and economic dynamics in Mechanicsville. But, as bad as College Homes may have seemed to outsiders, it was her home for a long time.

"I lived there for some years. I do mean some years," she says. "It was good. I was glad to move, but I wish the projects were still there...I really miss my grandkids. I really miss College Homes."

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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