Melissa Hicks lives on Bethel Avenue in the heart of what is known as Knoxville’s most troubled neighborhood: the Walter P. Taylor housing project. Far away, in West Knoxville, you might drive by a lamp post adorned with a bouquet memorializing a car wreck. In Walter P., there are more flowers at street corners and on lamp posts than there are in gardens, but they don’t speak of fatal accidents. They speak of shootings.
“I’m hopefully moving out in the next two or three weeks,” says Hicks, opening the screen door for her son, who is growling from underneath a shaggy monster mask. “If I didn’t know any better, this is probably where I’d stay, and this is probably where my kids would grow up.”
Hicks is raising two kids on her own. She is strong, outspoken, and says she’s not the type of person who wants to rely on charity. According to her, she will soon be back in school studying law, and her kids will no longer be zoned for Austin-East High School, which has shown improvement but was recently named a “focus school” by the state because of its large achievement gaps. “I can see why they call it ‘the trap’ here. I’ve got to get out and get back to reality.”
According to Hicks, however, the women just down the street are not convinced that employment would improve their lot. They know that the moment they get hired, they will have to start paying for utilities in addition to losing other welfare benefits. In other words, getting a job doesn’t necessarily mean getting out of public housing.
“They’re the ones that will never leave Walter P.,” Hicks says.
Except now they have to.
Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation, which is in charge of Knoxville’s public housing developments, accepted the lowest bidder on June 28 to begin its first phase of demolition at Walter P. Taylor Homes. As the latest development in a revitalization project that started three years ago, KCDC intends to raze all 500 public housing units in this neighborhood. Within 10 years, according to KCDC’s plan, Knoxville will have a new low-income housing community with mostly single-family houses, like one might find in Mechanicsville, a similar project completed just a few years ago.
It’s part of a new model in public housing. Across the United States, cities have committed to projects very similar to Mechanicsville and Five Points, replacing high-rises with houses in order to lessen the density of the neighborhoods.
Knoxville has bought into this model even as federal funding for redevelopment diminishes, but not without inheriting the controversy that comes with it: Are the current residents of Walter P. Taylor engaged in the revitalization of their community, and do they stand to benefit directly from it?
The questions don’t have easy answers, especially since KCDC has so far secured only a fraction of the funding needed to complete the project. But KCDC, with city support, feels confident in moving forward, beginning demolition at Walter P. on Aug. 22. Phase one of the demolition includes 183 units that must be cleared to make way for the next steps in the revitalization process.
According to Alvin Nance, the executive director of KCDC, the Five Points revitalization project has two goals: to increase and stabilize property values in the Five Points area; and to create a neighborhood “where people want to live.”
When Crystal Spurgeon moved in to Walter P. just over a year ago, she thought it was “probably the last place in the world that I’d want to go.” She grew up in Knoxville and had heard rumors about the high level of crime in the development. But after having her second child, her only option was public housing.
She says she recently looked outside her window after hearing gunshots to see a truck burst into flames a block away.
“Not two months ago or two weeks ago. Two days ago,” she says. “Stuff like this happens all the time.”
Nance believes the revitalization project can turn this place around for the better.
“We’ve got a great opportunity to help East Knoxville address problems of housing, crime, health, unemployment, and education,” he says. He’s confident that this time Knoxville will succeed in solving the problems of one of its hardest-struggling communities, and like many others involved in the Five Points revitalization project, he points to Mechanicsville as proof.
In 1998, Knoxville received a HOPE VI grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to revitalize the Mechanicsville area where the public housing project College Homes once stood. HOPE VI, which stands for Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere, may sound like just another clever bureaucratic acronym. But when the Clinton administration instituted HOPE VI, public policy in the U.S. changed considerably.
“Simple replacement of units on the same sites, framed by the same concepts, and governed by the same regulations would certainly result in the same failures,” claimed Henry Cisneros, the secretary of HUD under Clinton, in his 2009 book From Despair to Hope.
In contrast, HOPE VI did not aim to improve upon existing housing projects, but to replace them altogether with a different model. Local housing authorities would replace densely populated high-rises with single-family houses meant to blend into the surrounding area. In addition, they would focus on creating mixed-income communities in order to dilute the concentration of poverty that often occurs in traditional public housing projects.
To deal with the effects of relocating so many people, HOPE VI required that housing authorities provide “community and supportive services” to residents, including employment counseling, assistance in finding a new place to live, and public forums to discuss redevelopment. Theoretically, this new formula would overhaul the economy of the area.
Knoxville tested this theory on its aging College Homes by applying for—and winning—a HOPE VI grant. Much like Walter P., College Homes was blighted, impoverished, and notorious for drug-related crime. Shootings were common. According to Knoxville historian Robert J. Booker, “degradation, lack of pride, and illegal activities invaded the development that was once Knoxville’s shining example of how low-income people could live comfortably.”
With the $22 million grant and about $24 million from private investors and the city, KCDC demolished College Homes and built an attractive neighborhood of single-family units and duplexes. They planted maples and oaks, put in sidewalks and a park, and worked with churches and other local stakeholders to provide supportive services to residents. Now, a Pilot gas station sits on the corner of University and Western Avenues, next door to a Food City, a Dollar General store, Cherokee Health Systems, and the Knoxville News Sentinel headquarters.
Economically, KCDC met its goal of increasing property values and the median income of area households, which rose from $2,115 a year at the time the grant was awarded to $13,503 by the time the HOPE VI closeout report was done in 2003. Some houses are owned by the residents, some by landlords who rent them out, and some are still public housing, but from the outside they are almost indistinguishable.
If you visit the place today, you’ll see residents mowing their lawns, watering their flowers, or pushing their children in strollers, even after dark. It’s like a living advertisement for the HOPE VI initiative, and KCDC knows it.
“They know they’ll be getting a better community because of what we’ve done in Mechanicsville,” Nance says about the residents of Walter P.
The only problem is, many of them don’t.
When Linda Maria Conners was told that she had to leave her apartment—where she had lived for 27 years, raised two kids (who now have steady jobs), and was still caring for a grandchild in diapers—she decided not to use the housing voucher that would have given her a chance to live in a private residence. KCDC offers these vouchers, known as Section 8s, to residents of the condemned units, allowing them to rent in the private market as long as the landlord is willing.
Instead, Conners moved across the street to an identical brick apartment not presently zoned for demolition—at least not during the first phase of the revitalization project.
“This was my best option and my worst option,” Conners says. She chose to stay in the projects for a lot of reasons. First of all, she doesn’t have a car to look for a new home. And she has health problems and a small granddaughter to take care of on top of that. But most importantly, Walter P. has been her home for almost three decades, and she is angry that KCDC is going to tear it down.
After dinner her neighbors and her daughters, who also live in Walter P. Taylor, like to come over and visit with “Miss Linda.” They often sit on her back porch, overlooking a lively courtyard about the time the ice-cream truck comes through. She doesn’t want to see this all go.
“If they told you that it’s going to look like Mechanicsville, they lied to you,” Conners says. “Look what they did to Austin Homes.”
Unlike the proposal for Walter P. Taylor, the demolition of Austin Homes was not part of a revitalization project but was simply meant to get rid of blighted and economically unsustainable KCDC properties. KCDC’s reassurance that newer and better public housing will replace Walter P. Taylor hasn’t convinced Conners that she will be living here—or will want to be living here—in 10 years.
Residents’ fears of KCDC replacing Walter P. Taylor with greenspace or a parking lot seem to be a problem of communication, and, according to former KCDC employee Alan Jones, are nothing new to KCDC. Jones was working with KCDC during the HOPE VI project in Mechanicsville and tells the story of resident opposition eventually shifting toward acceptance and even—one might say—hope.
“Urban renewal had happened over the years in Knoxville, and the African-American community had gotten hurt,” Jones explains. Urban renewal efforts in the early ’60s demolished many black neighborhoods in Knoxville’s center city, notably to make way for the James White Parkway and the Civic Coliseum. So when KCDC proposed demolishing College Homes, the residents were skeptical. According to Jones, most residents either worried that KCDC wouldn’t follow through with their plans, or worried that their plans were simply to get rid of a failed public housing project, displacing the residents.
Residents organized and resisted, and some community leaders like Umoja Abdul-Ahad, former KCDC employee Attica Scott, and the late Knoxville City Council member Danny Mayfield championed their cause. Jones says the project saw so much opposition at first that KCDC was worried they might not be able to go through with their plans. What turned the tide, claims Jones, was that KCDC was able to galvanize residents who favored the project, and the Mechanicsville neighborhood association eventually gave its approval in writing—a symbolic victory.
But the Five Points revitalization is a different project, and some of its differences raise the question once again of KCDC’s ability to succeed. The main difference from the Mechanicsville revitalization is that Five Points is not a HOPE VI project. What this means is that no single grant will fund the entire revitalization, and KCDC does not have to meet any federal deadlines. So far, the project, which is slated to cost $80 million, has only $3.5 million to work with, from the city, federal loans, and low-income-housing tax credits. Mayor Madeline Rogero’s office has promised a total of $8 million over 10 years, and she says she approves of KCDC’s step-by-step approach to revitalization, using funding as it becomes available rather than waiting for a windfall of federal money.
Rogero explains in an e-mail interview that “while future funding streams for public housing, like so many other federally supported programs, are uncertain, that vision [for Five Points] remains in place.”
By redeveloping in phases according to how much funding they have, Nance says, residents will have time to relocate, insuring that KCDC doesn’t tear down what it can’t replace. In fact, they have already built 10 duplexes in the form of in-fill housing—houses built on already vacant lots that stand as examples of what is to come. KCDC has also completed the Residences at Eastport in the Five Points area, adjacent to Walter P. Taylor, which includes 83 public housing units for senior citizens, many of whom relocated from Walter P. Taylor.
KCDC says that the community stakeholders are, or will be, behind the project and actively cooperating to make the revitalization process a success. “A master plan bringing in all of these stakeholders will really position us to show that we have a comprehensive effort to present that will be truly transformative,” Nance says.
Residents, however, are not always stakeholders and stakeholders are not always residents. Words like “stakeholders” and “community” obscure the fact that the majority of Walter P. Taylor residents will probably not be living here once the new homes are built.
Sandra Maloney and Regina Lowery sit on their front porch and fan themselves in the 100-degree June heat. Maloney has lived in Walter P. Taylor for 16 years, and Lowery for 30. They each plan to take their Section 8 vouchers and move out for good.
Maloney says she might consider moving back into a house in the Five Points area if KCDC does succeed in its plans. But she explains that the process of reapplying for subsidized housing is long and difficult and she might not be around that long.
While she is talking, a white SUV pulls up in the parking lot and she excuses herself. “That’s my daughter,” she explains. “She’s been taking me around to look for a new place.”
People like Maloney and Lowery, who don’t plan on staying in the community, don’t feel they hold a stake in the outcome of the revitalization project. “The new places are going to have new tenants,” Maloney says.
Statistics support Maloney’s belief. HUD reported in 2006 that about 24 percent of residents have moved back to original sites in HOPE VI projects. In Mechanicsville, the numbers may be even lower. According to a 2003 close-out report done by KCDC, five years after the start of the project, only 39 of the 262 original College Homes families—about 15 percent—had moved back to the new units.
KCDC hopes to work against this trend during the current revitalization of Five Points by encouraging residents to move back. Since displaced residents were forced to leave because of “government action,” according to Nance, they will have first priority in returning to the Five Points area once the new units are constructed. “Everyone has the option to move back,” Nance says, “but some choose not to.” Like in Mechanicsville, KCDC plans on keeping in touch with relocated residents through a monthly newsletter and by keeping track of where residents move during the project. “When there’s a unit available, they’ll be the first to know.”
Nevertheless, the project isn’t set up to allow all the residents to eventually return. When the HOPE VI model for public housing was first introduced to Congress, there was a recommendation for a one-to-one replacement policy for housing units. But because the use of Section 8 vouchers is supposed to provide everyone with a new place to live, the one-to-one policy was dropped. In Mechanicsville, the 320 units at College Homes were replaced with 240 units total. But only 131 of these new units are subsidized housing and of these subsidized units, only 48 remain public housing as we know it. The rest of the houses are in the private market, which means they are likely off-limits to those who depend on public housing. Five Points can expect to see similar figures considering that one of the project’s goals, just like HOPE VI, is to lessen the density of the area.
Ever since Cisneros first proposed the HOPE VI initiative, this loss of public housing has been the number-one criticism of the HOPE VI model. But administrators argue that it can be offset through the use of housing vouchers and that ultimately the benefits to the community outweigh the costs.
“There has been community consensus through the Haslam and Brown administrations, and now my administration, that deconcentration and lower-density models present the best opportunities both for residents of public housing and for the surrounding neighborhoods,” Rogero says.
Nance believes that if residents are happy with the new homes they’ve found through the Section 8 voucher program or are content with their move to new low-income housing communities, then it’s for the better. Still, the fact that Maloney and Lowery don’t expect to return to Walter P. Taylor could explain why they haven’t gone to any of KCDC’s community meetings at the local Boys and Girls Club.
During the redevelopment of Five Points, KCDC will continue to hold bimonthly meetings designed to “engage residents, community stakeholders, and the public in the redevelopment process,” according to a press release. At the last meeting on July 12, the public was invited to hear details concerning demolition and to watch presentations from the Metropolitan Planning Commission and Johnson Architecture about their ongoing housing developments in and around the Five Points area. After the developers finished, they facilitated a brainstorming session in which they asked attendees to describe their dream houses and neighborhoods. Out of an attendance of around 30 people, only a handful of Walter P. Taylor residents showed up—most attendees were local church leaders, business owners, and others who have taken an interest in the revitalization project.
No one spoke up in opposition to the demolition slated for Walter P. Taylor and, overall, attendees seemed ready to usher in the mixed-income model that the developers proposed. But, while residents have not organized against the redevelopment of Five Points like they did in Mechanicsville, there are still some residents and other concerned citizens with criticisms of the project.
“There’s a gap in their plan,” says Umoja Abdul-Ahad about KCDC’s communication with residents. “Whether that’s intentional or not, it’s still a gap.”
Abdul-Ahad does not live at Walter P. but is a community organizer in East Knoxville and, as a resident of Mechanicsville at the time of the HOPE VI project, saw his house come down during demolition. Throughout the project he worked closely with former Councilman Danny Mayfield to advocate for residents. He now sees many of the same issues cropping up with the Five Points revitalization.
Abdul-Ahad believes that KCDC’s interaction with residents is more about getting the residents to support their project than letting residents guide the process themselves. He would like to see KCDC contract with organizations from the community and actively build partnerships rather than simply waiting for them to come to the table. But he is skeptical that any plan to revitalize a community can succeed unless it comes directly from the community itself.
For him, the statistics on resident income and property values don’t record what Mechanicsville lost when College Homes were demolished: its “spirit.” Just like College Homes, Walter P. Taylor is riddled with crime and poverty, he explains, but is also “full of life” and a community spirit that often gets overlooked.
Abdul-Ahad doesn’t use words to describe community spirit, but shows with a wave of his hand how things in Mechanicsville became placid rather than revitalized. Spirit, he suggests, is hampered by the suburban-like landscape of the low-density model, and by the scattering of a generations-old community. Nevertheless, Abdul-Ahad agrees that the city should do something to address the struggles of Walter P. residents.
The Rogero administration favors KCDC’s approach to the revitalization and its assistance to current residents with the transition. “With full city support,” asserts Rogero, “KCDC has met and will continue to meet with residents of Walter P. Taylor and nearby neighborhoods to discuss the long-term goals of the revitalization there.”
Shirley Cureton, a former resident of Walter P, is satisfied with the way that KCDC has been handling relocations “especially for the elderly,” whom she was glad to see move out of Walter P into KCDC’s new Residences at Eastport. She relocated to a house off of Riverside Drive in early July with a voucher and feels that KCDC “put me in a better place.”
On the other hand, Linda Maria Conners feels that she has been relocated against her will to what she calls the “bad” side of Walter P. Taylor, where more of the criminal activity is concentrated. What she refers to as the “good side of the street” is, ironically, part of the first phase of demolition, and she uses this as evidence that KCDC is out of touch with residents.
Conners believes she is being pushed into a dangerous situation because, unlike some of her neighbors who took the vouchers and left for good, she doesn’t feel she can afford to go through the process of moving out of Walter P. Taylor until she has to, which could be in a year or in 10 years or more depending on KCDC’s access to funding.
For Conners and other residents like her, who haven’t found a new home or aren’t looking, there is a last resort. They may qualify for the other public housing projects in Knoxville like Western Heights or Montgomery Village, and KCDC has already urged those still looking to consider relocating to these places.
Though neither neighborhood has the same reputation for crime as Walter P. Taylor, they are farther from downtown Knoxville and pose problems of access to resources, particularly for residents who don’t—or can’t—drive. Montgomery Village is especially stranded; it’s a 30-minute walk to Kroger, and the last bus on South Knoxville route 40, which is the only route that passes by the neighborhood, heads back toward downtown at 6:50 p.m., weekdays and weekends alike.
Teleia Jones was on the side of Walter P. Taylor scheduled for August demolition and did everything she could to avoid having to move to another public housing complex. “I know I don’t want to move my kids from one project to another,” Jones says. “For me, I prefer to have the voucher because I can take that anywhere, because I feel like it’s room to grow.”
Because she chose this option, she and her six children had to vacate their apartment by July 30, their deadline. If they didn’t move out on time—pending an extension—they risked losing their voucher.
Up until recently, though, all her rental options in the private market had fallen through. Several times she thought she had found a place only to discover that her voucher wouldn’t cover the cost of the utilities, or that the house did not pass inspections.
Jones has now found a place close to downtown that will be covered by her voucher. It’s a small house on Fifth Avenue that’s more spacious than her place in Walter P., and with a large family she appreciates that. After having struggled with the difficult Section 8 process, she has put Walter P. Taylor behind her, joining the many low-income families across the country whose lives have been impacted by the new vision for public housing.
The Five Points revitalization project could be a solution to one of Knoxville’s more serious housing problems. It will surely rid the area of blighted properties, fill empty lots, and provide safer, more energy-efficient homes for Knoxville’s low-income families—homes that blend with the surrounding neighborhoods and help to erase the brick-box stigma of public housing. It may even attract businesses to the area and “scatter” the criminal element, as a News Sentinel editorial declared in 2011.
But it may also scatter more than the criminal element.
When asked where she will go once KCDC’s project is in its last stages and all of Walter P. is taken down, Conners replies, “Put that in as a question mark. Where do I go then?”