On a recent morning, senior residents of College Park sat in rows and along the walls of a meeting room at the publicly-owned housing complex in South Memphis.
Memphis Housing Authority officials stood behind a folding table at the front and asked for quiet over the grumbles and sporadic questions from more than 70 senior residents who had learned they could be relocated from their homes in as soon as a month.
The conversation was even tenser at another meeting in the gymnasium hours later when twice as many residents demanded an explanation of plans to change ownership and renovate the complex.
When asked what she got from the meeting, resident Geral Jones replied with a regretful smirk, “nothing.” She was confused, she said.
The officials had discussed MHA’s plans to temporarily move residents from College Park in phases starting in January, so it can conduct a long-proposed $20 million renovation of the 341 apartments, including some for seniors. The move is part of a broader plan MHA has to improve its housing portfolio through a federal program and partnership with private companies.
But many of its tenants only see a sudden housing shuffle during a pandemic in a city that’s already short on affordable homes. Matters were made worse by poor communication of the plan by MHA, including a recent letter that raised even more questions, residents said.
College Park was built in 2001 using a $47.2 million federal HOPE VI grant. It replaced the old LeMoyne Gardens public housing complex, which The Commercial Appeal described at the time as “rundown and crime-ridden.”
College Park needs major repairs, despite being only 20 years old, because it was poorly built to begin with, according to MHA CEO Dexter Washington. Repairs couldn’t be made as needed because the federal government doesn’t provide public housing authorities with enough funds to adequately maintain their properties, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s own estimates.
Because of this lack of funding, the U.S. loses more than 10,000 public housing units annually because they are no longer habitable, a 2019 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition says.
Jacqueline Morris, 59, left the morning meeting for seniors last week dissatisfied with MHA’s explanations.
“My understanding is whatever we say or whatever we try to do, we still gotta go; just simple as that,” she said.
Given that MHA has been planning the move for years, housing officials have done a bad job of communicating with residents, Morris said. MHA held meetings at College Park about the plan in May and September and sent residents a series of letters, but none seemed to communicate a clear plan for the community.
Some wording in the Nov. 5 letter alarmed residents, including “Memphis Housing Authority will be selling the property to a limited partnership to facilitate private capital and investment in the property,” and “You may be required to move on or after December 5, 2021.”
“When they came in here to tell us about this, they didn’t explain to us what’s going on with this building,” Morris said. “That should have been the first thing they explained to us — why we’ve got to move (now). No one really told us what’s wrong with this building.”
Morris and many of her neighbors feel blindsided by a process they say is happening too quickly, especially for seniors who may have health and mobility problems.
“Some of us old people, it takes us 10 to 15 days to digest our food and just to move us in 30 days — it’s a rush.”
Morris said she’s been relocated before, including from the old Foote Homes public housing development where she grew up, but the expected swiftness of the College Park move is more jarring. However, she isn’t surprised by the building’s renovation needs.
“When I moved in 2018, this building was already damaged,” Morris said.
Washington said the property needs new siding, flooring, stairs and other major upgrades. Last year, Washington’s predecessor, Marcia Lewis, described the flooring in the complex as “walking on sponge,” according to the Memphis Business Journal.
“Sadly, (the complex) was not built with the best materials and that’s something that we found out as time went on,” Washington said. “We would see, over time, some of the siding come off the building and not see proper insulation underneath. … It just did not get built with the care that our other HOPE VI (projects) did.”
Some residents told MLK50: Justice Through Journalism about faulty doors, broken heating and air conditioning, backed up toilets and bathtubs, broken pipes that flooded a unit, and generally long wait times for maintenance.
To make needed upgrades, MHA is participating in the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration program, which transitions public housing to private housing where tenants’ rent is paid with federal funds. This transition allows for private companies to make repairs with loans that will be repaid with future rent. For College Park, Louisiana-based affordable housing development firm BGC Advantage LLC and a nonprofit created by MHA will co-own the property while Allied Orion, a private company, will manage it, Washington said.
Washington expects to finalize the deal with BGC Advantage in the next couple of weeks, he said. From there, the renovations will be conducted in numerous phases and residents will be moved out of their homes whenever the renovation of their units begin. Though it will take up to two years to complete all the phases, no resident should have to be off site for more than one year, Washington said.
This will be Laporche Harrell’s second relocation at the complex. Harrell was 5 years old and living there when it was converted from LeMoyne Gardens to College Park. Now that she’s 28 and a mother, she’s most concerned about logistics for her family.
As she waited in the gymnasium to bring her concerns to MHA, Harrell said she was worried that relocating would complicate her family’s commute. With only one car for the household, she questioned whether she could still get her son to school and that she or her fiance may have to stop working if one can’t get to their job.
Specific issues like transportation are why she and at least two dozen people waited to ask questions of MHA officials after the evening meeting. While the uncertainty of relocating troubles Harrell, she said renovations at College Park are overdue.
“It looks good but once you’re in it — it’s not good,” Harrell said.
Residents will be relocated using a variety of measures, Washington said. Many will be asked to move into vacant apartments in other MHA properties and 80 will be given Section 8 vouchers along with help finding apartments that accept them. For residents whose units aren’t in need of major repairs, short-term solutions — such as extended-stay hotels or covering the costs of moving in with family — will be used to get residents through the couple of weeks they’ll have to vacate their apartments, he said.
While College Park is one of the first local properties transitioning through RAD — along with 106 units at Uptown Rental Homes and 25 units at Askew Place — MHA plans to eventually convert Barry Towers, Borda Towers, Jefferson Square and Venson Center as well.
Morris, like other residents, said this move adds uncertainty to what they thought was their final housing plan.
“I’ll be 60 next month. A lot of people were planning on retiring here. … I had gotten comfortable; this (was) my last stop right here until God calls me home, and there’s a lot of people like that.”
Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at email@example.com
Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com
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