On Tuesday afternoon in South Memphis, temporary relocations from the public housing complex, College Park, were underway. From the senior building’s meeting room, company representatives for BGC Advantage, the new co-owner, answered calls, texts and took questions in-person on a moving day that they described as “on target.”
“We’re on time, and the beauty is that no one is feeling rushed,” said Todaé Charles, asset manager of operations for the Louisiana company, which is also overseeing the relocation.
A little later, 80-year-old Lottie Starks and her daughter, Ora Burns, ate from to-go plates, around stacks of belongings on the dining table and under only the window light. Not only had Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division already cut the power, as the sun was setting on Starks’ assigned relocation day, movers hadn’t begun packing her items.
“It feels like I’m not in control of my life anymore,” Starks said.
Starks, like other senior residents, is still worried about the relocation plan despite management’s confidence. And sitting in dark rooms on a cold evening didn’t ease their concerns. This week’s move is the first phase of several temporary relocations happening at College Park while renovations are made to the units. Faced with insufficient federal funding to continue owning and managing College Park, the Memphis Housing Authority transferred ownership of the complex to a partnership between its nonprofit arm, Memphis Housing Strategies, and BGC Advantage.
Residents felt blindsided last month when the housing authority gave notice that relocations, which had been planned for years, would begin in a few weeks. Many residents rejected the idea of needing to relocate for the necessary repairs and felt they had no say in the decision. Additionally, some worried MHA’s plan didn’t offer enough time for seniors to prepare for the move.
Across two days, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism asked residents about their moving experiences and heard stories that paint varying pictures.
Of the nearly 150 units scheduled to be renovated for the first phase, residents in more than 30 units have been moved so far, according to MHA CEO Dexter Washington.
Washington said Thursday because utilities were shut off earlier than anticipated in eight units, they moved some residents earlier than scheduled, while one resident stayed with friends and family.
Charles said she placed one resident in a hotel while BGC moved the tenant’s belongings. She said Wednesday afternoon that she didn’t know of anyone who spent the night without utilities, and if someone did, they didn’t notify her or answer the door during her staff’s routine checkups throughout the day.
Later that afternoon, Charles Salley told MLK50 he went the night without power, though he had his overalls and enough gin to keep him warm, he joked. An extension cord ran from a hallway outlet to his microwave to warm up a pork chop, his lunch for the day.
He was scheduled to move Tuesday, but his room hadn’t been entirely packed yet. However, while he doesn’t like how the relocation is going, Salley says he has no choice but to accept it.
“Ain’t nothing we can do about it,” Salley said. “It’s our fault. We chose to live under the government.”
Even though MHA and BGC insist that all residents will have the right to return to College Park, Salley is skeptical.
Like other residents MLK50 talked to, he has been relocated from public housing before and faced challenges when he tried to return.
Though Charles assures residents they have nothing to worry about, she said this history is why her approach to relocation prioritizes patience and a philosophy of “communication and over-communication” with residents.
“We’re dealing with a community that is fragile and sensitive,” Charles said. “We have to be mindful of the community we serve. They paved the way for us and I’ll be darned if someone on my team is disrespectful.”
Some residents said they feel the care.
Jacqueline Morris leaned on her kitchen counter Tuesday afternoon as movers carried out the last of her belongings. Last month she told MLK50 she not only felt like seniors had no say in the moving process but that the plan would be a rush for the community. However, she said Charles’ delicate approach has made it easier.
“Memphis Housing Authority, they made it seem so bad and so rough to me, but since we’ve been dealing with these people here, Ms.Todaé has been extra special. She has been making things move, making things happen and everybody is pleased with it. She’s doing a beyond excellent job.”
Though she still doesn’t love the idea of relocation, Morris is finding peace with the transition.
“It’s a process; we’re going through it and so far, everything is okay. I’m not complaining. I just believe it’s going to be brighter days ahead,” Morris said.
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 contributed to this report.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.