Foote Homes to South City continues story of change

The path to end the city’s large public housing projects was a 20-year journey that brought city leaders to a tent last week near the corner of Vance and Lauderdale.

The path to end the city’s large public housing projects was a 20-year journey that brought city leaders to a tent last week near the corner of Vance and Lauderdale.

The backdrop for speeches on a day that was overcast at times and sunny at others was the framework of several new apartment buildings.

“The sun will always shine on South City,” city chief operating officer Doug McGowen said during one of the sunny moments.

South City is the latest name for the ambitious redevelopment of an area south of Downtown and into South Memphis. The nucleus of the public-private, mixed-use, mixed-income redevelopment is the site of two former public housing projects – Foote Homes and Cleaborn Homes.

Cleaborn is now called Cleaborn Pointe at Heritage Landing. It was the next to last public housing project to be demolished so various rental properties and single-family homes could be rebuilt there.

Foote Homes was the last. The site of its two-story brick buildings was wiped clean earlier this year on both sides of Danny Thomas Boulevard and east to Lauderdale.

“We kind of moved around. We started north. We came around,” said Marcia E. Lewis, chief executive officer of the Memphis Housing Authority.

The journey began with the demolition of LeMoyne Gardens in South Memphis 20 years ago, which was replaced by the College Park mixed-income development.

A requirement of federal funding used in each redevelopment is that a percentage of the new housing be for those who would qualify for conventional public housing. Another percentage of the units must be affordable housing where the rent may be a bit higher, and the remaining units rent for market rates.

The goal of then-Mayor Willie Herenton, with millions of dollars in federal funding across three presidential administrations, was “the end of public housing as we know it.” It was a phrase Herenton and Housing and Community Development director Robert Lipscomb used frequently as Hurt Village, Dixie Homes, Lamar Terrace and Crump Fowler Homes were leveled. Lauderdale Courts was also part of the transition, although its buildings remained in what is now Uptown Square because the site is on the National Register of Historic Places.

With the first two phases of South City home construction underway, Lewis echoed Herenton’s call. “The landscape has been changed in Memphis,” she said. “It has been a welcome sight to eliminate blight and to help people lift themselves up from an impoverished setting to one in which they can compete in a changing environment. This furthers that.”

The first two phases of South City will replace what were 420 units of housing at Foote Homes with 600 units, not counting an additional 112 in an area surrounding the boundaries of the housing project site.

The relocated residents are getting wrap-around services coordinated by the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis.

Lipscomb’s successor at HCD, Paul Young, said the several hundred Foote Homes residents have had a tough time with relocation to federally subsidized private housing, known commonly as Section 8 housing.

The initial thought was that many Foote Homes tenants would move to one of several Section 8 apartment complexes and single-family rental homes. But they had unforeseen competition arise when several hundred tenants of Section 8 apartment units owned by Global Ministries Foundation had to move. Federal officials stopped rental subsidies for the GMF apartment complexes because of substandard conditions.

Foote Homes was built in 1940 with 900 units that dramatically changed the neighborhood, prompting some opposition from homeowners. Cleaborn Homes, the mirror image of Foote Homes on the other side of Lauderdale, followed in 1954.

While a later generation of city leaders, some who had grown up in public housing, would lament the concentration of public housing in one area, the large projects there and in other parts of the city were viewed in those early years as vibrant communities that were temporary stops on a path to a better life.

At the groundbreaking for Legends Park, the mixed-income development that replaced Dixie Homes, Herenton remembered visiting friends at Dixie Homes in the 1950s in an environment he said held no nostalgia for him at all. At the same ceremony, a woman whose family was among the first to move into Dixie Homes recalled how proud she and her family were to be living in such modern surroundings.

Among the early residents of Foote Homes was author Gloria Wade Gayles, whose 1993 memoir “Pushed Back to Strength: A Black Woman’s Journey Home” includes a passage about her childhood there.

 “My housing project – called the Foote Homes – was a thirty-minute walk from Main Street and only fifteen minutes from Beale Street,” she wrote. “It was a colorful city within a city composed of attached red-brick apartment buildings: cheap versions of Philadelphia row houses. In the back, units faced one another across a wide driveway that snaked through the entire community.”

In the era of racial segregation by law, Foote Homes and Beale Street were shelters for African-American Memphians.

“If care for one’s surroundings is a sign of dignity and pride, residents in the projects had both in abundance,” Gayles wrote of Foote Homes. “The project did not shrink in shame from the rest of the city … Only by our address could our teachers identify many of us as residents of the project.”

But the adults and children of Foote Homes were never very far from areas of danger, including Main Street, where there was no co-existence with white Memphians but instead white control.

“Even when we outnumbered them, we obeyed,” Gayles remembered. “Because of the law. Because of their faces. They had a way of lynching us with their eyes which said they were capable of lynching us with their hands. Especially on Main Street.”

With South City, the hope is that the redevelopment on the Foote and Cleaborn sites, leveraged by some private development, will connect the area to South Main and Downtown redevelopment.

ComCap Partners president Archie Willis has been involved in developing most of the former public-housing sites along with McCormack, Baron, Salazar.

“We’re seeing houses come out of the ground,” he said of the impact the start of construction has on those committing money to other phases of development. “There are a lot of plans that are in the works for other communities and neighborhoods. It’s something that all of Memphis can be proud of.”

For all of the promise talked about at the start of construction last week, the area is still not one private capital would seek out on its own.

Tax credits are integral to making private investment feasible for the equity and other investors.

The Tennessee Housing Development Agency is putting up four to five years' worth of low-income housing tax credits for South City, along with bonds to specifically finance multi-family housing.

“When you add it up over time, that’s roughly a $60 million investment by THDA,” said Ralph Perrey, THDA executive director. “That’s one of the largest single and certainly one of the longest-term investments that we’ve made in a development.”

The THDA board agreed to commit the annual allotment to South City over several years.

“Those tax credits are really awarded annually and we have made the commitment for the next four to five years,” Perrey said. “As long as it takes to get this done – we are going to be there and willing to support this type of development for low-income housing.”

By the time Gayles wrote her memoir about growing up in Foote Homes, it and Cleaborn Homes were being downsized to a little more than 400 units each and the federal programs that would start the historic change in public housing in Memphis were just a few years away.

“It is the Old World I remember and cherish. It was never meant to remain,” she wrote. “Time is a magician. In its poof of smoke, worlds vanish before our eyes, and new worlds appear, to vanish in another poof of smoke for newer worlds. It is the Old World I remember and cherish.”

Daily Memphian - September 30, 2018

~Bill Dries