Residents in South Rome, Ga., worked past fear of the unknown, taking a chance that a group of Atlanta-based outsiders called Purpose Built Communities had a model for mixed-income housing that could improve their quality of life.
They were at much the same place five years ago that residents of the Westside community in Chattanooga find themselves today.
Because they said yes to Purpose Built in 2007, South Rome gained a $7 million Etowah Terrace, a 77-unit mixed-income senior development with balconies overlooking the Etowah River. Scheduled to open in June, the development also has a walking trail and a fitness center, and plans are under way for an early learning center where infants will start school at age six months; the center could open in two years, officials said.
No final price has been set on the cost of the early learning center, but Purpose Built instructed the South Rome Redevelopment Corp. on how to secure a $25,000 grant from Georgia Power to do planning for the center.
Rome is one of eight communities in which the Purpose Built model for mixed income housing has been built or is in the planning stages.
"Miss this and you miss an opportunity to have someone come in to help you make drastic change to your community," said Melissa Jones, executive director of the South Rome Redevelopment Corp.
Purpose Built proposes similar improvements for Chattanooga's low-income areas.
But current low-income residents in Chattanooga's Westside are scared. The community is made up of three public housing sites owned or managed by Chattanooga Housing Authority and five other complexes that receive subsidized funding from the federal government. About 2,800 residents live in the Westside but no one owns his own home.
If their homes are torn down so a better community can be built, residents question where they will live. Nearly 2,000 people are already on the waiting list for public housing, while another 5,000 wait on a list for housing vouchers.
Some have even heard such promises before.
Westside resident Beulah Washington, 67, said she was among hundreds of people moved from Spencer J. McCallie Homes in Alton Park when it was demolished in 2002. She said she was told she could come back after the site was revitalized.
That didn't happen.
At least 600 units were torn down at Spencer J. McCallie. Only 275 units were built at the new Villages at Alton Park site, and just 200 of them are public housing, according to the CHA.
Today, Washington lives in Dogwood Manor, a high-rise for the elderly in the Westside, but she is afraid of being displaced again. She has no children and all of her family members are dead, so she has no one to help her move, she said.
"This is my home now," she said. "I'd rather die before I let them do that [tear it down]."
Over the past few months Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield invited officials from the nonprofit Purpose Built to present their model housing to city leaders and residents. The mayor and CHA officials - which manages public housing complexes in the city - have said federal funding for public housing is dwindling. Existing complexes need major repairs - about $100 million worth - and there is no money to do that level of work.
John Hayes, CHA's former deputy director for planning and program development, said some housing is so bad, apartments have branches growing through the walls.
While Purpose Built offers no funding and stresses that it isn't a property development company, the organization offers free consultation on how to find the money and brings a model to generate money so a lack of federal dollars won't cause it to go without repairs.
When the South Rome Redevelopment Corp. decided to pursue an early learning center, it was Purpose Built that told the agency that Georgia Power had an interest in early childhood education. And it was Purpose Built that told redevelopment corporation officials about tax credits and introduced them to potential developers who could apply for them. Tax credits helped to fund the $7 million Etowah Terrace, Jones said.
"They don't write a check, but they tell you how to get these programs funded," she said.
Purpose Built offers a proven framework to help communities reinvent themselves, said Carol Naughton, Purpose Built's vice president.
"We have some really fabulous consultants who work with local leaders to help them craft plans that make sense in their community," she said.
Purpose Built, backed by billionaire Warren Buffet, likes to showcase changes it helped to make in Atlanta with the transformation of crime-ridden East Lake Meadows to the East Lake Villages, where there has been a reduction in crime, an increase in income and a high academic achieving charter school - the Charles R. Drew Charter School which opened in August 2000.
Public housing is going to change whether people like it or not, said Eddie Holmes, CHA's board chairman.
Purpose Built provides a plan for having at least some public housing and possibly lifting the economic levels of its residents, said former City Court Judge Walter Williams, who once lived in public housing on the Westside.
"People need to understand that public housing was never designed for people to live for the rest of their lives," Williams said. "It was designed to give opportunity to rebuild lives and move out. It wasn't meant for three generations of people to live there, but that's what we have now."
When local residents voiced their concerns publicly at a meeting hosted by Mayor Ron Littlefield on Feb. 21, Purpose Built representatives said the residents' questions were good ones and need to be addressed.
Housing officials have said no resident can be relocated from a public housing site unless CHA has a relocation plan for them, but that gives little comfort to residents because of past experiences.
Westside resident Gloria Griffith, 64, said she has seen people living in hotels because they can't get into public housing or find anyone that will accept their housing vouchers.
Although $100 million is needed to bring all 2,800 units of CHA's public housing stock up to standard, the agency only receives about $4 million a year in capital funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development - and sometimes less, said Naveed Minhas, CHA's vice president of development.
Capital funding for 2012 is $3.3 million, or 7 percent less than the $3.5 million in 2011 funding, and 14 percent less than the $4 million in 2010, he said. But that's been the trend for capital funding in the six years he's been at the housing agency, Minhas said.
Purpose Built is offering its model for mixed-income housing at a time when public housing agencies across the country say their federal funds are drastically diminishing and they don't have the money to upgrade.
But officials with Purpose Built insist they're not a bank.
"We're not bringing bags of money with us," said Naughton. "Let me be clear. But what we do bring is people with experience on how to craft each portion of redevelopment. So you look at each piece separately and say: What are sources to support education? What private sources are available? What public sources and what are the funding gaps that might need to be supported with philanthropy? That's what we do."
Rome had some residents who opposed Purpose Built, but unlike residents in Chattanooga's Westside, none of them were worried about being displaced. Their houses were so bad, most people had moved out anyway, Jones said.
Most opposition came because some people who lived in Rome were concerned that only blacks would benefit from the redevelopment because it was in a low-income area. But it was all of Floyd County that agreed to a special purpose local option sales tax in the mid-2000's to help fund the $2 million streetscape for the project.
Others were set against any type of change directed by an outside group, Jones said.
"But when you show them what they can have, they get happy because they were living in these dilapidated, substandard units and then you show them something nice with hardwood floors, and people get happy. They get excited," Jones said while walking around the property.
Etowah Terrace is just the beginning of development. Her redevelopment corporation also plans to build 50 to 60 units of family housing after the senior high-rise building is complete, she said. The condo-style apartments will be less than a half-mile away.
Not a new idea
A mixed-income community is not a new idea in Chattanooga. About 15 years ago, Westside residents laid out their own plan for such a neighborhood.
They planned to reduce the number of apartment units, turn some into condos for residents to own and to offer some single-family housing. They wanted to reduce crime, bring in more businesses and have better educational resources for children.
There had been some gains in that direction with the Westside Community Development Corp. that Westside residents helped to organize in 1994 to improve the community. When funding for the corporation ran out, the businesses and social services eventually left, too. The Westside was awarded the city's first $1 million federal Weed and Seed grant to reduce crime in 1995 and it received another $1 million from Weed and Seed in 2000, but that ended in 2006. Weed and Seed money paid the rent for the Westside police precinct and it funded after-school programs and tutorials.
The James A. Henry Family Resource Building, once the center of activity in the Westside, was the office for the Westside Community Development Corp., but the building lost a lot of tenants and the corporation lost some funding in 2002 when state regulations were changed and no longer allowed state money to pay for rent. Occupuancy dwindled to 20 percent. The Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy moved into the building in 2009 and moved out in 2011.
The community looks very similar now to what it did before the corporation came, said Littlefield, and Purpose Built might be an option to revitalize the Westside community again.