Cook: Facing reality in the projects

Cook: Facing reality in the projects

March 12th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

"You've got to ask yourself. What is reality?"

This is John Hayes talking, and no, we're not listening to Grateful Dead bootlegs. We're discussing Purpose Built communities and the promise -- or threat -- their influence holds over two public housing neighborhoods in Chattanooga: College Hill Courts and Harriet Tubman.

Hayes, a man with decades of urban development experience, believes reality is this: Our city's housing crisis is only going to get worse, and Purpose Built could help orchestrate turning low-income neighborhoods into mixed-income communities with businesses, grocery stores and good schools.

"We cannot afford to sit back and wait," he said.

For some, reality hurts. Nearly 2,000 people in Chattanooga are on the waiting list for public housing while apartments needing repair sit unused and empty in College Hill right now, boarded up with plywood.

Families across Chattanooga have no place to stay, forced to sleep in their parked cars behind Walmart or doubled up on couches or floors in apartments owned by friends and family.

I wish someone would organize a tour of homes in their honor.

Since 1999, more than 700 units of public housing have been demolished. Since 2000, Congress has cut the budget for Chattanooga Housing Authority by 50 percent.

Mayor Ron Littlefield has initiated conversations with Purpose Built, and the question on which all of this hinges: What's the motivation?

"They've already made the decision to demolish the Westside," said Roxann Larson, president of Dogwood Manor Resident Association.

Her reality: College Hill Courts is prime property, and downtown development is on the creep in the

guise of Purpose Built developers who, like some twisted David Copperfield trick, cover over their community with a gentrifying blanket and -- voila! -- everything disappears.

"I'm afraid for people over here," said Gloria Griffith, a longtime Westside resident. "This is the last stand for public housing in our city."

If residents are displaced in order to renovate -- or demolish -- the projects, CHA is required to guarantee them another place to live. But where?

With access to a bus line? Or sidewalks for the wheelchair-bound? Near family, friends, doctors and dentists? What are the odds they'll be the ones moving back to their old neighborhood once it's developed into mixed-income housing?

In Atlanta's East Lake neighborhood, Purpose Built helped transform public housing into mixed-income residences.

"Only a portion of residents that were relocated ever got a chance to come back," said Deirdre Oakley, associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University. "About 17 percent."

She said East Lake has become a great place to live: charter school, community centers, a YMCA.

"In that sense, it's a good thing," she said. "The down side is not everybody that's relocated out of public housing ever had the chance to come back."

Think about our city's recent history. Why can we revitalize the riverfront, appear on covers of magazines as one of the best places to live, have foundation money coming out our ears, yet we have to go to Atlanta to find people to create a redevelopment plan for housing projects?

For me, reality starts and stops with three people I met during a recent visit to College Hill Courts. One was a child, skipping down the sidewalk, headed to church to do her homework. To do her "numbers."

The second was an elderly woman, sitting on a bench, talking with a friend.

The third was a disabled man, standing outside his front door. He had trouble speaking, and would often pause -- for long spells -- between words, as if something was submerging his thoughts. He'd stare off into the distance, as if seeing something no one else did.

The trio represents the most vulnerable of our city. We ought to be fierce like lions in our loyalty to them. Like bruised reeds we shall neither bend nor break.

"Jesus was right when he said, 'The poor you will always have with you,'" said the Rev. Leroy Griffith of Renaissance Presbyterian Church in the Westside. "Then he told his disciples: 'Now go do something for them.'"

David Cook can be reached at davidcook@hushmail.com.