South Pittsburg public housing residents sound off over garden ban

South Pittsburg public housing residents sound off over garden ban

June 22nd, 2016 by Yolanda Putman in Local Regional News

Talking directly to Virgil Holder, near right, South Pittsburg Mayor Jane Dawkins talked discussed the consideration of grandfathering gardens during the monthly meeting of the South Pittsburg Housing Authority board. The grandfathering was not approved by the board, according to Dawkins.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Gallery: South Pittsburg public housing gardens not prohibited by federal government, despite chairman's claim

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“Y'all have destroyed me and my flowers.”
Roberta Shockley

South Pittsburg, Tenn., resident Roberta Shockley tried for weeks to remain soft-spoken and anonymous when talking about a resolution requiring public housing residents to remove vegetable and flower gardens from their yards. But on Monday, she erupted with anger at the South Pittsburg Housing Authority.

"Y'all have destroyed me and my flowers," said the 80-year-old Shockley. Then she cried.

Housing authority board Chairman Virgil Holder offered residents a community garden during Monday's meeting, but it provided little consolation for Shockley and several other residents and supporters.

The small Marion County town, home of the annual Cornbread Festival, gained national attention recently after board members banned public housing residents from planting gardens, passing a resolution stating that all landscaping was to be removed June 1 unless the housing authority had planted it.

Supporters across the nation wrote letters opposing the ban, and several residents attended the housing authority board meeting Monday hoping the board would reverse its decision, but Holder said the decision stands.

"It's just wrong. Senseless. Heartless," said South Pittsburg resident Marilyn Davis after the meeting. "They're taking what little these people have away from them."

Roses, impatiens and irises that once majestically lined Shockley's walkway and overflowed throughout her yard have all been mowed down, leaving a barren yard of red wood chips, green stumps and scattered grass. Her yard is one of several where flowers have been removed.

But some residents, those living on Hemlock Street, Hemlock Drive and Pine Street, still have gardens.

"We had no intention of going in and ripping stuff out," Holder earlier said of the gardens.

But after the meeting Monday, Holder said all planted gardens will have to be removed in a timely manner.

The Barn Nursery and other donors pledged to purchase flowers for Shockley to replace her garden. Holder said she still won't be allowed to plant anything, but she can have potted plants on her front and back porches.

Shockley said she's had a garden in her yard since she moved into public housing in 1969.

Holder said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has banned gardens in yards since the public housing site was built, and the South Pittsburg Housing Authority board only is enforcing an established rule.

Joseph J. Phillips, HUD's Southeast Region senior communications officer, said that is not the case.

"The decision regarding public housing residents planting gardens is a local public housing policy," Phillips wrote in an email to the Times Free Press. "HUD does not prohibit the public housing authority from permitting residents from planting gardens."

Chattanooga Housing Authority Executive Director Betsy McCright said she has never heard of a ban on gardens by HUD.

"We're left to our own devices," she said. "I have not heard any prohibitions on gardens as long as it's reasonable and well attended and they add to the value of the property."

Shockley knew the back of her house could be seen by those attending the Cornbread Festival. She said she tried to keep her yard beautiful for festival participants who drove by, and sometimes they liked her yard so much they stopped and asked her the names of different flowers, she said.

Holder said earlier, and again Monday after the meeting, that the controversy over the gardens has been politically motivated. Holder is running against incumbent Mayor Jane Dawkins for mayor of South Pittsburg.

Holder said HUD is watching the housing authority more closely because of the politics in the city.

"HUD is now saying get your stuff together, watching us real close, and the reason is because we were informed by a HUD official that never in their career have they ever seen interference of the city to the housing authority. And that's because we moved away from the mayor's insurance company and saved $18,000 a year," Holder said. "Every since that happened we've had interference from the city."

Dawkins could not be reached for comment.

Bill Stuart, who also is running for mayor, said the "flowers and the shrubbery were just beautiful, and the residents in the housing authority should be encouraged to improve the property that they live in because that's actually their home."

Davis said the community garden that Holder proposed didn't matter to some residents because they would have trouble getting to it.

A centrally located community garden would require some residents to drive, because the housing authority has 202 public housing units scattered throughout the city. Shockley is one of a number of residents who don't have cars.

Davis said she was disappointed with the meeting's outcome.

"Nothing happened that would benefit the housing people," she said.

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at or 423-757-6431.