South City

The last major vestige of segregation-era housing set for demolition

Foote Homes, the last traditional public housing complex in Memphis, has seen seven decades of changing attitudes about the role of public housing.

This article serves as an introduction to High Ground News' On The Ground engagement in South City. For the next three months, a team of embedded journalists will create coverage about the challenges and strengths of this changing neighborhood.

“Right now, as it is, Foote (Homes) is kind of a no man’s land,” said Mairi Albertson, planning administrator for the City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development.

The barracks-style units of Foote Homes have sat boarded up since 2016. The 46-acre property is the last to remain of Memphis’ aging traditional housing complexes and the last major vestige of segregation-era housing policies.

The property will be demolished in late May to make way for modern affordable housing that supporters believe will revive the surrounding neighborhood on the southeast edge of Downtown.

Foote Homes now sits vacant with many of its former residents having been relocated to different neighborhoods across the city as of late 2016.

Foote Homes will be replaced through a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods grant, which is a program through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that realizes some of the latest advances in public housing such as mixed-income residences and public-backed neighborhood assets.  The whole revitalization project, which stretches 880 acres, is estimated to cost nearly $210 million.

Foote Homes, located at the corner of Danny Thomas and Mississippi boulevards, has seen the gamut of public housing programs from the segregationist efforts of New Deal-era housing to the shift of de-densification that took place under the federal Hope VI program. Local supporters of the Choice Neighborhoods grant believe that the changes in the latest program will produce long-term stability for the former Foote Homes area.

Fifty years ago, the housing project was the pinnacle of “advancements in Negro housing.” The grand opening, which took place in April 1940, was attended by over 3,000 people. Articles of the time boasted that the units would have indoor plumbing and heating.

In a 1940 article about the grand opening titled “Project is dedicated for a nobler living”, The Commercial Appeal quoted Claude Parsons, first assistant administrator of the U.S. Housing Authority:

“(Foote Homes is) built for you, your family and your children, and you must realize this and accept the opportunity for improvement. If you fail us, you will fail America in the end. But we are confident you will not fail.”

The Memphis Housing Authority received over 5,200 applications to fill the development’s 900 residences, which set a national record.

In September 1954, a 572-unit addition was built to the east of the larger Foote Homes project. Together, the two developments could house up to 6,338 people rendering the area “the second largest Negro project in the country,” according to The Commercial Appeal.

At the time of Cleaborn Homes’ construction, more than 2,558 families were on the waiting list to get into Memphis’ three housing projects set aside for African-American families.

“New life is opening for many Memphis Negroes,” reads a headline from The Commercial Appeal in September 1954. Services provided to the low-income residents included bi-annual visits from caseworkers and a canned food reserve that was stocked by residents. A family’s income determined the rental rate, which ranged from upwards from $10 a month. Maximum income for continued occupancy came in at $3,500.

George W. Lee is pictured at the podium, speaking at the 1955 dedication ceremony of the Cleaborn Homes in Memphis, TN.

That addition to Foote Homes is unrecognizable today. It is now known as Cleaborn Pointe at Heritage Landing, a 400-unit development completed in 2015 under the Hope VI program. From all appearances, Cleaborn Pointe looks like a suburban neighborhood with well-kept lawns and pastel paint jobs. Its residences are a mix of market-rate and subsidized rental housing.

Clayborn Pointe and Foote Homes face each other from either side of Lauderdale Street. Between them are seven decades of changing attitudes about the role of public housing. When the U.S. Housing Authority was launched in the 1930s as part of the New Deal, public housing was meant to provide a landing point for families in transition and especially those reuniting after World War II.

Public housing in Memphis was segregated with Lauderdale Courts, Lamar Terrace and Hurt Village set aside for white residents. Housing projects for African-American Memphians made up 3,3035 of the city’s 4,412 units with developments including Dixie Homes, Lemoyne Gardens, Foote Homes and Cleaborn Homes, which was the addition to Foote Homes.

Cleaborn Pointe at Heritage Landing, a complex of mixed-income apartments, runs along Lauderdale Street on the former site of the Cleaborn Homes housing project.

In the 1940s, the Memphis Housing Authority’s total investment in these properties totaled $30 million, which is a fraction of what the city is currently shouldering to fulfill the South City redevelopment.

All of those developments, except for Foote Homes, have been renovated and renamed. Archie Willis has had a hand in all of those redevelopments except for College Park, which replaced LeMoyne Gardens.

At one time, the Downtown core was ringed with these low-income housing complexes. Willis speculates they were concentrated because of the availability of cheap land as people moved further east to the suburbs.

A collection of doorknobs sits on one of the porches of a boarded up building at Foote Homes.

And according to Preston Lauterbach in his article "Memphis Burning" the Memphis Housing Authority deliberately placed Foote Homes in an existing majority Black area to stunt property values and keep African-American Memphians from moving to majority-white neighborhoods.

The collection of housing projects kept poverty concentrated. As the Downtown core flourished, its outer edges deteriorated. The 38126 ZIP code, which includes Foote Homes and Cleaborne Point, currently bears a 62 percent poverty rate. The entire poverty rate for the city of Memphis is 28 percent. 

The Hope VI program, which was the dominant HUD strategy from the 1990s until the recent introduction of the Choice Neighborhood program, attempted to renovate and de-densify the affordable housing complexes that were built during the federal housing authority’s early days.

“If you drive through the Hope VI communities, they’re beautiful. But they’re islands unto themselves that are surrounded by the same distress that existed in the neighborhood prior,” said Albertson. “I think initially the thought would have been that the redevelopment of public housing would spur all this private investment, but that’s not what happened with the exception of Uptown.”

A game of hide-and-seek near a boarded-up apartment complex on Tate Avenue.

The first major demolition of public housing in Memphis occurred at Foote Homes in the 1990s. Fulfilling funding from HUD, the Memphis Housing Authority razed 422 units at Foote Homes and remodeled the remaining 528 units.

Similar efforts took place during that time at Lauderdale Courts, Hurt Village and LeMoyne Gardens. Reduce, remodel and rename defined the Hope VI transformation of public housing. Residents who were displaced by the construction were given Section 8 vouchers to relocate to other affordable housing until they were able to return to the new-and-improved development.

A flower blooms on a bush creeping up next to one of the boarded up building at Foote Homes.The effects of the program, however, were not far-reaching, according to Donovan Duncan, senior vice president of Urban Strategies Inc., a partner in the Choice Neighborhood project at Foote Homes and many of Memphis’ Hope VI projects.

Choice Neighborhoods puts more of a data-driven emphasis on improving the lives of residents than was present in the Hope VI program, which focused mainly on renovating property, Duncan said.

“With Hope VI, the idea was to rebuild the neighborhood, create these communities and all the change should happen around it. If you build it they will come,” said Duncan.

“Choice Neighborhoods says build it, focus on the people and then find out what are these neighborhood amenities that need to happen to drive change in the community.”

The current Choice Neighborhood program will go further than previous HUD-backed housing renovations. The buildings of Foote Homes will be demolished and public funds will sponsor streetscape improvements and encourage private investment. Under Hope VI, federal funds could only be used to renovate affordable property on an existing site. The Choice Neighborhoods program goes beyond those boundaries to help foster housing and services that could lift up an entire area.

Developers expect that residents can start moving into the new South City housing development as soon as January 2018. 

“I think it’ll be better than the other models,” said Willis. “It seems like we’ll make some connections in the greater area.”

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Read more articles by Madeline Faber.

Madeline Faber is an editor and award-winning reporter. Her experience as a development reporter complements High Ground's mission to write about what's next for Memphis.