As the first residents begin moving into South City — the new mixed-income, multifamily housing development on the former site of the Foote Homes public housing project — many of the area's development partners are strengthening their focus on business recruitment.
Stakeholders including ComCap Partners, Memphis Housing Authority, LeMoyne-Owen CDC and District 8 County Commissioner Mickell Lowery say businesses are critical not just for the retail and services they offer but also as employers.
“We're excited about the development going on in South City,” said Lowery. “We're working hand in hand with the Memphis Housing Authority. We're looking forward to seeing more jobs in the area, and there's talk of adding grocery places.”
ComCap Partners President Archie Willis and MHA Director Marcia Lewis told High Ground in March that the partners have been working for years to attract an affordable or discount grocer to the area, but South City is short on the two things grocers want to see — density and wealth.
Related: “As Downtown grows, South City invests in low-income residents”
Jeffrey Higgs, executive director of LeMoyne-Owen CDC, said no one in South City should have to venture outside of the neighborhood to find a restaurant or go shopping, regardless of income.
“People in this neighborhood spend money,” said Higgs. “They just don't spend it here, and that's what we're trying to fix. People are buying cars, going to Kroger and doing everyday things but not in our neighborhood.”
South City's new housing ensures space for low-income residents, but Higgs said there's also demand for its market-rate units.
“People really want to be in this neighborhood because of its location, but we don't have enough market rate housing. We're setting out to change that,” said Higgs.
He feels strongly that new residents moving into South City will bring the density and dollars to attract potential investors.
“Retailers won't come if you don't have rooftops,” said Higgs. “We're putting our heads together right now to come up with plans to do just that.”
“If we're going to convince people to invest dollars, we have to make sure there's pride in the area and people living here who are happy where they are,” said Lowery. “That comes from having decent and affordable housing.”
South City is part of an Opportunity Zone that covers most of Downtown and parts of North and South Memphis. Lowery said the tax incentives provided by the federal Opportunity Zone program will play a part in businesses recruitment in South City.
“The Opportunity Zone offers tax incentives for businesses to start and thrive,” said Lowery. “We've seen what incentives can do when you're redeveloping an area. We have taken advantage of this before, as well as federal and grant dollars. South City is proof of that.”
The Legacy of Foote Homes
Foote Homes was the last of Memphis' New Deal-era public housing project to shutter. It was demolished in 2017 as part of the Choice Neighborhood grant aimed at revitalizing South City.
Related: "The last major vestige of segregation-era housing set for demolition"
The $30 million grant is a program through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that includes mixed-income residences and public-backed neighborhood assets. South City's new housing is the first major piece of that plan.
The entire vision for South City's revitalization, which stretches 880 acres, is projected at nearly $210 million.
MHA relocated the 386 families still living in Foote Homes when it closed. Two years later, the Foote Homes families who still qualify for housing assistance have been given the option to return to a new apartment in South City.
New Deal-era public housing projects were intended to remove the burden of housing costs from low-income families so they could save up for better housing, train for a better job and take other steps to position themselves for financial independence.
But in the latter half of the 20th century, market forces and a series of local, state and national policies and practices pushed private and public investment away from public housing and the surrounding neighborhoods. Most businesses and wealthier residents moved away, and the remaining residents were left with inadequate housing, schools, employment, transportation, retail and other amenities.
“Related: Seeing Red I: Mapping 90 years of redlining in Memphis.”
Lowery described the South City of today as a blank slate in terms of business development because of its decades of disinvestment.
If the neighborhood's partners hope for equitable revitalize, they'll have to work with intention to ensure low-income residents have affordable retail options and that nearby jobs offer adequate wages, but Higgs and Lowery both feel South City is heading in the right direction.