South City

South City: Housing a neighborhood in transition

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A dinosaur is crumbling at the corner of Danny Thomas and Mississippi boulevards.

Foote Homes, a 1940s-era public housing project, is undergoing demolition in anticipation of the next wave of public housing which incorporates subsidized commercial development with mixed-income residents.

"Foote Homes is the nucleus of the project, but the biggest thing about this is that we're developing the neighborhood," said Marcia Lewis, director of the Memphis Housing Authority.

MHA will replace the 420 units of Foote Homes with 712 units of mixed-income housing. Six-hundred of those units will be on the site of Foote Homes which housing types varying from single family-style garden homes to apartment towers for senior living.

The demolition of Foote Homes began in July.

Eighty units can be found at Forum Flats, a private development that will accept low-income housing vouchers as part of the South City redevelopment and the remaining 32 units will be developed as single-family homes.

The entire project sprawls across 880 acres with a project cost of $210 million. Supporters believe that the project will positively impact the area and will stabilize it with long-needed neighborhood assets.

Architect renderings of South City barely resemble the current state of ZIP 38126, which is the poorest ZIP code in Memphis and one of the poorest in the country. It lacks a grocery store and small business community. Most of the houses are in dire need of repairs. Concentrated poverty has led to a proliferation of crime and blight.

But it's home.

MHA relocated the hundreds of residents at Foote Homes towards the end of 2016. They are now spread out across the city and are connected through case managers working for Memphis HOPE Urban Strategies, which is aligned with MHA and the South City redevelopment.

Folks hang out outside of Salem's Market on Mississippi Avenue. The store has been open for decades in the neighborhood and has seen a significant slowing of business since Foote Homes closed and demolition started.

Two of those residents are Charlesetta and Edward Flynn, a mother and son who moved into Foote Homes together in the 1970s. When the earliest units at South City come online in summer 2018, they will move back together. Vertical construction will begin early 2018.

"I just want to move back. I don't have a problem with them tearing it down or new neighbors," said Edward Flynn, 50. He travels from his North Memphis apartment building every day to observe the Foote Homes demolition. The Flynns have been coordinating with their Urban Strategies case manager to ensure that they meet all the proper requirements to return to the property.

"It's hard to believe that it was my home, and I had to leave," he said.

Charlesetta Flynn, 67,  believes that the renovation will make the neighborhood stronger. The planned grocery store would improve the quality of life for the family, who relies on public transit to reach the nearest grocery store.

A plaque bearing the history of the Foote Homes housing complex is presented during a ceremony announcing its demolition in May.

If plans come through, a grocery store would be one component of a cluster of public and private-backed neighborhood assets. Other plans include turning the boarded-up Georgia Elementary School into an early childhood center. Girls Inc. will also open a branch within the building. The City of Memphis and the Downtown Memphis Commission will sponsor home repair and commercial façade improvement grants, respectively.

Booker T. Washington School will open a family resource center within its walls and boarded up storefronts surrounding South City will be prepped for small retail, like a dry cleaner or a café.

Current residents and stakeholders are starting to feel the strain of the neighborhood's transition. With 420 families relocated from the heart of the neighborhood, businesses like Salem's Market are suffering from lower foot traffic. 

Sam Egal, a clerk at the corner store, said that he saw "uncountable" amounts of customers when Foote Homes was occupied. Currently, he sees about 100 customers daily and has had to reduce hours of operation for the kitchen. The neighboring corner store, Friendly's Grocery, recently closed. Egal said that the word on the street is that the shop will open back up when the residents return. 

But who is this new neighborhood for? Opponents of the project, united under the Vance Avenue Collaborative, believe that urban revitalization dismantles communities and paves the way for rich, white residents. The collaborative instead proposed that the property be rehabbed rather than torn down so that residents could remain in their homes.

Developer Archie Willis stands for a portrait near his childhood home in South Memphis.

Archie Willis, president of ComCap Partners and a lead on the South City project, said that proposal was physically impossible given the building's size and age and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's grant requirements. HUD is supporting Foote Homes' redvelopment through a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods grant. The redevelopment of Foote Homes has been the most controversial out of Memphis' housing redevelopments, in Willis'  view. Six other public housing sites have been renovated and redeveloped as mixed-income housing under the Hope VI program.

"Maybe because it's so close to Downtown," he said of the attention surrounding Foote Homes's redevelopment.

Downtown does bear an influence on the South City development site. Rents at the property will be a little bit higher than those at MHA's other large scale properties. Per HUD requirements, rent for the public housing units is determined by the average of surrounding market rent properties. South City's sphere of influence includes the high-dollar lofts and apartments in the Downtown core.

Rents are expected to change once the development comes online, Lewis said. At this point, proposed rents for 3-bedroom units could fall between $1,034 and $1,128 a month. One to two-bedroom units could be anywhere from $758 to $820.

A South City resident hangs out outside of the Friendly Food Mart on the corner of Danny Thomas and Mississippi Avenue. It closed earlier in the summer after business slowed down following the shutting down and demolition of Foote Homes.

And while those rents could increase over the years in step with the neighborhood's redevelopment, the mix of tenants will not budge.

Four hundred of the units are set aside for low-income residents seeking project based vouchers. To qualify as low income, residents must make 80 percent of the city's median income. One hundred and fifty units are set aside for those who make 50 percent or less of the median income and are aided by federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits. The remaining 150 units will be market rate.

"The point of mixed income is that you want to expand opportunities for the residents that live there, and that means that the style that we have done public housing over the next 60 years essentially puts together large volumes of people that have limited means," said Paul Young, director of the City of Memphis Department of Housing and Community Development.

"They lack the opportunities to connect with different people and it has resulted in not enough progress for residents that live there. It's made a vicious cycle of poverty."

An aerial view of the southwest corner of the South City development, as prepared by Looney Ricks Kiss.

The South City development is a new type of housing recognized by the Shelby County Office of Planning and Development. The sustainable subdivision zoning represents the latest advances in residential planning. The South City project will incorporate higher density of housing units with connectivity to amenities and employment opportunities. A park located in the middle of the project will promote community health, and energy-efficient appliances complement the focus on sustainability. Talks are underway to install Wi-Fi throughout the South City development and donate tablets to residents.

In the past, about 10 percent of former residents move back to the redeveloped properties. MHA and Urban Strategies hold that most of the 325 residents currently participating in case management will move back to South City over the next four years. An increase in programs and communication with the former residents encourages them to return, Lewis said.

Some former residents, like Antonio Spencer, are helping to bring the new development to life by working as contractors. 

"I heard they're building it up with stores and houses, and that brings money and money brings people," he said. "I'm not saying it's all about money, but why not put something there that's worth going to?"
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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.