South City

Could Memphis' South City be the new gold standard for U.S. public housing?

Public housing doesn't look like it used to. 

Traditional public housing projects, built primarily in the 1930s and 40s, centralized low-income families into designated apartment communities for decades. Today, most of these large-scale public housing projects have been or will soon be demolished.

Related: "South City: Housing a neighborhood in transition"

When they close, their residents are displaced and often promised an option to return to whatever housing development pops up in their place. In the meantime, they must find new housing within the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or HUD's Housing Choice Voucher System.

Families can use their vouchers to pay part or all of their rent at any participating rental property, including single-family homes. 

Foote Homes was Memphis' last remaining traditional housing project. It was leveled in 2017 to make way for the new sprawling South City redevelopment. It's part of a larger, South City area redevelopment plan funded primarily by a HUD Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant. The initial grant for the housing portion was $30 million. 

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

The plan includes mixed-income apartments, town homes, a senior living facility, greenspaces, and business and civic investments in the surrounding neighborhood. It also includes intensive social services for low-income residents.

“The project has a three-prong approach,” said Mairi Albertson, deputy director of the City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development or HCD. “It has a housing redevelopment piece, a neighborhood revitalization piece, and then the people, community, and support services piece."

The housing construction is currently in phase three. A section of the new Foote Park at South City apartments opened for residents beginning in September 2019. Some neighbors are new and some are returning Foote Homes residents. Some units are reserved for people using HUD housing vouchers, some are earmarked for affordable housing for people who qualify for the federal housing tax credit, while others are priced at market rate.

So why is HUD watching Memphis and South City as a possible model for the redevelopment of public housing in other U.S. cities? 

In short, it looks like former Foote Homes residents are returning to Foote Park in record numbers thanks to an intensive effort by the South City project partners to keep those residents connected to the area throughout their displacement.

“There were 386 total moves, and 54 residents have returned. And again, we've only completed two out of six phases,” said Ellen Eubank, South City Choice Neighborhoods Initiative project manager for the Memphis Housing Authority or MHA.

That's just shy of a 14% return rate with four phases remaining when, historically, the rate of return on similar projects was around 10% at completion, Eubank said.

"We're already ahead of the game," she added. 

To the right, finished apartments built in the first two phases of the Foote Park at South City development are already being occupied while construction continues on phase three in the foreground. The project has six phases. (Ziggy Mack)
The core partners include the City of Memphis' Division of Housing and Community Development, Memphis Housing Authority, McCormack Baron Salazar, Urban Strategies, and ComCap Partners. 

MHA is heading up the demolition and rebuilding work while HCD is handling the larger neighborhood revitalization. The community support work is lead by Urban Strategies.

Eubank said ​​​​​HUD has been "very pleased with our progress." 

“Particularly in light of the coordination that we've been able to do between our housing redevelopment and our neighborhood projects, and the people work—working directly with the residents," she said. "HUD really views our programs and our success as a model." 

Joanne Britton was a Foote Homes resident who has returned to Foote Park. She said she's had no issues and plans to stay. Denise Oher agreed and said the assistance she's received through MHA has been a blessing. 

“I was in Foote Homes for 16 years. Now, I am in Foote Park, and I love it,” said Oher. 

Another resident who was interviewed said they weren't happy with their new place and wanted to move, and Oher did say there is still work to be done. She believes not all of the returning residents will be right for the new community.
“We’re going to have some good and some bad [people], just to be honest with you,” said Oher.

Denise Oher sits for a portrait inside her home in the Foote Park at South City. The development is mixed-income, meaning some units are reserved for government-subsidized housing and some units are full market price. (Ziggy Mack)
Working for the People
What are some of the core components of the South City strategy that are changing the pattern of low resident returns? 

First, the partners promised that there would be enough subsidized and affordable housing that every resident could return to the area if they chose. They've also worked to stay connected to and continue supporting displaced residents with employment, education and training, and connections to other social services. They included residents in visioning sessions for the redevelopment and kept them update on its progress.

Related: "Former residents of Foote Homes re-imagine their neighborhood in urban planning summer camp"

And they've worked to help residents figure out their housing goals and meet them, even if it means they will not return to South City. 

“With Choice Neighborhood Initiative, it's all about choice,” said Eva Mosby, regional vice president of Urban Strategies. “A family can decide their own whether they want to relocate back or if they want to stay where they are or want to go into homeownership. We work with them on every avenue."

“We have four pillars of work: education, health and wellness, economic mobility, and workforce development,” said Mosby of Urban Strategies' support service strategy for former Foote Homes residents.
Mosby said they've worked with families on individualized plans outlining their own goals for work, education, health and housing. They work with all members of the household across two and sometimes three generations. 

The strategy, she said, is paying off. 

Employment rates for the families have jumped from 22% to 60%. 

“What we've found is that over 90% of our families have health insurance [now], and they're seeing a doctor each year," said Mosby. "And for at least three years in a row, we've had 100% graduation for the high school seniors in our families,” she added.
The Foote Park at South City development has six phases, which includes town homes and a senior living facility in its last stages. Work is currently in phase three. (Ziggy Mack)
Mixing It Up
The mixed-income model is also important. Traditional public housing isolated low-income families. Across the country, businesses, medical facilities, cultural assets, and other core components of a healthy neighborhood abandoned the areas around public housing projects, which created concentrated pockets of poverty and stripped public housing residents of much-needed employers, services, food, and retail. 

The South City partners know that in order to rebuild a thriving and equitable community, they have to have residents with a range of income levels to attract private investment. 

“We know $30 million dollars will not rebuild a community. It has to be mixed income, it cannot just be public housing,” said Mosby. 

Similarly, the partners hope investments outside of housing will attract a diverse group of residents, as well as businesses and other key stakeholders.

Eubank said they're planning for public art, an early childhood center, and a girls' center. 

"All of those things will really contribute to the fabric of the neighborhood and complement the housing and will result in a stronger South City,” she said.

Related: "Local artist creating sculpture for South City honoring legacy of Foote Homes"

“We have a number of programs that we're implementing,” said Albertson. “We have a homeowner repair program and a commercial facade program. We also have a place-making component, which includes public art throughout the neighborhood, as well as the redevelopment of the city park, on Lauderdale at L.E. Brown Park."
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Read more articles by Chris Jones & Cole Bradley.