Memphis City Leaders Hoped a $30M Federal Grant Would Transform This Neighborhood. Why Hasn’t It?

Development at Foote Park at South City is in the third of six phases. When complete, the complex will have the same number of bedrooms as the public housing projects it replaced.

Photo by Brad Vest for MLK50

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Memphis City Leaders Hoped a $30M Federal Grant Would Transform This Neighborhood. Why Hasn’t It?

Most residents like what’s replaced Memphis’ last public housing project, but developers are learning the limitations of urban revitalization efforts.

Story by Jacob Steimer

Photography by Brad Vest

Published on Sep 27, 2021

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was commissioned by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom based in Memphis that focuses on the intersection of poverty, power and policy. Next City is proud to co-publish this story.

When Kim Watts would enter her apartment at night, there was little need to reach for the light switch since the white steeple of Temple of Deliverance was already reflecting light into the room through a window.

On Sunday mornings, the church’s music would invite her to get dressed and walk to worship.

“You could be outside on your porch and hear the choir. That would draw you into church, where you can get in and get the Word,” she said. “It was a warm feeling for the property to be surrounded by three or four churches.”

Watts, 51, loved this feature of the old Foote Homes public housing complex — located in an impoverished, historically Black neighborhood just southeast of Downtown Memphis — along with its quick access to Beale Street and the city’s largest sports and entertainment venue, FedExForum.

Within the complex itself, though, Watts was frustrated by rodents, stray dogs, trash and crime. So, the City of Memphis and Memphis Housing Authority’s plan – announced in 2008 – to use federal funds to knock the complex down and replace it made sense to her, even if it was opposed by many residents.

In 2015, the Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded Memphis a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods grant. Developers and City of Memphis officials billed the Foote Park at South City development as a project that would change South Memphis. With 712 apartments occupied by people with a mix of incomes, a grocery store and the project’s ability to act as a catalyst for future private investment, it would be far more than a replacement for Foote Homes.

It’s been nearly two years since the $150 million development’s first tenants moved in and the results are mixed. While the Choice Neighborhoods program is supposed to help revitalize entire portions of cities, the Foote Park project has shown the limitations of this effort.

The development and accompanying neighborhood improvements should certainly help South Memphis, but much more work needs done for the area to attract a transformative level of private investment, according to Brett Theodos, director of the Community Economic Development Hub at the Urban Institute.

“$150 million sounds big … (but) to really transform a place, we’re talking north of $500 million,” Theodos said. “(You need) walkability, foot traffic, as well as housing all along the price point continuum.”

This comparison shows, on the left, a view of the old Foote Homes before demolition in 2017. The new development, Foote Park at South City, is on the right. Residents say the proximity to Downtown of is one of the apartment complex’s best features. (2017 photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50; 2021 photo by Brad Vest for MLK50)

In interviews with nearly a dozen Foote Park tenants, the residents discussed some problems the complex has and things they miss from the old Foote Homes, but they largely spoke well of their new homes.

“I’ve lived everywhere from the harshest neighborhoods to the plushest neighborhoods (as) a Navy wife,” said Watts, who is now divorced. “I love it here.”

The People

Before it was home to low-income housing, the area that has been rebranded as South City was a middle-class, Black neighborhood that featured flower shops, groceries, cafes and funeral parlors. The Memphis Housing Authority decided to demolish the neighborhood in the 1930s using a slum clearance program, according to scholar Preston Lauterbach’s research.

This was a long-used practice in the construction of public housing, according to Economic Policy Institute fellow Richard Rothstein.

“‘Slums’ and ‘blight’ were widely understood euphemisms for African American neighborhoods. … Slum clearance reinforced the spatial segregation of African Americans as well as their impoverishment,” Rothstein wrote in “The Color of Law.”

While the Memphis Housing Authority set aside projects such as Lauderdale Courts and Lamar Terrace for white residents, it built Foote Homes exclusively for African Americans. Racial segregation isn’t codified in Foote Park at South City, Foote Homes’ replacement. Yet, almost all of the residents in the complex are Black, despite a website that features more white people than Black. During four trips to the complex, MLK50 saw one white resident and one Asian resident alongside dozens of Black residents. Neither the Memphis Housing Authority nor the complex’s property management firm keeps track of residents’ demographic information, said Ellen Eubank, who’s managing the South City project for the Memphis Housing Authority.

The housing authority has tracked how many of Foote Park’s units are filled with former residents of Foote Homes: 55 of 242, or just over 22%. Of the 386 households relocated when Foote was demolished, 305 were granted Section 8 vouchers to find new housing elsewhere. These residents were then invited to return when the new apartments started opening.

Kim Watts, 51, lived in Foote Homes for a year before its redevelopment forced her to move. She has been living in Foote Park at South City since January 2020. “It’s more of an upscale property now, not what you would call the projects,” Watts said. “You’ve got room to breathe.”

So far, most residents haven’t chosen to come back, which is normal: A 2016 Department of Housing and Urban Development study found tenants of old public housing made up 21% of the residents of the federally subsidized projects that replaced them.

Former Foote Homes residents — who are part of the roughly 65% of residents receiving a subsidy to live at Foote Park — complimented their new housing in South City, with its wood floors and high-end appliances.

Though she said the new place still has mice, Watts views it as almost ideal for her 6-year-old grandson, Caden, who can ride the quiet streets on his bicycle and enjoy one of the neighborhood’s many playgrounds.

Rae Mims, a 25-year-old who grew up in Foote Homes, likes his apartment as well but still doesn’t know if the redevelopment was a good idea or not. He has fond memories of riding a horse at a neighborhood festival, playing football and tag in the field, and staying out until midnight with his friends. He misses how tight-knit the old community was.

“It’d be like, if someone says, ‘Do you want me to tear down your grandma’s house and build a better house?’ … It’s a bittersweet thing,” said Mims, who works at a furniture warehouse. “You knew everybody; everybody knew you. You could point to any house and tell who stayed there.”

Most residents said the new place feels much safer than the old one, with nearby gunshots a less common occurrence.

“It’s quiet and peaceful now,” said Velma Rainer. “At old Foote Homes, there was a lot going on, and I was scared to go outside.”

Parts of Foote Homes have yet to be redeveloped, but a comparison between the crime rates in Foote Park and rates in the same area in Foote Homes 10 years ago shows little difference, according to Memphis Police Department data. From January through August of this year, there have been 10 thefts, two homicides and about 35 assaults within Foote Park, according to the department’s map. During the same period in 2011, nine thefts, no homicides and about 50 assaults were recorded in Foote Homes.

Another former Foote Homes resident, Nina Wright, said she has been the victim of four property crimes since she became one of the development’s first residents two years ago. Weeks after moving in, her Halloween decorations disappeared from her porch.

“When they stole that off the porch, I was like, ‘There go all my hopes of this being a comfortable way of living,’” said Wright, 44. Earlier this year, someone stole the catalytic converter from beneath her car.

She regularly loses sleep worrying for her two children’s safety and usually chooses to sleep on a couch on the main floor — instead of her upstairs bedroom — so she can make sure nobody breaks in. To her, Foote Park isn’t much of an improvement over the projects, where she felt more comfortable.

If offered a quality, affordable apartment in the suburbs, she said she would “take off running.”

Jobs and COVID

One thing Wright appreciates about Foote Park that the projects didn’t have is the extensive job training and placement help for former Foote residents, paid for by part of the federal Choice Neighborhood grant.

The initiative has been a major success, Eubank said. In 2015, the development team set a goal to double residents’ employment rate, from 27% to 54%. It had surpassed this goal before the pandemic began.

This was accomplished, she said, by assigning caseworkers to every former Foote Homes resident who wanted one. These professionals connect the residents to employment and education opportunities — through organizations such as Southwest Tennessee Community College and the Memphis Medical District Collaborative — and then work to overcome any barriers to becoming or staying employed, such as lack of consistent childcare, unreliable transportation and health issues.

The economic crisis brought on by COVID-19 hit the former public housing residents particularly hard, though, as many worked in retail or other service industries, Eubank said. The former residents’ employment rate dropped sharply, and case managers shifted their attention to making sure residents had food, cleaning supplies, and technical support so their kids could attend school virtually.

While the employment rate for Memphis as a whole has returned to nearly its pre-pandemic level, Eubank said the residents’ rate sat at 43% in early August.

“I hate the fact we have no grocery stores and nowhere to eat … if you don’t have transportation,” Watts said. “There’s nowhere to get fresh vegetables.”

Most of the jobs the former Foote Homes residents have received are entry-level and many are part-time. While case managers strive for full-time, living-wage jobs, Eubank said, they’re a challenge to attain for the complex’s many residents who have limited experience with working. Eubank said the average household income for former Foote Homes residents — employed and unemployed —has risen 85% under the program, to $12,306, which surpassed the team’s goal of a 51% increase.

“For folks that have not been employed before or been sporadically employed, they can’t jump into a high-paying job right away,” Eubank said.

To combat this, Eubank said the case managers have tried to direct residents to entry-level jobs at places where they could progress into higher-paying ones, such as at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare or FedEx. She worries, though, about whether the gains the case managers have made can be sustained once the funding for most of the resident services ends in September 2022.

Wright — who lost her job at a Downtown bonding company during the start of the pandemic — really likes her caseworker, who has brought her multiple job opportunities, mostly in lower-paying industries such as cleaning, warehousing and retail.

She recently accepted a cleaning position at Shelby Farms but quickly resigned. The job required her to show up at the park at 10 a.m. and stay until 7 p.m., which was far longer than she wanted to be away from her daughter, who’s attending school virtually because of an autoimmune disorder. And while at work, she worried about catching COVID-19. Now, she’s hoping to launch her own T-shirt printing company with the case worker’s support.

The Neighborhood

The long-planned South City project became a reality thanks to the federal Choice Neighborhoods program, whose $30 million grant was matched by a $30 million commitment from the City of Memphis. MHA co-owns the development alongside McCormack Baron Salazar — which developed the project and is one of the country’s larger developers of low-income housing — and Royal Bank of Canada, which helped finance it.

The project includes six phases. The first welcomed residents in September 2019, the second was completed a year later, and the third is nearing completion.

Not counting the city’s infrastructure work, the project’s construction is set to cost between $23 million and $26 million per phase, which would be roughly $150 million total, Eubank said.

The federal Choice Neighborhoods program — in contrast with its immediate predecessor, the Hope VI program — was designed to spur improvements in the areas surrounding the new housing via grants and partnerships with private entities. For South City, less than $5 million of the grant was set aside for this purpose, of which more than 70% has been spent.

This neighborhood improvement was poised to include “a variety of retail and grocery amenities,” according to a 2015 HUD document announcing Memphis’ selection.

A grocery store, specifically, was repeatedly touted as part of the project by city officials and the development team.

But these days, grocers are more focused on expanding grocery delivery and other e-commerce initiatives than on brick-and-mortar stores. Eubank said the group could not convince a local or national chain it could turn a profit with the help of public incentives, even before COVID-19 further complicated retail development.

“Number of households, traffic and income … (grocery stores) have a formula,” she said. “It just doesn’t particularly work for South City.”

To Watts, who doesn’t own a car, the lack of a nearby grocery store is the biggest knock against the development. Currently, she relies on her sister to take her to Kroger.

“I hate the fact we have no grocery stores and nowhere to eat … if you don’t have transportation,” Watts said. “There’s nowhere to get fresh vegetables.”

Eubank said the nearby nonprofit The Works Inc. is building a mobile grocery store truck that will stop by South City at least weekly with fresh food for sale.

Part of the South City revitalization plan calls for renovations to existing structures, including the MLK Student Transition Academy. The Memphis Housing Authority will convert the academy to an early childhood education center and a Girls Inc. location.

While the grocery store may not have worked out, Eubank said the group has seen success with the neighborhood improvement dollars. The money has helped fund renovations of the NAACP Memphis Branch’s nearby headquarters and a couple other local buildings. Eight more renovations are planned, including the redevelopment of a blighted building into 15 retail spaces and four apartments.

Eubank conceded that these projects aren’t the type of major private investment necessary to transform South Memphis. Those kinds of projects would take much more money and time than her team has had to work with, given the neighborhood’s high poverty rate and decades of being underinvested in, she said.

“(A $30 million grant) isn’t going to address every issue in South City,” Eubank said. “It sounds like a lot, but it’s not, to do everything that we’re trying to do.”

Eubank’s hope, though, is that the smaller projects — along with the 712 new apartments — will create “more fertile soil” for additional development and improvements over the next decade. For instance, she’s hoping private housing developers will add even more housing nearby since more residents will be necessary to attract retailers and employers.

Rosalyn Willis, a local nonprofit executive who worked on Foote Park for McCormack Baron until 2018, said the level of private investment hasn’t lived up to the hopes at the start of the project.

Back then, Willis and others thought local, high-end, multifamily developers would help bridge the gap between South Main Street and South City. While she thinks major private investment will arrive in South City eventually, she said it’s hard to tell when a company will be willing to take a risk on the neighborhood.

“No real private dollars have really showed up yet,” said Willis, who emphasized she was not speaking for her former company. “All is not lost yet. It’s just going to take some more time.”

If current trends hold, though, this will continue to be an uphill battle. Nowhere in the country is it particularly easy to convince developers to take risks in low-income neighborhoods. In Memphis, major private capital investments are relatively rare — and when they come, the money flows to white neighborhoods.

While nearby private development is largely out of MHA’s control, the organization is moving forward with its own redevelopment of the abandoned MLK Transition Academy at 620 S. Lauderdale St., Eubank said. With the help of philanthropic partners, the building will be converted to an early childhood education center and a Girls Inc. location.

Perceptions About Low-Income Housing

Foote Park residents fall into one of three categories. About 50% are Section 8 recipients, roughly 15% have their rents subsidized by a low-income housing credit, and the other 35% are paying market rate, which is $850 for a one-bedroom, $1,050 for a two-bedroom or $1,225 for a three-bedroom.

Three residents who are paying full price — Lauren Buan, John Newsome and Linda Brown — told MLK50 they chose the development for the quality of its apartments, proximity to Downtown, and price point below other new nearby apartment projects, such as Museum Lofts, where units range from $1,125 to $2,050 per month.

Buan and her boyfriend were previously living in a Downtown apartment but wanted more space for them and their dog. Though a bit farther away, the pair still walk to the Mississippi River almost every day and frequent Beale Street on the weekends.

“We enjoy being Downtown and the convenience of being able to walk over there whenever we want to,” said Buan.

Newsome, who was previously living in Cordova, works in Whitehaven and has long enjoyed frequenting Downtown.

“I got tired of that commute. I got tired of the traffic. Whenever I wanted to go Downtown and then was trying to go back, that traffic was just too much,” he said.

Neither Newsome nor Brown knew they were signing up to live in a mixed-income community until after they moved in, and Buan found out late in the rental process. The development’s website, as Newsome pointed out, doesn’t make clear that it’s not a traditional, market-rate apartment complex, except for a couple lines on the “floor plans” page.

The three residents have had different reactions since learning the incomes of their neighbors.

Brown said she wouldn’t have agreed to pay $1,050 for her apartment if she’d known it would have so many low-income residents. Newsome, on the other hand, said the mix of incomes is working out well and he enjoys being part of it.

Buan said she wouldn’t want to raise kids in the neighborhood — given the regular gunfire — but likes it as a spot for her and her boyfriend and has high hopes for its future.

“We see a lot of potential in the area,” Buan said.

None of the three said they’ve gotten to know their neighbors well, which fits the pattern observed by academics. Multiple studies have found higher-income residents in mixed-income communities largely have superficial and infrequent interactions with lower-income residents.

Eubank said she’s not surprised the residents paying market rate didn’t know about the mix of incomes because of the quality of the apartments and South City’s location relatively close to market-rate Downtown apartments. She said she hasn’t heard complaints from market-rate residents but is well familiar with people not wanting to live near low-income neighbors.

“I think people have a lot of perceptions about low-income housing, right or wrong. In reality it can be something different,” she said.

“The reality is, if you’ve got a community where low-income or middle-income people can’t live, then how is it going to function?”

Jacob Steimer is a Report for America corps member and MLK50: Justice through Journalism reporter, formerly of the Memphis Business Journal. He nerds out over affordable housing, effective altruism, theology, history and sports.

Brad Vest is a documentary photographer based in Memphis, Tennessee. His work aspires to offer intimate views into individual, familial and social stories.

He worked as a staff photographer at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis from 2013 to 2019 where he was named the Pictures of the Year International Newspaper Photographer of the Year. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences from the University of Illinois and a Master of Arts degree in Visual Communication from Ohio University.

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