Changing Public Housing

Chapter 1

On a burgundy velvet couch in a quaint, one-bedroom apartment, sits a slight elderly woman with light brown hair. Today she is wearing a leopard print blouse and black track pants.

The apartment is well-kept and tastefully decorated with velvet curtains gently swooped to one side at the entrance of the hall and the kitchen. The bookcases are filled with pictures of her family. Pictures of Helen in her youth, of her children, and grand-children, also adorn the walls and television stand along with heart-shaped flower wreaths, inspirational quotes, crucifixes, and a large clock with family photos in place of the numbers.

A laptop computer sits atop a stereo furniture cabinet next to the statuette of a golden horned unicorn. This is where she checks her email and keeps in touch with family. On the coffee table, there’s a bible, more photos, and a large angel figurine.

Helen Maine is a soft-spoken 85-year-old; one must strain to hear her. This is a family trait I was told by a friend of hers, “even her brother spoke softly.”

Helen’s home is one of 128 in Robert E. Lee Apartments; a public housing development.  It is October 2017 and the apartments are slated for demolition in early 2018 as part of a revitalization of the midtown neighborhood near downtown Kingsport. Helen has been notified that the current residents of Lee Apartments must relocate by the end of December 2017.

Helen is one of the oldest residents of Lee Apartments having lived there for forty-seven years. The impending move from Lee is a bit scary for her, she says, because she wants to be near the places she knows and walks to every day. She also frets about getting her things packed, and how she will do it on her own. She says that every night she has nightmares about the move, and she can’t sleep.

According to Joanna Frazier, older adult care manager for Frontier Health, a behavioral and mental health hospital serving northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia, the anxiety Helen is experiencing is to be expected.

“Nightmares are normal since it’s such an overwhelming process and most of them [senior citizens] don’t know where to start,” Frazier says. “They’re at a point in their lives where change doesn’t come easily to them and can be disorienting. They’re used to a routine and then you just pick up and move and all that is disrupted.”

Because of the overwhelming factors of a move, at Helen’s age depression and anxiety are common, says Frazier. And, she says, depending on a senior citizen’s mental health, they can experience disorientation in their new surroundings. “The more support they have the better off they do whenever they do transition into a different environment,” she says.

Helen and the other 128 families living at Lee apartments will be issued Housing Choice Vouchers, so they may rent from private landlords. The Kingsport Housing and Redevelopment Authority (KHRA) will pay for all their moving expenses including rental and utility deposits.

Helen worries about looking for new place to live. She worries about how she will get to any new landlord, so she can view apartments and how far away any new apartment may be from midtown.  From her home at Lee she can walk or take the bus to pay her bills or go shopping.

 At Lee, she has two garden boxes in the resident community garden where she grows tomatoes and cucumbers.  She also has a small yard behind her apartment where she grows her prized roses and has planted two fruit trees. From her small back porch, she can see her son’s backyard that abuts the narrow alley that separates the apartments from the other homes in the neighborhood.

KHRA has assigned case managers to support Helen and the other residents with their impending moves.

Anne Sparkman, the housing authority relocation specialist at KHRA, promises Helen that she will drive her to visit any new apartments until she finds the one she would like to rent.  “We’ve assured her that we will find her a place to live that she’ll like,” says Sparkman. “We will pack her things and we’ll help her.”

Jane Ensign, a former instructor in the Learning Center at Lee Apartments, thinks Helen will not have a hard time adapting to a new place to live.

“Helen is open to learning new things,” says Ensign, remembering when Helen approached her at the Learning Center, and asked Ensign to teach her how to use a computer so she could communicate with her grandchildren.

“As far as Miss Helen goes,” says Ensign, “I think she’s an extraordinary person, because when you see what she’s been through in her life and where she is today, well most people her age are sitting in a nursing home. They’re not walking downtown to pay their bills. She doesn’t ask for help and she doesn’t really want to take it.”

When asked if she would want to live with her relatives, Helen says she likes living by herself. She likes her independence.

Chapter 2

Helen’s move is part of a nationwide change in the way housing authorities will manage their public housing going forward. Currently, housing developments like Robert E. Lee Apartments are owned by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and managed by the individual housing authorities. Presently, the Kingsport Housing and Redevelopment Authority (KHRA) is HUD’s manager for the Lee apartments.

HUD is now introducing the Rental Assistance Demonstration Program (RAD) to a few pilot communities before rolling out the program nationwide. HUD says RAD will enable housing authorities to address a backlog of $26 billion dollars in deferred maintenance.

The RAD program will allow housing authorities to use tax credits and other funding to repair or replace old buildings, like Lee Apartments, that are long overdue for repairs and needed updates. The program also marks the beginning of HUD’s exit from the public housing business.

Under RAD, ownership of public housing buildings will transfer from HUD to the housing authority, operating under a separate limited liability corporation, who will then run the buildings under a Section 8 Project-Based Voucher program.

The limited liability corporation will essentially become landlords of the properties enabling them to apply for loans for improvements like any private entity; thus, ending any reliance on HUD for building maintenance funds. KHRA, as a non-profit, will function as the manager of the properties now owned by their limited liability corporation.

Not the First Demonstration

The Lee apartments have undergone a couple of interior improvements over the last 77 years with the last improvements occurring sometime in the 1970s, but this change will be a total rebuilding, not only of the property itself, but of the way it will operate into the future.

Originally named the Robert E. Lee Homes, the apartments were built in 1940 as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal public housing effort.

In 1939, the United States Housing Authority (USHA, now HUD) through the Public Works Administration (PWA) received $100 million dollars to direct “housing demonstration projects” so that local city governments could establish local housing authorities within their jurisdictions that would then eliminate slums and provide low-income housing for white and black residents.

In early 1939, the city of Kingsport’s five leading citizens met with representatives from the USHA, and soon after, on February 24, 1939, they established the Kingsport Housing Authority (KHA).

By August 1939, the KHA petitioned the PWA for funds for two housing projects: a 128-unit complex to be built on seven acres in the midtown area of the city for white residents and a 48-unit complex to be built on three acres south of the Clinchfield railroad tracks and between two factories (an old dye plant and the General Shale Products factory) for black residents.

On August 11, 1939, Kingsport was one of only eleven communities in the country selected to receive dollars as part of the PWA’s pilot housing demonstration project; receiving $544,000 from the government contingent on the City of Kingsport making a sizable contribution of $65,000 to the project for a total of $609,000 for the two proposed housing projects.

A contest to name the two housing projects was announced on November 26, 1939, offering a cash prize of five dollars to the winner. On December 5, 1939 Mr. Charles B. Leonard won the five-dollar prize for his suggested name of Robert E. Lee for the apartment complex for white residents and Mrs. James Hipp won five dollars for her suggested name of Riverview for the apartment complex for black residents.  

Winter 1939 – 1940 (photo credit: KHA)

By November 1940, families were moving into the newly built Robert E. Lee Homes.  Sometime in the mid-1940s the Robert E. Lee Homes were renamed Robert E. Lee Apartments.

That Was Then, This Is Now

Today, the city of Kingsport is once again one of a few communities in the country selected for a HUD pilot program designed to change public housing.

As it was true in 1939, the city was given the opportunity to apply for a grant to change public housing in the area contingent upon the city raising a portion of the revenue.  “We, the city and KHRA, had the opportunity to pursue a $50 million dollar grant to improve all affordable housing in our area,” says Kingsport Mayor John Clark. “To qualify the city had to invest $3 million to afford the team to go after the additional $47 million. So, Kingsport voted to approve the funding and, as a result, we are now engaged in improving the housing for all income levels and this project, in particular, for affordable housing and Lee Apartments is a part of this improvement.”

With the $50 million in funding, KHRA plans to renovate their remaining five public housing apartment complexes (Cloud Apartments, Dogwood Terrace Apartments, Holly Hills Apartments and Tiffany Court Apartments) under the RAD program; only Lee will be completely razed. All the apartment complexes will then become project-based voucher housing under the RAD program.

The razing of Robert E. Lee Apartments is not only because of the age of the property, the land underneath the project needs regrading due to drainage issues, according to Terry Cunningham, executive director of KHRA.

The demolition of the apartments is also a key part of a total revitalization of the midtown neighborhood in Kingsport from Myrtle Street to Dale Street and from Tennessee Street to Poplar Street.

The construction project will be completed in three phases. In the first phase, 50 town homes will be built, with more units constructed in each subsequent phase. The completed project will be a community of 160 town homes and condos available to residents through project-based vouchers and at market rates.

“It will look more like a traditional neighborhood which is always inviting to residents,” says Lynn Tully, development services director for the city of Kingsport. “We saw it in Riverview when we re-did those. People love to live in Riverview now.”

The original Riverview Homes built in 1940 were razed in 2009 under a HOPE VI grant and rebuilt into a town home and single-family home community. Simply known as Riverview today, it was considered public housing until it transitioned to project-based voucher under RAD in early 2018.

Riverview Homes circa 1951 when 36 more units were added to the original 48 (photo credit: KHA)
Riverview Homes today (Photo Credit: Tanya Adams)
Riverview Homes (Photo Credit: Tanya Adams)

How HUD is Getting Out of Public Housing

In the traditional Housing Choice Voucher program (commonly known as the Section 8 Voucher program), rental assistance vouchers are issued to individuals who can use them to rent from any private landlord who will accept them. 

Under the Project-Based Voucher program, the assistance stays with the property. Low-income families will have to qualify for project-based vouchers as they do now for public housing and pay 30 percent of their income toward rent, but should they ever leave the property, they won’t take the rental assistance with them. At that point, they would have to either pay fair market value rent to a private landlord or apply for a Housing Choice Voucher.

That is the heart of the RAD conversion. As project-based properties, the housing authority’s limited liability corporation becomes the owner of the properties. The housing authority itself manages the properties for the limited liability corporation; essentially putting HUD out of the public housing business.

According to Tully, the RAD program takes what was traditional public housing and makes it all project-based voucher housing, so market rate units can be included.  This makes for a more mixed income community where everyone feels included.  No one will know who is getting assistance and who has paid market rate to live in the community.

 “This gets rid of that stigma and allows us to have a more cohesive community-focused housing,” says Tully, who, in addition to being the city’s development services director, serves on the Tennessee Housing Development board. “I think that’s great for KHRA, good for the city, and good for the citizens and residents of those units.”

The other five public housing apartment complexes currently under the housing authority will also become project-based voucher under RAD. “That will effectively eliminate traditional housing in Kingsport,” says Tully.

“I think the city has made a lot of progress in many years on all fronts,” says Mayor Clark. “That’s the beauty of Kingsport. Overall, we’re trying to improve the quality of life for people and that includes a lot of different things and housing is one of them.”

Chapter 3

Helen refused the Section 8 voucher offered to her by the housing authority. She was reluctant to go apartment hunting and to find a landlord who would take the Section 8 voucher.

When she heard that a project-based voucher unit was available in a senior citizens apartment complex only a couple of miles from Lee Apartments, she decided to move there. The senior citizens apartment building Helen chose has a number of project-based voucher units but is owned by a private company, not the housing authority.

Helen left Lee Apartments before the end of November 2017. She couldn’t take her washer and dryer with her, not because she didn’t have help moving them, but because the apartments in her new home did not have laundry hookups. Instead, there is a communal laundry facility.  She would have to sell her beloved washer and dryer.  This was the first change Helen didn’t like.

By February 2018, all the residents of the Robert E. Lee Apartments had been relocated to new homes within the city.

On May 9, 2018, the Kingsport Housing Authority held a demolition ceremony at the now vacant Robert E. Lee Apartments property. It was a symbolic ceremony. The apartments weren’t slated for demolition until the summer. City leaders, HUD representatives and many former residents were in attendance.  There were speeches and attendees viewed pictures of the old Lee Apartments along with the architectural rendering of the new community that would take its place. The name of this new progressive community was unveiled: “The Grove at Poplar Dale.”

Several dignitaries took hammers to a low brick wall with the word “Lee” spelled out in bricks symbolically beginning the demolition of Robert E. Lee Apartments. Former residents were encouraged to take home the black slate square placards imprinted with white numbers that once hung over their apartment doors as keepsakes.

Helen was not in attendance.

In October, I spoke to Helen to see how she had adjusted to the move. When I first reached her on her cell phone, she was out and about running errands as she did when she lived in Lee, so we set a time to talk later.

When I finally did get to speak with her, she said things were a bit harder for her since the move. She says she still gets out and walks around to do her errands, but she must walk a bit farther now and she’s been having back trouble lately.

When she lived at Lee, she says, a KHRA employee, took all the senior citizens to the grocery store once a week, now she takes the bus. “Sometimes, I accidentally get too much, and I can’t carry it all,” she says. When that happens she says she must take a cab home. The cab ride costs her $8.00. The cab driver charges her extra to help her carry the grocery bags to her apartment. The last time she went grocery shopping she had to wait two hours for the cab.

She says she likes that the new apartment is much bigger than her old one and has larger windows that let in a lot of light, but she misses her small backyard at Lee where she grew her roses and the fruit trees she’d planted there.  She also misses tending to her tomatoes and cucumbers in the community garden.  Although the new complex has a large manicured front lawn and a well-appointed courtyard, there is no place where she can have an individual garden space.

A renovated and re-purposed school building, her new home has no balcony or back porch.  She says she can’t see her son’s backyard like she could from her small back porch at Lee.

She once told me that at Lee, there were a few people that were a little wild “drinking and partying and carrying on.”

“It’s a bit lonely here,” she says.“It’s the quietest place I’ve ever lived at.” She misses the ubiquitous noise of the children playing outside at Lee.

The senior citizens complex does offer activities for the residents and Helen has attended a few of them.  She especially enjoys the activities that include food, she says, and has made a few friends that she talks to there.  And, she finds that she doesn’t mind taking her laundry to the laundry room after all. Though, she did have to get used to the main doors to the building being locked every evening by four o’clock.

Her son has been a great support to her. He visits her often and takes her on outings every week and for visits with her grandchildren. She says he calls her every night to talk and say goodnight.

When asked why she didn’t attend the demolition ceremony held in May, she says that she was invited but did not want to go. “I didn’t want to go down there,” she says. “It bothered me too much. I lived at Lee for 47 years and I asked if I could have my apartment back when they’re built, and they said it would take time and I couldn’t have it back.”

Former residents can apply to live in the new Grove at Poplar Dale once they are completed, but Helen wants her old apartment back and that apartment will no longer exist.

She says overall, she likes her new home. “It’s okay,” she says, “but it’s not the same.”

After a couple of delays, demolition of Lee Apartments began in November 2018 with the entire complex projected  to be completed in 2020.

Helen talks about living at Lee Apartments

Demoliton of Lee Apartments begins (November 2018)

Unless otherwise noted photos are by the author
Chapter 2 aerial photo of Robert E. Lee Apartments  from  Kingsport Times News – photo credit: Calvin Sneed
Kingsport Times News article excerpts and advertisement from Newspapers[dot]com