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Losing Home: Urban Renewal Meets Public Housing

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Robert Minter Jr. remembers the Austin Homes public housing complex as a beautiful place to grow up after his father returned from World War II. Clean sidewalks were shaded by weeping willows and magnolia trees. “You could walk barefooted in Austin Homes at that time,” he remembers. 

Children always had playmates for sandlot baseball and football, for shooting marbles, and for jumping in the spray pool. 

Geraldine Taylor was a toddler when her family of five moved from a three-room shotgun house into Austin Homes. In their old house, “the floors were hardwood, but they had spaces between the planks,” she said. Her mother told her, “The air in the wintertime... just came up and froze us nearly to death. And that’s the main reason she was so elated when she was notified that she was going to get a new project.”

Public housing offered a step up for many families, but it came with new limits, too. Financial and other rules set by the Knoxville Housing Authority meant that families had much less control over their environment, or even who counted as family. 

Even so, many families don’t have other options. That’s partly because federal housing programs -- including both public housing and urban renewal -- destroyed so much of the nation’s privately-owned affordable housing. The two programs were intertwined with each other -- and with racial segregation -- from the beginning. 

And they helped lay the groundwork for today’s national affordable housing crisis. According to racial scholar and sociologist George Lipsitz, urban renewal destroyed 90 percent of the nation’s affordable housing stock over the next quarter-century. 

The result is that even working families struggle to find places they can afford to rent. A widely-recognized standard for “affordable housing” is that rent shouldn’t take more than 30 percent of household income. According to data compiled by the City of Knoxville, more than one in three households pays more than that. 

Federal housing and redevelopment

Even during the Depression, Democrats couldn’t get the Housing Act of 1937 passed without appeasing the construction industry with a deal: For every unit of public housing created, an existing unit of “slum housing” would be demolished. And to be sure the federal government wouldn’t compete with private developers, public housing would be designed to serve the poorest Americans. 

This encouraged the destruction of privately-owned, low-income housing. Then it concentrated poverty in public housing complexes. 

Locally, it also paired public housing with redevelopment under one agency: The housing authority, which in Knoxville was even renamed Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation to reflect its dual role. A few local activists have for years argued that this created a conflict of interest by giving KCDC an incentive to move low-income families if redevelopment of their neighborhood would increase the city’s tax base. 

Shortly after the first public housing complexes were built, the Housing Act of 1949 established urban renewal. It paid most of the bill for cities to raze 425,000 “substandard” housing units by 1968, according to research by Roger Biles, who wrote a book about urban renewal called “The Fate of Cities.” Urban renewal led to the construction of only 125,000 units nationwide -- most of them luxury apartments.

Between the mid-1950s and 1974, Knoxville used urban renewal funds to bulldoze three downtown Black neighborhoods that were dubbed “slums,” despite containing a mix of housing types and conditions. Thousands of people had to find a new place to live. Many moved into nearby Austin Homes. But many also made too much money for public housing, although not enough for the private rentals that remained.  The ceiling was low: A family with two children had to make less than $2,700 a year to qualify for an apartment at Austin Homes in 1959. 

Eventually Austin Homes wasn’t big enough to house all the people who had relied on the affordable housing demolished by urban renewal. More homes were bulldozed for a new housing project unveiled in 1967, Walter P. Taylor Homes.

“Housing projects as a solution to Black poverty did more harm to Black Knoxvillians,” wrote Knoxville sociologist Enkeshi El-Amin in her dissertation for the University of Tennessee. In it, she explained that even as former Black homeowners were being pushed into public housing, jobs followed white residents to the suburbs. That limited employment options for the Black residents in the housing projects downtown, leaving them more dependent on the state, “which reverberated in a cycle of Black powerlessness.”

Public housing also further entrenched segregation. A housing program that began under the Public Works Administration in the early 1930s laid the groundwork with a rule that “federal housing projects should reflect the previous racial composition of their neighborhoods.” 

In other words, public housing could only be integrated if the surrounding neighborhood was already integrated. That didn’t happen too often in the South, where for decades it was legal to refuse to rent or sell a home to Black Americans. 

This reinforced an equivalency that had begun developing after the Civil War: Black neighborhoods are poor neighborhoods -- and vice versa. That trend continues today. A Harvard report published in November 2020 found that “residential segregation remains a significant problem” in housing: Two-thirds of low-income minorities live in very poor neighborhoods. That’s true for only one third of white people with low incomes. 

For many decades, Black residents in public housing were unlikely to be able to influence housing and redevelopment decisions in their own favor. To build College Homes near the historically-black Knoxville College in Mechanicsville, the Knoxville Housing Authority condemned the houses on 13 acres. KHA created a Negro committeee to advise it on the project. But the committee was never informed or consulted, and several members quit in protest before the project was finished in 1940. 

This type of discrimination continued for decades. For example, by 1967 Black residents occupied 70 percent of public housing units, yet the Knoxville Housing Authority Board had no Black members.

In 1969, the makeup of public housing shifted due to a federal change in the way rent was set. Instead of simply capping rent -- like rent control does in some  cities -- rent was shifted to a sliding scale based on income. The change came as even public housing was beginning to be too expensive for the poorest tenants, according to a Congressional Research Service history.

From then on, renters didn’t have to contribute more than 25 percent of their income. One result, the report says, was that tenants progressively became poorer people who also depended on other government assistance. Their lower rental payments didn’t cover the cost of maintaining aging public housing complexes.This combination resulted in deteriorating projects and concentrating poverty.

It was during the following era that some of the housing projects built to replace ghettos became ghettos themselves. 

Hope VI

In 1992, the Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing published a report that identified very poor conditions in about 6 percent of public housing projects across the country.

It triggered an initiative called HOPE VI, initially intended to handle “severely distressed” public housing. The federal government provided grants for local housing authorities to tear down these old complexes and rebuild mixed-income housing in their place. 

However, a critical report was issued in 2002, the year HOPE VI ended, by the National Housing Law Project and its partners (including a national association of public housing residents). The report indicated that Hope VI was on pace to demolish twice as much housing as had been labeled “severely distressed.” Federal auditors had found that the program seemed to target projects not based on condition, but on possibilities  for higher-income redevelopment.

The report accused Hope VI of “large-scale family displacement and housing redevelopment that increasingly appears to do more harm than good.”

Urban geographer James Fraser said one of the program’s assumptions was that poor people would be uplifted by having higher-income neighbors as role models. Plus, a mixed-income neighborhood would have more savvy and clout to pressure the city for better services. 

“The rest was basically a promise to people that you will rise up socio-economically, you’ll have a better physical environment, and your lives will be improved,” said Fraser, a former Vanderbilt professor now writing a book on housing justice. “Since 1992, there are virtually no studies that bear that out,” he said.

Perhaps most importantly, HOPE VI had no requirement to replace low-income units it demolished. Generally, at least a third of its replacement housing was reserved for home owners or market-rate rentals, the National Housing Law Project found.  

Knoxville received a $22 million HOPE VI grant in 1997 to “revitalize Mechanicsville public housing.” College Homes, the first project built by the Knoxville Housing Authority, was replaced with single-family and duplex homes designed to complement the surrounding neighborhood. Density dropped from 26 families per acre to six to eight homes per acre. 

According to KCDC, 138 of the rebuilt units were for sale. KCDC did not track ownership patterns after these passed into private hands.

There weren’t enough low-income units to accommodate all the former residents. This was typical. New School professor Alex Schwartz conducted an analysis that found only about a quarter of original public housing residents were relocated into the replacement Hope VI housing. Some cities lost more than 30 percent of their public housing units. 

In Knoxville, many College Homes residents were moved to other projects. Others were given Section 8 vouchers meant to subsidize rent at privately-owned apartments, said Ben Bentley, CEO of KCDC. (This all happened before his time.) 

Today, there are lots of those vouchers. But the number of landlords who accept them has plummeted during the last five years.

As of April 2021, a total of 4,097 Section 8 vouchers were available for Knox County, according to KCDC. Because there is too little affordable housing available, only 63 of every 100 vouchers result in a successful lease. As of April 20, there were 5,593 families on KCDC’s Section 8 waiting list.

“We haven’t protected our stock of housing, so we’re seeing an increase in homelessness, and people spending more than half their income on rent,” Fraser said. “If you have people spending so much on housing, they can’t really save. They can’t invest. They can’t afford health insurance.”

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The Residences at Five Points opened in 2017. It has duplexes, houses, and senior apartments and serves a mix of incomes, all below the median income for the area. The development is part of a large public housing initiative that replaced Walter P. Taylor homes, which was built in 1967.

A housing evolution

Since Hope VI, KCDC’s biggest projects have continued to involve tearing down old complexes and rebuilding. The most recent was The Residences at Five Points, which replaced Walter P. Taylor Homes andDr. Lee L. Williams Senior Complex. Almost complete, it includes 336 low-income units (19 more than before), as well as additional apartments, houses, duplexes and the Residences at Eastport for seniors. Now a similar overhaul is underway at Austin Homes.

There are two key differences between these modern projects and Hope VI projects: Now, all low-income units have to be replaced, and all former residents have the right to return, Bentley said.

They also use newer financing mechanisms that depend on public-private partnership. To attract these private partners, federal housing officials encourage mixed income levels in public housing, KCDC officials said in an email. Both Five Points and Austin Homes are considered mixed-income, although no units will rent at market rates. At Austin Homes, this financing arrangement allowed KCDC to build hundreds more affordable housing units, Bentley said.

he Residences at Five Points are available to people who earn 50 to 60 percent of the area’s median income of $73,000 for a family of four. Austin Homes units are designated in three tiers, ranging from extremely low-income to those earning less than 80 percent of the area’s median income. (According to data compiled by the city, almost 60 percent of Knoxville area households fit into that last category.)

Bentley said he doesn’t buy the trope thatthe virtues of moderate-income residents will “rub off’ on their neighbors -- a concept that involves a lot of stereotypes and assumptions. He sees primarily one tangible benefit of mixed-income neighborhoods: “Greater amenities just tend to follow people with more income,” he said. More services and businesses are attracted to neighborhoods where more residents have money to spend. 

Another advantage is that mixed-income neighborhoods can be less attractive to criminals who prey on communities where poverty is concentrated, Bentley said.

Closer to home

Many Black residents who grew up in Knoxville before urban renewal recall living with not only parents and their siblings but aunts, cousins, grandparents and unrelated “adopted family.” Families retrofitted their houses to accommodate everyone. Sometimes this led to overcrowding, but it also accommodated an extended support network. 

Housing authority policies have helped break up poor families over the years, some experts say. Public housing doesn’t allow for changes to the space, or unrelated overnight visitors, or family members with a felony record. 

“Policies in the realm of social welfare prohibited Black families from staying in each other’s homes,” Fraser said. Extended families couldn’t help each other as much, and sometimes even fathers couldn’t live with their families. These policies multiplied inequality, Fraser said.

Public housing also limits what can be done to personalize living space, El-Amin said. “You’re constrained in a place that has every bit of creativity pulled out of it,” she said. “It’s like containment, literally.”

Umoja  Abdul-Ahad, who grew up in the neighborhoods destroyed by urban renewal, points out that families who moved into public housing afterward continue to be uprooted as those complexes are torn down and rebuilt.

“There’s a psychosis that goes on about destroying people’s lives by destroying the places where they live,” Abdul-Ahad said. “College Homes was devastating, and what’s happening at Austin Homes,” he said. “There is a continuing effort to dehumanize a certain group of people.”

Abdul-Ahad perceives that knocking down Walter P. Taylor Homes to replace it with a mixed-income development at Five Points was a way for developers to make money off of Black people “just as when African Americans were brought here as chattel,” he said. “It’s not stopping.”

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Archival photos and supportive historical content provided for these stories were courtesy of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, the only state-designated repository for Black history and culture in East Tennessee. Beck is proud to collaborate with WUOT to educate the public on stories of Urban Renewal's impact on Knoxville's Black community. If you are interested in in sharing your own experiences through an oral history or donating materials to the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, please feel free to contact them at 865-524-8461 or visit  www.beckcenter.net for more information on how you can help their collection grow. 

Funding for "Losing Home: Black Neighborhoods and Urban Renewal" came from the East Tennessee Foundation's "Hope in Action" Fund. The fund was established in 2018 to support programs that protect populations most likely to face discrimination or programs that nurture hope and equality in our culture. In 2020, ETF activated this fund to award grants to nonprofit organizations addressing racism and injustice in our region.

All episodes in the Losing Home series on urban renewal can be found here.