The Audacity of Hope?

More than Hope grants, the city itself needs real hope, with a plan to match.

Hope springs eternal, but Hope VI regularly has to fight for its life, not to mention its credibility.

It's a curious dilemma for a federal program that has pumped $122 million into Memphis to end the warehousing of poor families jammed into housing projects with from 442 to 800 units.

Threatened frequently with political extinction since it was created in 1992, HOPE VI has survived Congressional votes only to be accused of displacing poor families to make way for people with higher incomes. In addition, earlier this year, it was indicted by Atlantic magazine as a co-conspirator with Section 108 housing vouchers on a charge of dispersing crime throughout Memphis.

Herenton administration officials, who have navigated the federal bureaucracy to land an enviable five HOPE VI grants in the past decade, were quick to respond, suggesting that old-style housing projects were little more than government-created ghettos where poor people were marginalized. In truth, it's impossible these days to find anyone who argues that massive public housing projects were smart social policy, because in concentrating the problems of poverty into compact, overcrowded environments, the web of poverty-related problems was merely amplified and intensified.

But defense of HOPE VI projects by city officials was more than defense of its marquee program. More to the point, these projects are the physical symbols of how far Memphis Housing Authority (MHA) has come since 1992, when it was cited as one of the nation's worst-run public housing agencies.

It was the same year that Lauderdale Courts, whose Apartment 328 housed the family of aspiring singer Elvis Presley from 1949 to 1953, was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and Memphis' first African-American mayor, Willie W. Herenton, took office. The new mayor set two priorities for MHA — get off the HUD list and attract more federal money to his city.

It's no coincidence that changes in MHA leadership and success with HOPE VI applications ran parallel, because the close work between MHA and HUD to turn around the Memphis public housing agency led to the improved relationship and confidence level that became the foundation for a stepped-up campaign for more funding.

It was not long after MHA got off the HUD list in 1995 that it received the first HOPE VI grant, and the attention to relationship-building paid off with more success — four more grants since 2000.

LeMoyne Gardens became College Park, Lauderdale Courts became Uptown Square, Lamar Terrace became University Place, Hurt Village became Uptown Homes, and Dixie Homes is becoming Legends Park.

In each case, a public housing project that was "no man's land" for anyone but its residents became a site for New Urbanist-influenced housing, and one in particular, Elvis' former housing project, became a national model for how public housing could be made more livable while preserving a prime example of New Deal architecture.

Instead of the wrecking ball for Lauder-dale Courts, it became a $36 million public-private redevelopment christened as Uptown Square. Unlike the other HOPE VI projects where all buildings were razed, only 95 of the original 442 Lauderdale Courts units were removed.

Overall, according to Memphis Housing Authority, 2,465 of 2,812 units in the five HOPE VI developments were demolished and 1,299 people were relocated. Of that number, 555 were relocated to other public housing, 522 used vouchers for new housing, and 222 relocated private-owned housing.

It was this diaspora that got the blame for decentralizing crime in Memphis, but more to the point, the roots of the problem run directly to the city's intractable poverty, now at crisis levels.

About 162,000 Memphis residents live in poverty (the equivalent of the entire population of Chattanooga) and the extent of the human wreckage is frequently obscured in a problem commonly defined in statistical terms. Since 2000, Memphis' poverty rate has climbed a disturbing 30 percent, and alarmingly, the statistic most pertinent to crime rates — the percentage of youths under 18 living in poverty — is at the danger point: 42 percent and continuing to rise.

Now taking form at MHA is the outline of what its director Robert Lipscomb told City Council would be a "straightforward, honest civic conversation" about poverty. It's an overdue conversation that must be candid but promises to be emotional, because of the convergence between race and poverty in Memphis.

In the end, that's why Memphis needs more than HOPE VI. It needs good old-fashioned hope itself — hope for a cathartic discussion that moves from debates about symptoms of poverty (crime, teenage pregnancy, infant mortality, and low high school graduation rates) to a plan based more on action than analysis. 

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