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

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 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.

Memphis SouthCity MLKrebuild 920 613 80

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?”

You May Also Like