“Man, I could draw that!” Irene Johnson said as she glanced over several renderings of the proposed Southtown Court redevelopment, displayed on a cellphone. Illustrated were scenes of a busy public plaza and a corner building with retail space on the ground floor and a few people standing on the residential balconies above.
Johnson, the Southtown neighborhood president, was less than impressed by both the conceptual renderings and the reality of living in a public housing community that will soon be razed and replaced by the unfamiliar scenes on the screen she was holding.
“It’s a front,” Johnson said. “Maybe I wouldn’t be saying anything if they hadn’t left so many people out of it. How can I sit here and accept something like that without any of my people?”
Johnson believes members of the community, where she has lived since 1999, will not be welcomed back once the project is complete. “They don’t want you here. They don’t want any of you here,” Johnson said, now addressing the group of residents, most of them over 60 and on disability, gathered around the table in a small meeting room near the Southtown playground.
For her, the stigma placed on public housing residents has been tough to deal with. Originally from Coosa County, Johnson made the decision to move into public housing after a disability forced her to quit her job with the Russell Athletics mill in Alexander City where she had worked for decades.
“I haven’t decided whether I want to come back or not. But if I did, I should be able to come. The whole thing is about choice. People need a choice. Just because they’re low-income doesn’t mean all they deserve is the worst school or the worst neighborhood… Right now it’s not an open invitation [for current residents to come back],” Johnson said.
Since 2015, plans have been moving forward to redevelop the 75-year-old public housing community into a mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood, complete with restaurants and retail. Initially the announcement was met with both excitement and trepidation among the residents. In the intervening years, concerns over relocation have spread through the community even as HABD and the developers held several public meetings to gather input from residents.
Also in the Housing Authority Birmingham District’s illustrated plan are provisions that detail, in no uncertain terms, their commitment to replace “all public housing units” in the neighborhood. “455 units of public housing currently exist at Southtown Court, and HABD will ensure that 455 units remain within the Southside neighborhood following any future rehabilitation or redevelopment,” the plan reads.
Despite the language in the plan, last week HABD Director Michael Lundy told Weld he does not anticipate the new development to incorporate 455 new public housing units on the 25-acre site. However, the final redevelopment plans have not yet been announced by by the Southside Development Company, the conglomerate of local developers chosen unanimously by the HABD commissioners in January.
“Right now, we have 455 units there, but you have to keep in mind not all of them are occupied,” Lundy said last week. “We do have some vacancies. I don’t envision bringing 455 public housing units back on-site, but there will be some affordable housing. What we’re looking for is a real nice, mixed-use, mixed-income community.”
Johnson pointed out what she described as duplicity between the two competing concepts while expressing her frustration with how the early stages of the relocation discussion have been handled — a sentiment shared by the neighbors gathered around the table.
According to the most recent occupancy numbers provided by HABD, Southtown Court is 97-percent occupied, with 436 of the households being leased. Of those homes, 96 percent are African-American families, which fits with the overall look of Birmingham’s public housing; the 17 public housing properties owned and managed by HABD are roughly 95-percent occupied and none of the communities are less than 94-percent black.
The average single member income for Southtown residents is $6,755, one of the lowest among the area public housing developments.
In 2000, current Southtown resident Glenda Green had a stroke, leaving her unable to use her left hand. Green has lived in Southtown Court for “seven or eight years.” She moved from Gate City, another public housing development situated near I-20, west of downtown, to improve the quality of life for her daughter who died not long after the move.
The situation in her housing community, she said, leaves her uncertain. “I have no idea about what’s going on. The only thing I heard is that they want to tear these down and the developers want to build condominiums and not everyone can come back,” Green said.
“What about the seniors? I’m on disability. If I leave here and I’m on a subsidized rent, where am I going to go? You can’t just go up there and move in tomorrow. It takes time when you’re on disability to save up enough money to move. I don’t have noone to help me move my heavy furniture. What if we can’t find nowhere to go? I’m here by myself. I’d be on the street,” Green said.
“I just want to know what’s going on and what the higher-ups have to say about this.” Green admitted she has not attended any recent meetings about the development plans because she had been attending classes, trying to earn a degree. She also attribute her absence to the fact the last meeting was held at the Tutwiler Hotel, located downtown, about a mile and a half away. Mobility is a constant struggle for Green.
In late 2015, the new VA Clinic opened across the street from Southtown. It’s where Raymond Fuller regularly attends appointments. He’s worried about how the move will affect his ability to make it to hospital, especially if he is relocated to another public housing community further away.
“All you hear is talk going around. I want to see something in writing,” Fuller said. “I’d like to be able to come back, I really would. My doctor is right across the street…If you ask [HABD and the developers] something direct, they talk around it.”
Richard Rice, an attorney who was seated at the table, started rattling off passages from the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination against certain classes of people in residential dwelling. The act also also allows the secretary for Housing and Urban Development (in this case, Dr. Ben Carson) the opportunity, when administering programs, to assess how a proposed course of action would further limit the supply of genuinely open housing. Rice said that the new development would do just that.
“As we can see from the comments made here today, this is truly breaking up a community. Each one of these individuals will be displaced,” Rice said as heads nodded in agreement around the table. “There is nothing more sacred than one’s ability to have a home. A home is more than a structure. It’s the people that live around you and the relationships you build. This is a textbook case study of what gentrification looks like.”
For Johnson and others, the fact that the 25-acre Southtown community is situated on a coveted piece of real estate — with quick access to the Red Mountain Expressway, several hospitals and Five Points South — is cause for concern. “You don’t see them doing something like this with Gate City,” Johnson said. She has asked repeatedly whether or not HABD plans to sell the property to the developers, but has not received a response.
Joseph Bryant, director of communication for HABD, said nothing has been finalized, but did not discount the possibility of the property being sold. “Negotiations are still ongoing,” Bryant said. “We can’t speculate on specifics regarding the final agreement between HABD and the Southside Development [Company], but what is set in stone is our commitment to securing an arrangement that represents the best use for the property and the greatest investment for the agency. This is a huge piece of property that brings with it much flexibility for residential and commercial use.”
While the residents were largely critical of the process thus far, they repeatedly made a point to say, “We know [HABD Director Michael] Lundy’s hands are tied.”
In an effort to ease concerns among residents, Bryant said HABD will insist on affordable housing being a component of the redevelopment even if that is a caveat with the sale, but a number of units to be set aside for low-income residents has not been finalized. “The final number is to be determined, along with the complete vision for the property. Those conceptual details are still forthcoming. The property will include subsidized housing, market rate housing and commercial development. All three elements are essential for the success of the redevelopment,” Bryant said.
For residents in good standing who do not return to Southtown, they will have the option to remain in the HABD system, Bryant said. “Newly hired HABD social workers will work one-on-one with residents to develop a plan for future housing and advancement opportunities. Those include moving to another HABD site, accepting a housing choice voucher, or receiving help transitioning to the private market.”
Whatever plan is presented in the coming months, the five-member HABD commission, each of whom is appointed by the mayor, will have to vote for approval. Still, residents like Johnson remain skeptical. “They’ll promise you all this stuff,” she said, her arms folded tightly. “But in the end they’re going to do what they want to do… Money talks, and they ain’t listening to us. Look, these developers can build Pizitz or Uptown or whatever. That’s great. But they don’t know how to deal with people like us. They’re not in the the public housing business, and they’re not even letting us sit at the table.”