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Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Knoxville and HOPE VI: Despair and HOPE


When time came for residents to move out of the old College Hill Apartments in the Mechanicsville community in Knoxville, Tennessee, so they could be torn down and the new neighborhood built, some residents did not want to leave.

"They were extremely adamant about not moving," says Alvin Nance, the executive director of the Knoxville Community Development Corporation (KCDC). "We had to set out five residents on the absolute last and final day, so the revitilization plan associated with HOPE VI could continue," he says. The city of Knoxville received its HOPE VI allocation in 1998, but the first grant wasn't paid for almost a year and a half. "We had many residents who were ready to move, and we had a situation of 'hurry up and wait," says Mr. Nance. After months of frustration, KCDC decided to use its own money up front to relocate residents, knowing the federal grant money would come soon. Many of them moved to other public housing in Knoxville, some took the Section 8 vouchers that were offered and found their own housing, and still others found other housing with relatives. KCDC also provided residents the money to move with, and the agency was eventually reimbursed by HUD.

"One thing we would have done differently," says Mr. Nance, "would be to have gotten the nearby schools in on the relocation process, and bring them to the table early in the process." He says, when the HOPE VI government grants became available, principals of nearby schools were not notified that many of their students who lived in the College Hills Apartments would be temporarily relocating. As a result, "their student population dropped, which affected the student-to-teacher ratio," he says,"and ultimately, federal government money the schools received that particular school year was significantly less than expected." To avoid that, Mr. Nance says, "get the school system involved early, so they'll be ready to adjust."

"The relocation process out, the teardown, the rebuilding, and then the relocation back to the neighborhood went smoothly for the most part,"Mr. Nance says. He says, it's difficult moving people away from the environment they've lived in for third and fourth generations. "Their family history is in the projects, whatever support structure their lives had is being disrupted. Their church, their nearest family members, their stores, their rides to and from work, were all right there in College Hills," he says.

"Our elderly residents were entitled to come back, and so we did not even require them to sign a contract to do so," Mr. Nance says. But it turns out, NONE of them wanted to return. "During the first phase, they were relocated to high-rise senior citizen apartments, which, after years of raising children and grandchildren, catered to their every need. For the first time in their lives, someone was looking after THEM, in quiet settings, no noise, no loud music, no kids and grandkids, and every activity was geared to them," he says.

"We also had activists who said they were looking after the poor and low-income people, who came in and tried to rally the College Hills residents against the HOPE VI revitilization," Mr. Nance says, "and we had to address their concerns that "only white folk would be moving back into these nice homes." We fought that and won, and our neighbors in Kingsport need to be aware of that faction, because they can have good arguments that may sway the momentum away from revitilization."

His best advice for those residents and government officials in the Riverview Apartments redevelopment is to "be patient. HUD expects you to get the HOPE VI revitilization plan finished in four-and-a-half years, and that is definitely NOT going to happen. HOPE VI is a great thing for the community, but be patient.. residents need to ask questions, officials need to provide as many answers as it can, and neither side needs to get upset with the response."

"Stay the course."

TOMORROW: HOPE VI is not just for large cities. Kingsport, Tennessee has just been awarded a HOPE VI series of grants to renovate public housing in its African-American community. We'll visit "The Model City" as it tries to rebuild a "model community" smack dab in the middle of a "model" industrial environment.