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Nashville tries different kind of public housing

By Christine Kreyling

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999:  In 1972, in one of government's most highly visible admissions of failure, the St. Louis Housing Authority dynamited Pruitt-Igoe. The public housing project was a mere 14 years old and had already been severely damaged by arson. Lying in the rubble were post-World War II theories of how to provide for the housing needs of the poor.

Since then, the demolition of "the projects" has been repeated with increasing frequency throughout the country. Nashville has just recently gotten into the deconstruction and reconstruction act with two grants from the federal Hope VI program.

The feds established Hope VI in 1992 to help "distressed" housing authorities repair or replace their derelict projects. The first grants went to cities like Chicago and New Orleans, where the housing agencies had a reputation for corruption and lousy maintenance, and for a lot of the building type known as the "vertical slum."

Our Metro Development and Housing Agency has a better track record, having setting aside its tall towers for seniors and the disabled, two populations less likely to take a slash-and-burn approach to their surroundings. It was only when HUD relaxed Hope VI standards to include all housing authorities that MDHA qualified.

A 1997 $13.6 million Hope VI grant allowed MDHA to demolish the asbestos-ridden duplexes at the Vine Hill project near the state fairgrounds. And last month MDHA received a $35 million Hope VI grant to do a larger makeover at Preston Taylor Homes near 40th and Clifton Avenues. Both of these grants will be matched with state, local, and private funds.

The 280 brick boxes at Vine Hill were built in the 1940s as temporary housing for defense workers. Over time, the 35-acre site became a permanent warehouse for the poor. The project is being replaced by 152 rental units and 18 single-family homes on the site, with an additional 82 single-family homes and 40 rental units off-site.

The style of the new buildings is "Pleasantville modest," with traditional gables, front porches, and private driveways. Inside the model duplex, the central heat and air and wall-to-wall carpeting, the washer-dryer hookups and dishwashers, make the unit indistinguishable from the typical apartment in a Bell Road complex. A community center complete with child-care facility, Vanderbilt-operated health clinic, a computer room, job-training classrooms, a gym, and an ATM machine will be available for the surrounding neighborhood as well.

The layout of the new Vine Hill is similar to the old, with two important differences. All units address rather than lie perpendicular to the street, allowing residents to monitor their yards and driveways. And the new complex is to be a gated community, with access controlled at one central point.

"The residents asked for the gates," says Jennifer Gilbert, MDHA's Hope VI coordinator. "They said it was necessary to keep crime at bay. Normally, when you redo public housing, you try to link it back into the surrounding neighborhood.... But we agreed because at Vine Hill there's not really much of a neighborhood to link to."

The scope of the Preston Taylor makeover is more ambitious. The 1954 complex lies on 52 acres and contains 550 units in 62 barracks, a density four times greater than the surrounding neighborhood. The nearest grocery is two miles away. There is virtually no public access to the adjacent 14-acre Boyd Park. The crime incidence is the highest in all of Nashville's public housing.

The new Preston Taylor will contain 310 rental units and 40 single-family homes. The layout will be as similar to Vine Hill's as the hilly site will allow, but will not be gated because there is more of a neighborhood fabric with which to to connect. An additional 60 single-family homes and 30 rental units will be constructed on vacant lots scattered throughout the surrounding neighborhoods, as well as a 60-unit assisted living facility.

The Preston Taylor site will also contain a one-stop community center similar to Vine Hill's. Boyd Park will be redeveloped. New adjacent amenities will include a Dollar General store and learning center, an expanded McKissack School, and a new elementary lab school on land donated by Tennessee State University. The lab school will be used to train TSU student teachers, thus tying Preston Taylor's best neighbor into the revitalization efforts.

Public housing projects harnessed mass production to deal with the post-World War II shortage of affordable housing.

The projects failed because they concentrated the poorest population at the greatest density, encouraging social ills to spread like an epidemic. And they failed because their design allowed minimum function to prevail over communal and private needs. The isolation of the sites, the superblock configuration, the tenuous relation to public streets, the barracks-like construction--all served to announce that here was poverty, and it was catching and had to be quarantined.

The new plans for Vine Hill and Preston Taylor are influenced by the New Urbanism--which calls for a return to pre-World War II development patterns--and just plain common sense. The theory is that people behave best living in houses that face the street, on traditional-sized blocks defined by a grid of public thoroughfares, at a comparable density to the area.

The subdivision look is just a part of the equation. While former residents have first choice on returning to a new unit at Vine Hill or Preston Taylor, MDHA is actively recruiting clients above the average public housing income level--which is less than 10 percent of the local median annual income of $53,000--to rent some of the units and to purchase the single-family homes.

The hope is that the greater economic diversity will produce a more stable population. But critics say MDHA is using the lowest income residents to qualify for the grants, and then spending the money to displace some of these residents.

"To some extent that's true," says MDHA director Gerald Nicely, "but we're providing the former residents with other subsidized housing or Section 8 vouchers" that support their rents in private dwellings. If we didn't try to mix the incomes, we'd just be recreating the concentration of the poorest, which has proven not to work."

With the reconstruction of Vine Hill and Preston Taylor, MDHA is taking two giant steps toward fracturing the ghettos. But these are only first steps. The problem of housing the poor without creating ghettos will never be solved until Nashville integrates living quarters for the "housing challenged" into all of its neighborhoods.

The next step for MDHA is to require a percentage of affordable housing in the residential developments it subsidizes. The agency missed a golden opportunity with Tony Giarratana's Cumberland tower and the Post Properties rehab of the Bennie Dillon building, both recipients of MDHA's tax increment financing. The opportunity still exists on the old General Hospital site, where MDHA plans a new mixed-use development on Rolling Mill Hill.

If MDHA can demonstrate that a percentage of affordable housing doesn't automatically mean "there goes the neighborhood," then the city as a whole might take the next step with what is called "inclusionary zoning." Counties such as Montgomery in Maryland and Fairfax in Virginia have established laws that developers of multi-family complexes over a certain size must set aside a certain number of affordable units. Developers are encouraged to do this by density bonuses or other carrots.

Inclusionary zoning runs counter to the increased tendency to create clusters of ever greater segregation by class. But communities of exclusion have produced as a counterpart clusters of social pathology. The rich and the poor should learn to live together by just doing it.

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