Urban Removal

It's the same old story, critics say: displacing blacks to make way for whites

In reality, HUD gave the program exceedingly low marks for logistical planning, having no preference for minorities, and a lack of oversight. HUD gives no further public explanation of why it gave those marks other than to say the Housing Authority's plans did not compare to proposals from other cities.

Housing Authority officials say that giving preference to minorities in selling the new units would be discriminatory. But White, the spokeswoman for HUD, says other projects have figured out how to do so without violating antidiscrimination laws. She would not give any specific examples, but relocation programs have, among other things, often given preferential treatment to displaced residents applying for new publicly funded housing.

Forced to rethink the plans after HUD's continued rejections, Robinson went instead to the City Commission for help. She found an audience that was no more responsive. The city in 2002 declined to financially support the plans. City leaders wanted the project to sell its homes rather than rent them, and they blasted the Housing Authority for having no architectural drawings. A year later, the Housing Authority returned, but commissioners blasted Robinson for moving too slowly in completing the plans. City Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell was the first to notice flaws in the plan, and the rest of the commission soon joined her dissent. "It was a dog with fleas," Mitchell says. "It stunk."

Ruby Bennett can't bring herself to visit her old home, where she raised seven kids. The house is filled with trash and signs that vagrants live there now.
Colby Katz
Ruby Bennett can't bring herself to visit her old home, where she raised seven kids. The house is filled with trash and signs that vagrants live there now.

Robinson says the city was reacting to the Housing Authority's past problems. "The tension with the city is grounded in the history of what housing authorities used to be," Robinson says. "They have pigeonholed us, and they're not used to seeing us out here doing different things."

As the Merry Place plans have floundered in the past seven years, Pleasant City has become nearly ringed in redevelopment. The neighborhood to its east has become filled with upscale offices in refurbished old homes; to the south is downtown with its new condo buildings; and above it is Northwood, an area where half-million-dollar homes are common. Meanwhile, the dilapidated Housing Authority homes have added to Pleasant City's decline. Prostitutes frequent the abandoned roads. The empty buildings have served as camps for drug addicts and their dealers.

Hoping to finally get financial support from the city, Robinson revamped the plans last year to include outside partners. She took out an advertisement looking for a developer to build new housing. Robinson says three developers responded with interest in the project, but she was unable to produce any documents they submitted. In a letter to New Times dated February 7, Robinson indicated she would mail the documents, but they never arrived. Still, Robinson defended the selection of the developer. "We picked Lennar because of their successes with low-income housing projects in the past," Robinson says. "We needed someone with experience to tackle this."

Since selecting Lennar last year, the Housing Authority has been trying to negotiate a contract with the company. Promotional material handed out by the Housing Authority has promised that Lennar will keep the prices of the Merry Place homes and condos between $115,000 and $185,000 for low-income families, but that has not been finalized with Lennar. The Housing Authority has also not worked out how it could prevent homeowners from selling the properties after they've received them at discounted rates. It's also not clear what, if anything, Lennar will pay to build on land seized from Pleasant City homeowners. Because a contract has yet to be hammered out, it's still unclear whether Lennar would work for Housing Authority reimbursement or for a stake in the project.

Housing Authority board member Chuck St. Lawrence, a retired associate director of the U.S. Census Bureau, defended the hiring of Lennar. He says the Housing Authority had to partner with a builder who has experience and a good reputation. "I don't think they have a sweetheart deal," St. Lawrence said. "Anyone who's doing what we're doing has a lot of reason to partner with somebody who has a lot of experience."

The plan has taken the most criticism for its failure to include a way to pay for it. The cost of the Merry Place plans has doubled since they were first proposed, and the Housing Authority has already taken on a $3 million short-term loan without a way to pay it off. City Commissioners have expressed concerns that the Housing Authority has mounting debts without a way out. City Commissioner Liberti says the debt is indicative of the Housing Authority's poor planning. "If they were in the public sector," Liberti says, "they would've been fired long ago."

Despite the problems, the commission has adopted a pragmatic let's-get-off-the-dime approach, signing off on the Housing Authority plans this past January. The city also agreed to help by chipping in $200,000 for neighborhood improvements. Commissioner Mitchell said she approved the plans in hopes that something would finally happen in Pleasant City. The plans call for 19 single-family homes, 93 condos and townhouses, and 128 rental units. In the center of Merry Place would be a community center and a small park ringed by a half-moon-shaped street, Cheerful Court.

Still, many of the City Commissioners say they doubt anything will get done. Mitchell has threatened that if the Housing Authority fails, the city will try to take the land from it. Even with these doubts, Mitchell says the commission gave its approval in the hopes that something will happen in Pleasant City. "The fact that I don't care for the Housing Authority has nothing to do with the fact that this neighborhood needs help," she says. "We had to do something."

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