For the past three years, University of Louisville student Whitney Franklin has lived at Sheppard Square, cramped in a public housing unit with her mother, sister and nephew. Other frequent guests include increasing mold on the walls, growing ant infestation and high crime in the area, she says.
Poor living conditions are among the many reasons city leaders and some residents cite when arguing that the 67-year-old housing complex should be torn down.
In 2009, the city announced an ambitious plan to demolish Sheppard Square, which is located in the historic African-American neighborhood of Smoketown. That strategy hit a roadblock last week when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development denied a $22 million grant request to raze the complex. Metro government officials are disappointed and plan to appeal the decision. Meanwhile, residents remain uncertain about the fate of their home.
“In general, people are ready to get out of here, however, they are scared because they don’t know what’s going on,” says Franklin, who recently graduated with a degree in Pan-African Studies. “They’ve kept us very ill-informed and, right now, we’re just trying to figure out what (the Metro Housing Authority) is going to do with us. I still don’t know.”
The request marked the fourth time in the past decade that the city has attempted to tear down a housing project using federal money from the controversial Hope VI Revitalization Program, which was set up to eradicate old barracks-style facilities and redevelop them into mixed-income neighborhoods.
Last week, HUD announced that among the 44 different housing agencies that applied for funding, only six received federal money totaling at $113.6 million.
Tim Barry, executive director of the Louisville Metro Housing Authority, who believes Sheppard Square needs to be replaced, says competition for these grants is fierce and the need is great.
“It’s disappointing, because we hoped to continue replacing these outdated public housing models,” he says. “Anybody out there who thinks Sheppard Square is an acceptable place to live I’d be happy to give them a key.”
In the meantime, however, Barry promises the housing authority will maintain the structures to make sure they’re habitable.
In past public housing redevelopment projects, local housing advocates have criticized Metro government for allowing only a portion of newly constructed neighborhoods to go toward rent-assisted units. As a result, many low-income residents have been forced to relocate.
Given Smoketown is situated just blocks from the city’s medical district, a hop from a booming downtown and near the University of Louisville, city planners and private developers consider it prime real estate.
The unabashed migration of poor people has been the idea behind Hope VI all along. It’s seen as a way for elected officials to shatter pockets of poverty and whatever plagues those areas. It also makes tracking the systemic problems associated with impoverished groups much more difficult.
Last September, Barry told LEO Weekly that roughly one-third of any new units would be reserved for public housing, and that former residents would be at the top of the list. However, the occupancy criteria for any new development could likely become more stringent than before.
When it comes to residents, they have mixed feelings about the city’s attempt to tear down their home. While they agree the deteriorating facade needs improvements and various social ills plague the neighborhood, there’s a heated debate over whether scattering poorer residents across Louisville is the best solution.
In the wake of graduation, Franklin has been offered a job in North Carolina and will escape the housing projects. Still, she worries about her family and remaining residents.
“People are in limbo and have moved already because they don’t want to go to Park Hill or Beecher Terrace,” she says. “Others are staying thinking they’ll receive money to help them move into better housing. I actually don’t know if the majority even know the grant wasn’t approved.”
In the midst of the Metro Council reviewing Mayor Jerry Abramson’s proposed $821 million budget last week, Democratic caucus spokesman Tony Hyatt sent out a memorandum to the media explaining how the city’s budget process works.
The refresher appeared rather unnecessary until it was learned that Hyatt issued the message after a few council members complained about a WHAS-11 report on proposed cuts to the Center for Women and Families.
The news station interviewed Denise Troutman, president of the center, who said she was shocked that the agency’s budget is facing a proposed 69 percent cut.
During Troutman’s on-air appeal, WHAS-11 explained Metro government was proposing the cut while showing footage from a Budget Committee hearing, which council members felt implied that city lawmakers — not the Abramson administration — were the ones eyeing the domestic violence program for cuts.
Hyatt, who is a former WHAS-11 reporter, says the story left out many details about the funding process, and he made it clear no final decisions have been made on funding for any department or agency.
“The mayor brings a budget proposal and we look it over. We may restore funding or not, but the council has managed every year to put money back into those external agencies,” he says. “And the concern about the center being singled out is that the story didn’t put that into context. There are some media outlets that do not understand the process and how it works.”
The television station, however, defends its story.
“We (the city) are in a period of economic hardship, so a lot of tough decisions are being made. There’s a certain amount of money available, and nobody wants to be perceived cutting it,” says Mark Neerman, WHAS-11 news director.
“Look, cuts are cuts, and we can choose to profile any group that is facing them. I don’t apologize for that,” he adds. “(Hyatt) can’t argue that this is a group that isn’t potentially facing these cutbacks. So to suggest that it would be wrong for us to identify the hardship for this group I think is unfair.”