Is this the future of public housing in Louisville?


Part of The Hill: the most violent section at Iroquois Homes. The cross street, Hazelwood Avenue, is the line of demarcation.

Part of The Hill: the most violent section at Iroquois Homes. The cross street, Hazelwood Avenue, is the line of demarcation.

Ten years ago, Louisville tore down one of its most destitute, crime-ridden housing projects to build Park DuValle, a modern mixed-income community where doctors will presumably live next to welfare mothers. As the second public housing revitalization comes into focus at Liberty Green, the city has announced a six-year plan to raze a third project. But the money is running out.

Latosha Smith has been looking for a ticket out of the projects since the day she moved into them. The letter that showed up in her mailbox three weeks ago may be it.

The 26-year-old mother of five has lived for the past year in Iroquois Homes, the monolithic public housing project that’s slated for a slow demolition over the next six years. It’s the third high-stakes move in the Louisville’s not-so-subtle strategy to rid the city of its housing projects, the huge barracks-style warehouses of poor people that have become overcrowded, shambolic crime magnets. In their place, the city envisions modernized mixed income neighborhoods like Park DuValle, the 10-year-old development that replaced the old Cotter and Lang Homes in the near West End, and Liberty Green, the nascent endeavor in eastern downtown that has recently supplanted Clarksdale.

There are grave problems in stockpiling people like Smith, who are caught in the financial pickle where working 40 hours a week doesn’t pay the bills. Filing them away in bloated receptacles of poverty isn’t the panacea FDR thought it might be back in 1938, when he talked of launching an attack on the slums of these United States. As historian and author Kenneth T. Jackson and many others have argued, they’re nothing short of ghettos. Nowadays, the very thought seems rather inhumane.

Public officials have learned a lot since public housing projects were strewn across the United States like spilled marbles, namely that placing low-income people in insular locales so starkly separate from the more affluent side of life was a terrible idea. Today planners realize that one key to tackling poverty and its attendant crime is to disperse that poverty across the community. That notion also carries a psychological component in that it is meant to lessen the stigma associated with being poor and place people in settings with more positive examples of how to live.

Townhouses at Liberty Green: which supplanted the old Clarksdale housing project.

Townhouses at Liberty Green: which supplanted the old Clarksdale housing project.

As such, the city’s approach to remaking public housing, as evidenced by Park DuValle and Liberty Green, has placed it in the national vanguard. The strategy — heartily endorsed by the Louisville Metro Housing Authority and Mayor Jerry Abramson, and including a small participating army from the private sector — is basic in theory and wide in scope, with those same high-minded ideals, alive with the promise of meaningful social mobility and the kind of egalitarianism you read about in theory books.

But that sidecar notion is a kind of social engineering that critics call myopic and oversimplified: It’s something like osmosis, where moving poor people next to wealthier people creates opportunity on its face.
There’s another aspect to Liberty Green: The vinyl-sided townhouses and angular brick single-family houses will fit squarely into the surrounding gentrification in its portion of east Downtown, the fast-coming arts district of East Market Street.

In the most basic sense, this housing strategy forces people to move out of the projects. For the comparatively small population who’ve spent whole lives there, it’s an affront to their very existence. Public housing advocates praise the city’s effort to dissipate the concentrated pockets of poverty, but lament that doing so through what is essentially gentrification plucks too many people from their social structures. People who live in the projects tend to rely on public transportation and a daily-life infrastructure — grocery, pharmacy, etc. — that is nearby, as well as a community support system, much like any human neighborhood.
For Smith, however, it’s an opportunity to extricate herself from a situation she never thought she’d be in. She can see the future, and it looks better than the present.

The Hill
There are clear cultural divisions at Iroquois, a sensually dead spread of 54 identically rectangular, battleship-gray buildings constructed in 1953. The project was originally built for whites only; African Americans were housed at Cotter, built in 1950. When it opened in 1957, Lang was the only racially mixed project in the city; now, all of them are. The two sites eventually merged into Cotter and Lang, which was demolished 10 years ago to make way for Park DuValle.

Tim Barry of the Louisville Metro Housing Authority.

Tim Barry of the Louisville Metro Housing Authority.

Between buildings 41 and 72 at Iroquois is the area known as The Hill, a doggedly violent section where gunshots and fights are routine daily happenings. It’s where Smith — a naturally pretty woman with sympathetic eyes — lives with her five children. On her days off, she hangs out on the other side of Iroquois, away from The Hill. She tells people not to go there, and said she has no friends here, just acquaintances.
The reason Smith ended up here is a serious and essentially private matter: An emergency move to escape domestic violence. She had little money of her own and five kids on her back. The choice she made was one of necessity.

Clutching a circular translucent-blue keychain with “Iroquois Homes” blocked in white letters and a single key dangling outside her grasping fist, Smith explains that she and her man — the father of her children and her partner for a decade — aren’t hostile toward each other but definitely aren’t together anymore. She said he pays her $300 a week in child support. That covers the daycare bill — up to $250 a week for the on-site center, which she considers the one redeeming aspect of Iroquois. She pays 30 percent of her monthly income in rent, the requirement for all public housing tenants. Only two percent of Louisvillians living in public housing pay nothing at all, because they’re either disabled or elderly. Fifty-five percent pay more than $100 a month.

Mayor Jerry Abramson: spoke at Park DuValle’s Festival of New Homes, where new models were unveiled as part of a push to sell the remaining 100 lots there.

Mayor Jerry Abramson: spoke at Park DuValle’s Festival of New Homes, where new models were unveiled as part of a push to sell the remaining 100 lots there.

Working banquet services at the Seelbach earns Smith $350 a week before taxes. Iroquois is a steppingstone for her, a temporary stop on the way to getting back on her feet. In fact, that’s what government-subsidized housing is for most people, and is ultimately its purpose. According to Tim Barry, director of the Louisville Metro Housing Authority, 25 percent of the city’s public housing units turn over every year. Statistically speaking, every single public housing unit in Louisville has a new tenant every four years.
Of course, statistics don’t tell the whole story. Not everyone leaves. Not everyone’s there because he or she needs a jump on independence.

 “Sometimes it’s not a steppingstone,” Smith said, raising and lowering her left arm for emphasis. “You can get pulled in quick. You get caught up in the lifestyle. You either get out or you don’t. I’m getting out. I want out of these projects.”

Smith doesn’t let her children play outside without her watching. She can’t — she said she hears gunshots every day: morning, afternoon, evening, night. She said they shoot right outside apartment windows, and people just can’t do anything, can’t stand up to it. Her oldest daughter is 10. She reminds her every day that living under this pall of fear will end soon, that gunfire is not an everyday occurrence, despite evidence just through the windows.

The letter that came from the Housing Authority three weeks ago said it’s time to start planning to move. It’ll happen within a year: If she doesn’t get into Park DuValle (Smith said her credit is good, she has a phone in her name and could get LG&E, a Park DuValle requirement), the West End beckons. That’s where her mother lives, on West Jefferson Street. Smith has been on the Section 8 waiting list for two years, along with 10,758 other Louisville families.

The emotional territory of the projects is familiar: Smith grew up in Southwick, the southwest Louisville neighborhood that officials hope will soon undergo a Renaissance based on the Park DuValle model.

Park DuValle
Welcome to modern American suburban living.
Your new kitchen is loaded: Four-burner range with oven, double-basin sink, microwave, full-size refrigerator with a shivering-cold freezer, and a ceramic tile floor. All the appliances are stainless steel — easy to clean! — with black plastic trimmings.

Gordon Stoudemire: who lived in Clarksdale for 23 years, functions as a sort of checks and balances system regarding the Housing Authority.

Gordon Stoudemire: who lived in Clarksdale for 23 years, functions as a sort of checks and balances system regarding the Housing Authority.

Upstairs there are matching bedrooms for your kids and a master suite with full bathroom and Jacuzzi. The ceilings are vaulted, the closets are walk-in. Downstairs is a fireplace framed in what appears to be cobblestone. Your alarm system can be accessed via the panel just off the breakfast nook, which has a door leading outside where you’ll find your stoop. And most importantly, the house is brick, which helps with insulation.
This is The Regency, one of the 37 home designs you can choose from at Park DuValle. It’s yours for $205,000. (The most expensive home goes for $250,000.)

At the time of its demolition, Cotter and Lang was perhaps the most derelict and crime-ridden of the city’s public housing complexes. At 1,116 units, it was also the city’s largest.
Set like an oasis in the otherwise less-swanky Southwick neighborhood, the character of Park DuValle is out of place by virtue of its newness — deep green sod, pasty-gray curbs embracing roads fresh with pavement, young pencils of trees, and 318 occupied houses less than a decade old. There are 613 rental units of varying make and model, from townhouses to studios, and all are full. Just more than 100 lots remain, and by 2008 they’ll be filled too.

Officials expect Park DuValle to expand to include a city center packed with necessary infrastructure and amenities, like a grocery store and barbershop.
It’s fairly easy to be wooed by the rhetoric, and up close, the place is convincing. But here is another way to look at Park DuValle: It eliminated more than 1,100 units of public housing and only replaced about one-fifth of them. On top of that, the qualifications for getting a place at Park DuValle are higher, say, if you’re a former Cotter and Lang resident. Things like having utilities in your name, a new requirement, are not particularly easy for someone who landed in public housing because of atrocious credit in the first place.

“It does cut off some people who should be living there and are eligible by income but maybe don’t have the sanitized version of rental history that would allow them to get back in there,” said Rachel Hurst, director of public relations, community education and advocacy for the Coalition for the Homeless. “Public housing is supposed to be the thing that helps people stabilize.”

Apartments at Liberty Green.

Apartments at Liberty Green.

“It may not be the only answer, but it’s one approach that at least in Louisville, Kentucky, has proven very successful,” said Barry, of the Housing Authority, although that assessment certainly depends on where you sit in all this. Allowing a 900-unit net loss in Park DuValle was a big mistake on the city’s part, he said, one it’s eager to correct moving forward. Likewise, Clarksdale activists and residents learned the lesson of Park DuValle, and raised enough hell to make damn sure the Housing Authority didn’t let that happen again when Clarksdale yielded to Liberty Green.

The Housing Authority agreed to a “one-for-one” replacement policy for Liberty Green and has also done so for Iroquois, meaning that each unit of public housing lost in demolition will be regained elsewhere.
“My position is that the public housing authority should not be responsible for any net loss of affordable housing,” said Barry, a relaxed man with a scruffy voice whose heritage could never be mistaken for anything other than Irish. “It doesn’t make sense. We shouldn’t be involved in any net reduction of affordable housing.”
Cathy Hinko, director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition, a local advocacy group, has lobbied persistently for a one-for-one guarantee in every new mixed-income neighborhood. She worked for the Housing Authority from 1983 to 1988, and has been adamant that no more net loss of public housing occur under the current strategy. She is part of the mayor’s task force on housing (which has now met twice), designed to give teeth to his post-merger Comprehensive Housing Strategy, which aims to spread public housing into the old county while continuing to relax fists of poverty.

Though measured in any praise of the Housing Authority, Hinko maintains a working relationship with Barry and other officials, and commends the one-for-one guarantees.

In a July 18 board meeting, the Housing Authority agreed to one-for-one replacement for Iroquois to the extent possible, which means that it’ll happen as long as the money is there. The reason it will take six years, however, is because there’s no plan in place for how to replace it, mostly because there’s no money for one.
“Unlike the two HOPE VI developments where we did relocation and demolition very quickly, and had funds available to do it, Iroquois’s going to take six years,” Barry said. “For a couple reasons, mainly that we just don’t have the financial wherewithal to do it all at once.”

So why would the city commit to a major demolition of a deteriorating public housing project without a plan for what will replace it?

Losing HOPE

As a teenager: Latosha Smith didn’t handle independence well. But she’s got her sights set on getting out of the Iroquois Homes housing project and owning her own house.

As a teenager: Latosha Smith didn’t handle independence well. But she’s got her sights set on getting out of the Iroquois Homes housing project and owning her own house.

The reason Park DuValle is now a national example for rehabilitating barracks-style public housing is a federal grant program called HOPE VI. Created in 1993 under the Clinton administration, the program gives money to housing authorities in cities where public housing complexes are severely distressed. Its mission, developed in part by then-secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros and the U.S. Conference of Mayors — of which Mayor Abramson was president at the time — was originally to demolish blighted projects and replace housing units one-for-one with better places, said Dr. Laura Harris, a professor at the University of Memphis and a HOPE VI expert who worked for the Urban Institute for six years prior to joining academia. She said the program was bastardized somewhat early on, when it became clear that HOPE VI could incorporate the private sector in revitalization efforts by offering tax incentives to banks, developers, and so on. This gave the program a heavier market focus, which translated to mixed-income projects like Park DuValle.

“The HOPE VI program is a great tool for cities to use for revitalization,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s very easy to criticize, it’s very easy to praise.”

City officials, of course, praise it. Louisville got $20 million in HOPE VI money for Park DuValle in 1996. In addition, Abramson was able to procure another $31.4 million in federal housing funds. More HUD grants have come in since, and the private sector has contributed a near 50-50 match on the project. All told, Park DuValle has cost more than $200 million.

“Park DuValle became the poster child of

As a teenager: Latosha Smith didn’t handle independence well. But she’s got her sights set on getting out of the Iroquois Homes housing project and owning her own house.

As a teenager: Latosha Smith didn’t handle independence well. But she’s got her sights set on getting out of the Iroquois Homes housing project and owning her own house.

in terms of success,” Abramson said in an interview last week. He’s right: There are bright, angular photographs of it on just about every bit of HOPE VI literature. It was one of six developments highlighted by the Urban Land Institute in a major 2001 study of private sector contributions to government-subsidized housing.

The success was rewarded. Louisville snagged two more HOPE VI grants — each $20 million — to tear down the Clarksdale housing project downtown and replace it with Liberty Green, a neighborhood built on the Park DuValle model that is still in Phase I and targeted for completion in 2009.

From the looks of it, however, that’s all the HOPE VI money we’re going to get. That’s not to say the city will get no more HUD money — to the contrary, Louisville is a HUD entitlement community, which means the city gets money directly from the federal agency for certain projects.

But the HOPE VI program sunset a few years ago after it reached its initial goal of demolishing 100,000 units of “severely distressed” U.S. public housing. The Bush administration has shown no inclination to re-up.
Meanwhile, 18 Iroquois buildings have already been razed in the last three years.
Mayor Abramson and Barry, of the Housing Authority, are similarly unguarded in their desire to create another sibling to Park DuValle.

“We’re going to have to once again be creative and innovative in our thinking and looking for different options,” Abramson said.
It’s a long stretch, of course, to say at this point that using the HOPE VI strategy can work without federal cash, but that’s not stopped the city from evincing the same goals at Iroquois; perhaps it’s overeager to keep its strategy from stagnating because of a lack of funds. Right now, the Housing Authority owns some 2,500 public housing units spread liberally, which is where many current Iroquois residents will end up. Barry said the temporary idea is to keep buying more.

But a portion of the Housing Authority’s capital budget this year — $3.5 million — has been earmarked for Liberty Green. That money would normally be used for capital improvement projects, including maintenance and repairs, which Barry insists they’ve kept up with. But Hinko and others argue that money intended for low-income families is being spent on the mixed-income neighborhoods.

Hinko sent a letter to Barry in May of this year saying, in part, that such an appropriation is further evidence the Housing Authority is allowing properties it wants to demolish to deteriorate. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: Let buildings go to pieces and you’ve made a case for tearing them down.
“The decision gets made today what it’s going to look like five years from now,” Hinko said Monday. “Then, when it’s five years from now, they can point with alarm and say, ‘Look how terrible it is.’ That decision was made today to let that deterioration happen.”

In a five-page response to Hinko’s initial letter, Barry wrote: “We take exception to the characterization that our other facilities will receive no investment and be allowed to ‘deteriorate.’ Over the past eight years, more than $12 million has been invested in Parkway Place (bathroom modernization, roof replacement, daycare improvements, dumpster issues, fencing, etc); over $7 million at Sheppard (new boilers, façade improvements, playground improvements, guttering, etc); over $2.5 million at Iroquois, despite demolition plans, to better protect and serve current residents (roofs, gutters, daycare and playground improvements); and $1.1 million on the comprehensively modernized Beecher Terrace (landscaping, drainage, boiler replacement, fencing).” In two subsequent interviews, Barry rejected once more the idea that the other remaining projects — Beecher Terrace, Parkway Place and Sheppard Square — will be allowed to wear down.

“Those facilities are not going to get worse,” he said Monday. “We’re not robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
Barry did say, however, that the plan is ultimately to tear them all down.
“There’s always been a plan to eventually address all of them,” Barry said, answering a question about the Housing Authority’s “Moving to Work” plan, a yearly strategy map. The 2005 version mentioned tearing down Sheppard Square and Iroquois; Sheppard was dropped in the current plan.
But what when not everybody wants to leave?

Moving out
Every one of the 728 families living in Clarksdale, white-only when it was built in 1940, had been moved into a new place by October 2005. To say it like that makes it sound forced, which it was to an extent. Each resident family was given three living options, determined and enforced by HUD: apply for a Section 8 voucher, move to another public housing complex or find an apartment at one of the Housing Authority’s scattered sites — places randomly mixed into a hearty percentage of the city’s neighborhoods. Naturally, each family was given first crack to apply for a place at Liberty Green once it’s completed, though roughly one-third of the total units on the actual Liberty Green footprint will be public housing. Less than half chose to do so.

Gordon Stoudemire was for many years president of the resident council at Clarksdale. A 23-year tenant of the project who’s been on disability since 1980, Stoudemire was a self-contained checks-and-balances system for the Housing Authority, making his personal mission the fulfillment of every promise made to residents of his community. He was a snag in the hem of city officials whenever they tried to do anything at Clarksdale, the kind of foot soldier you want in your camp if you’re unfamiliar with federal housing law, which is to say, if you’re most people.

“Generally I think most people he ran across thought he was just a troublemaker or a rabble rouser, and I guess in some ways he is that,” said Doug Magee, program director for the Nonprofit Housing Alliance at the Metropolitan Housing Coalition, an independent group focused on local affordable housing issues. Magee used to work for the Legal Aid Society, which is how he met Stoudemire more than 20 years ago. “But my impression was that he knew what he was talking about, he would follow it up, and that’s why people he was talking to didn’t like him that much.”

Barry, of the Housing Authority, spoke of him briefly, at-once cool but respectful.
Stoudemire, 50, will say he’s a stickler with the best of intentions — motivated by a deep sense of social equality — and that demeanor is just annoying when you’re on the other end of it. He comes off as an agreeable, purified-nice kind of man, exuding an instantly calming sweetness. You might call it serenity.

How to build a community
Life will be rough when you start having seizures at age seven. One of a family of six whose father left when he was nine months old, Stoudemire took a razor to a schoolmate’s neck in ninth grade for teasing him incessantly about the seizures. He said the outburst was a singular moment, a stupidly violent act for which he wasn’t punished (his teacher believed, based on prior evidence, that the other boy provoked him). It would ultimately help define the no-guff attitude he carries today.

Stoudemire is something of a jolly man who said he’s never drank alcohol or done drugs (the seizures). He doesn’t look you in the eye until he’s deadly serious, which makes the experience dramatic and effective, the precise opposite of crying wolf. He’s overweight but not dangerously so, with a salt-and-pepper mustache and the muttonchops that used to be popular among the counterculture. A silver cross about the size of a playing card hangs from a heavy-gauge chain around his neck. Roughly one-and-a-half of his two front teeth are gone. As he compulsively spins a pen around in his right hand, Stoudemire delivers a baritone like an amateur James Earl Jones. This is what he said the first time he looks me in the eye:

“I don’t understand why is it every time that the rich folks get ready to take over something or want something, why do you all come into the poor neighborhoods and move the poor folks out? Every time that happens — that happened down there at Park DuValle, that happened at Clarksdale, now they moving them around there — why is it that poor folks have to suffer every time?”

Unlike a lot of people, Stoudemire didn’t want to leave Clarksdale. He was one of less than two percent of Louisville’s public housing residents who pay nothing in rent.
He talks wistfully about the old days of Clarksdale, before the last wave of violence took hold after Cotter and Lang closed down. That’s when members of rival gangs were suddenly living in the same complex, as Stoudemire tells it: Clarksdale had the Bloods and Cotter had the Crips. Then Clarksdale had them both. And that, in short, was the downfall of the old homeplace.

“You could leave your door open before that happened. Nobody didn’t bother no one. Everybody looked out for everyone. Everybody got along with everybody. Clarksdale was really — at one time, Clarksdale was the best place in Louisville, and everything was ran perfectly. But then they did that, and everything got out of line. That’s when all this — drugs and shooting and crazy stuff — started happening.”

To be fair, there’d been gang activity at Clarksdale for some time. And it — like all public housing complexes in Louisville, according to statistics kept by the Louisville Metro Police Department — was also a magnet for preying criminals from outside its walls. In 2005, even as Clarksdale was clearing out, a mere 11 of the 103 arrests made there were of residents.

Fittingly, Stoudemire was one of the last to leave. He lives in St. Martin’s Apartments on East Gray Street now, a decidedly nicer place than his previous residence. His is a one-bedroom with 15-foot ceilings and sterile white walls. There’s a framed poster of Malcolm X and matching fliers with highly detailed instructions on “how to build a community,” which includes such gamely advice as turning off one’s TV and sitting outside when it’s nice. It’s icy-cold, and the kitchen has fairly new appliances. There’s a ceiling fan and a chandelier, and his TV is one of those old ones that’s also a bureau. His mattress is exposed, with a single sheet snaking its way across in bounds of twists and curls.

Moving on
Like Stoudemire, Latosha Smith doesn’t want your sympathy. Nor, ultimately, does she want your tax money. She didn’t expect to wind up at Iroquois, where 613 of the 708 arrests Metro Police made here last year were of non-residents. She hates the chipped paint and moldy walls. She hates The Hill.

Yes, she got pregnant at 15 years old, when she didn’t really mean to. And then again at 18, when she got her own apartment. The freedom and independence was overwhelming, she said, a classic study in being an adult before she was ready.

It’s ironic this would be the case, that the very foundation for her current situation is her prior inability to embrace independence in a responsible way. But like any child who makes a mistake, Smith learned a lesson and wants to try again. She may have broken the toy the first time, but it was nothing a little glue couldn’t fix.
This is the way it is for her now, in simple and concise terms:
“I want a house.”

Contact the writer at
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