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LEGACY: Controversial public housing tenant leader, James Robinson, passes in North Carolina

A community leader and a voice for change to some, former Citywide Residents Council (CRC) President James Robinson passed away recently in North Carolina, with services planned for Memphis. He was 67.

“He had moved to North Carolina with one of his daughters,” said former Memphis City Schools Board Member Sara Lewis, a family friend, who said, “James was sick for a long time.”

Mr. Robinson, a minister, was a “phenomenal character” with a photographic memory, Lewis said.

“He knew the law and he knew the codes. He changed public housing for the better during his tenure as head of the tenant’s association. He got us the money to fix up the homes of our seniors. They needed to be wheelchair assessable and upgraded with other accommodations for them.”

To friends and those who knew him best, Mr. Robinson was a fierce advocate for public housing residents. Others held a much different view. Prior to his resignation in 1997, members of the Memphis Housing Authority launched an investigation into whether he had “misrepresented his income to receive subsidized housing.” He had been president of the CRC for seven years.

MHA board members called for an investigation into Mr. Robinson’s finances after it was revealed that he worked as a paid consultant for a Nashville marketing firm, drove a 1997 Cadillac, and appeared in the courtroom of Judge Joe Brown declaring a $75,000 annual income. At the time,  Mr. Robinson was paying $150 per month for a five-bedroom unit in Cypresswood Apartments.

Subsidized housing was assessed at 30 percent of the household’s monthly income, and to falsify information for the purpose of residing in public housing was considered a federal crime.

“James was the one who changed public housing for the better,” said Lewis. “He would say, ‘How in the world is anyone supposed to get out of poverty if every time someone gets a job, their rent goes up?’ He was very political.”

Lewis said Mr. Robinson “helped to engineer my first election to the school board. And he helped the Fords, too, back in the day. Public housing tenants were an important voting constituency that was overlooked many times. James said that it was not money that got candidates elected. It was people that got candidates elected.”

Asked about his car and a Whitehaven home where he paid the utilities, Mr. Robinson once forthrightly explained that he had worked for what he had.

“By the way, all this jewelry, designer suits, handmade shoes, I bought all that because I got a job,” Mr. Robinson told a group of probationers during a counseling session in Judge Joe Brown’s courtroom.

Parts of his speech aired on “Court TV” on January 9, 1996. Mr. Robinson offered MHA his “unpaid consultant, advisory services” for the following five years after he resigned.

Mr. Robinson, according to his attorney, did not resign to halt the investigation, but rather because “he was tired of being harassed by the news media.”

Services were incomplete.

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