These College Park residents and others will be separating temporarily until renovations are complete. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

Rumors spread over social media like an un-contained virus that Memphis Housing Authority was evicting hundreds of seniors from public housing facilities and leaving them out in the cold.

Dexter D. Washington (Courtesy photo)

“In hindsight, of course, I can see that I should have talked with seniors affected before they received letters,” said Dexter D. Washington, CEO of Memphis Housing Authority (MHA).  “But turning our seniors out onto the streets from their homes was never going to happen, despite what has been reported.”

It is true that MHA is relocating seniors from three public housing areas: College Park in South Memphis, Askew Place on Lauderdale near Booker T. Washington High School, and Uptown, housing units just a few blocks northeast of downtown.

While Washington admits that the holiday season is not the best time to facilitate the massive relocation, the project is the culminating solution to a long-standing funding issue with local public housing.

“Actually, the move is necessary to renovate our current housing facilities for seniors so that they may continue to enjoy their latter years,” said Washington. “Acquiring additional funding for public housing has been difficult, and as early as 2018, we recognized that something had to be done. Our solution is to participate in the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) Program.”

RAD is a federal program that allows public housing agencies to allow private ownership of a housing facility for the purpose of refurbishing public housing that would otherwise fall into disrepair.

The MHA is selling the three properties to a private company. Renovations will be performed, not to convert the buildings into modern, private residences, but to upgrade properties to quality for Section 8 housing. The very same residents who are being temporarily relocated now are the only ones who will be returning.

“Public housing coffers are depleting, while Section 8 funding continues to increase,” said Washington. “These are not gentrification projects, these renovations are for our seniors. We are simply converting the financial source of public housing to the more substantial Section 8 funding. More Section 8 funding will be available for refurbishments of our public housing.”

Misinformation and speculation this week gave seniors some anxious, tearful moments.

“We understand what’s going on now,” said Jacqueline Morris, 59, a College Park resident. “They should have talked to us sooner. Thirty days is not a lot of time to move out. But it has been explained to us that professional movers have been hired to help us relocate. And there will be a team of housing locators to find us some place to stay. I’ll be staying with my children until it’s time to move back in.”

Washington, who worked for MHA in a number of capacities before attaining the CEO position, said the agency has never asked any public housing resident who had to relocate to manage the undertaking on their own.

“Professional movers will pack up our residents, and experienced housing locators will secure temporary housing as expeditiously as possible,” said Washington. “Housing locators will work with MHA staff to make these relocations as comfortable as possible. We are not insensitive to our older, more vulnerable residents. Our team will take extra care to attend to their needs.”

Moves will be staggered to increase efficiency in transferring residents to their temporary homes.

“Everybody doesn’t have to be out at the same time,” said Georgia King, an activist and senior resident of downtown Jefferson Square. “I’m not sure about how all that works, but the whole thing is unsettling because many of us have lived in our homes for 20 years or more. I’ll be staying with friends until renovations are complete.”

MHA staff met with College Park residents last week (Dec. 1) to explain what is happening.

“If I could do things all over again, my actions would be different,” said Washington. “What I am doing at this point is making myself available to speak with any of our residents.  “I sincerely regret the missteps that led to all the confusion. Adequate funding for public housing has been ongoing for years. I inherited the challenge, and I accept full responsibility.”

Renovations on public facilities should take six or seven months. Residents may choose to stay with family, live in a hotel, or be housed in a Section 8-approved apartment or home.

“We all feel better since Memphis Housing Authority came out and talked with us,” said Morris. “We had a lot of questions, but they answered everything. I still would rather not have to move, but we were assured that we could return to our homes after renovations. I think everything will work out OK now.”

Washington appeared before the Memphis City Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee on Tuesday (Dec. 7). Chairperson Cheyenne Johnson said council members had received numerous calls of concern.

“We just wanted to talk to MHA to find out what was going on,” said Johnson. “Mr. Washington explained that the first notices went out in 2018 about the need to relocate public housing residents for renovations. It was the November notice that went out and caused the uproar. 

“We are satisfied that all our concerns have been answered. But we will be monitoring the situation to make sure that all our seniors being relocated have all of the assistance they need.”