Public housing to be replaced with mixed-income units

Marquita Wisley (left) is a resident of Cleveland Avenue Homes; Kevin Cheshire is a vice president and general counsel at the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem.

The housing authority hopes a $30 million federal grant will allow Cleveland Avenue Homes to be replaced with a “community of choice,” but some residents fear they’re being pushed out in favor of higher earning biotech workers.

Cleveland Avenue Homes, a community of brick, barracks-style housing built by the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem in the mid-1950s, could become a thing of the past if the federal government approves a $30 million Housing & Urban Development Choice Neighborhoods implementation grant.

Kevin Cheshire, vice president of real estate development and general counsel for the housing authority, said he suspects the decision will be made before the November election. If the feds approve the grant, the buildings will be torn down, residents will be given vouchers to find housing elsewhere in the city and a new community designed for a mix of income levels will be built in its place. The city has committed to an additional investment of $4.5 million to support the initiative, known as the Cleveland Avenue Neighborhood Transformation Plan, to pay for streetscaping, business façade improvements and revolving loan funds to support area businesses. The area of focus for the grant, with Cleveland Avenue Homes at its center, runs from Highway 52 east to Locust Avenue and from East 14th Street north to East 21st Street.

The housing authority is obligated to maintain Cleveland Avenue Homes’ 244 units of subsidized housing, so to achieve its goal of de-concentrating poverty, Cheshire said the housing authority will likely have to increase density and sacrifice green space.

“On the one hand you don’t want to lose 244 units of affordable housing,” Cheshire said. “But look, we understand that concentrated poverty is not sustainable. We want to make that a neighborhood of choice. Will it be three-story walkups or two-story townhomes? Until you start talking to development partners, you don’t know what’s viable. We’ve even talked about tiny houses. We want some urban pioneers. We want some upwardly-mobile millennials.”

The current building stock is obsolete on several levels, Cheshire said. The “monochromatic” barracks-style exteriors are from another era; the HVAC, electrical and plumbing systems are aged; the units lack functional floor plans and natural light; the clay sewage pipes are susceptible to root blockage and backups.

The plan has caused some worry about displacement, said Marquita Wisley, a resident and cofounder of Cleveland Avenue Transformation Team, or CATT.

“They talk about mixed-use housing,” she said. “To me, that sounds like another way to say gentrification. It sounds like to me that we’re gonna be moved out, and higher income people are going to be moved in. The people who have jobs at BioTech Place will be able to bike to work. We can’t get those jobs.”

Wisley said she worries that the housing authority will require that current residents are working full time before they’re allowed to move back in. That’s not realistic for most residents — people like Wisley’s sister who works as a home health aide, but gets fewer than 40 hours because her employer wants to avoid paying benefits. Cheshire said there will absolutely not be any work requirement, but he can understand how someone might have that perception. Two smaller public housing communities in the area — Oaks at Tenth and Camden Place are designated as “step up” housing; the housing is reserved for people who are employed, and they receive support services like tutoring for their children as an incentive. Cheshire said the housing authority has talked about wanting to surround the 244 new subsidized units that are replacing Cleveland Avenue Homes with “step up” housing, so that might have caused some confusion.

Wisley said she remains skeptical, explaining, “Just because there isn’t a work requirement doesn’t mean there won’t be other stipulations to moving back.”

Cheshire said he suspects that some residents will decide they don’t want to move back.

“I hope they want to return,” Cheshire said. “There’s a lot of history. There’s a lot of character. There’s a lot of culture. I know as a practical matter people want to retain mobility.”

As a condition for investing $4.5 million in the initiative, Winston-Salem City Council required the housing authority to commit to providing counseling to residents before they move out. The housing authority is engaging United Way of Forsyth County, which will in turn contract with other community agencies, to provide case management for the residents.

“There have been some communities in which we’ve seen across the country in which communities are revitalized; there’s displacement that takes place, and there’s the lack of full-service case management,” Councilman Derwin Montgomery said at a June 13 meeting of the finance committee of city council. “And what you do is in effect — when people are displaced, communities are broken. And communities create opportunities within themselves to resolve issues. And when you dismantle those neighborhoods and displace people you have removed some of the opportunities within neighborhoods suppress issues before we have to call police or before anything is really problematic.

“And what full-service case management does is it makes sure that individuals have those skill sets moving into other neighborhoods and other communities as they’re engaging with other people and no longer have some of the safeguards that they would have in the neighborhood that they’ve been able to build over many, many years,” he continued. “Miss So-and-So is not in the neighborhood to come out on the front porch and tell somebody that they’re gonna call their mother or call their father or something like that to resolve an issue, and when you do that no matter what the other services that you provide are very, very critical.”

Similarly, Wisley said she’s concerned that long-term residents at Cleveland Avenue Homes who are accustomed to not having to worry about utility payments will wind up losing their Section 8 vouchers because they’re not prepared for additional responsibilities.

“We feel like they’re more worried about the buildings,” Wisley said. “We’re more worried about the people. We asked for programs like credit counseling to help people transition from public housing to Section 8 housing. CATT is trying to develop those programs.”

She added that the residents found a woman through the nonprofit Neighbors for Better Neighborhoods who agreed to teach a wealth-building class.

Cheshire said any dissatisfaction among the residents about the housing authority’s efforts to prepare them for the transition is news to him.

“I have the greatest respect for Marquita and consider her a friend,” he said. “That concern has not been relayed to me. We’re in the midst of our second engagement with Neighbors for Better Neighborhoods. We are under contract with Neighbors for Better Neighborhoods to do capacity building for the neighborhood, to determine what the strengths are. I haven’t heard from the CATT team that credit counseling is a need that is not being addressed.”

Wisley responded, “We have heard that several times, but still nothing has happened, so I have trouble believing it.”

Cheshire and others on the leadership team at the housing authority are aware of the suspicion that the transformation initiative is a new iteration of urban renewal — the slum-clearance and urban renewal programs of the 1960s that promised revitalization, but in effect displaced black communities and destroyed black businesses.

“All we can say from an agency standpoint is that we’re aware of that,” Cheshire said, “and we’re gonna do everything we can to mitigate it and build community in transition.”