by Jordan Green // photos by Caleb Smallwood
The first public housing communities in Winston-Salem went up virtually overnight in the first half of the 1950s.
Happy Hill Gardens, a community built for black residents near Salem College, was the first in 1951, followed the next year with the all-white Piedmont Park near Smith Reynolds Airport, as documented in a 1955 Winston-Salem Journal article. Kimberly Park on the north side opened next in 1953, with Cleveland Avenue Homes in East Winston close on its heels. By 1955, the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem had 1,085 units in its inventory.
The program was judged an unqualified success, with the newspaper enthusiastically providing a platform for local officials to trumpet their progress. The same article reported, “The neatly-landscaped public areas of all the projects, and the well-kept lawns and gardens that are found at most of the homes indicate the pride which the families have in their communities.”
In the program’s first five years only four tenants were evicted for poor housekeeping — “a remarkable record” in the estimation of Executive Director Mason Swearingen, because, as the article noted, “many of the families came from poorly-kept, rundown living quarters.”
Residents enthusiastically joined garden clubs to keep their premises attractive.
“When one family sees another fixing up a yard or doing something to the house,” John Hauser, manager of Happy Hills Gardens and Cleveland Avenue Homes, told the Journal, “they get busy too.”
Slum housing in Winston-Salem was a scandal in the 1930s and 1940s. An archival news photo shows a street crammed with ramshackle row houses on a muddy, rutted lane in the area then known as Monkey Bottom, with the 21-story Reynolds Building soaring in the distance — a testament to the awkward contrast between the modern corporate might of RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. and the squalid poverty in its backyard. Though landlords, who had previously fought new housing codes, argued that the initiative was unnecessary because of the codes, public housing was a reaction to the shocking housing conditions that prevailed in poor areas of the city through the 1940s.
The Winston-Salem Journal went to the trouble of tracking the fate of one particular neighborhood on the north side over a period of 10 years. In 1938, while the city’s board of aldermen were still denying the existence of substandard housing and turning away federal funding, the newspaper reported that the entire neighborhood “got its drinking water from one outside spigot. A few scant inches away, a community toilet was stopped up and overflowing. Children played nonchalantly in the mess. Ramshackle houses were plastered with red ‘condemned’ notices.”
Revisiting the neighborhood in 1948, the newspaper found conditions much the same. One water faucet and two outside toilets were serving 13 houses occupied by 54 people. Both toilets were stopped up.
The story describes the neighborhood in hard-boiled poetry, brimming with implicit social protest: “King Street isn’t on the itinerary for visiting dignitaries. It’s down near the leaf house, off Oak Street, beyond the hobo jungle where tramps refresh themselves on rubbing alcohol and similar potions.
“You probably don’t know it exists,” the article continued. “Unless, perhaps your cook lives there. Or the Negro girl who nurses your children.”
Doris Kimbrough, the 91-year-old president of the resident council at Healy Towers, easily recalls the before in the story of public housing in Winston-Salem.
A single parent of nine children, Kimbrough had separated from her husband, who relocated to New York and eventually left her widowed. Happy Hill Gardens in the 1950s represented a fantastic opportunity.
“It was beautiful, and we planted flowers,” Kimbrough recalled. “It was a great place for people. Before that I lived in a little, three-room house with water outside. So when I moved to Happy Hill I kind of felt like I had moved to Buena Vista with all the things available to us.”
The parents looked out for each other’s children. There was a YMCA that provided entertainment for young people on Friday. Many of the families couldn’t afford their own television sets, so the children gathered at the Y to watch free movies on Sunday evenings. Kimbrough and her neighbors organized themselves into the Y Gardeners Club. Since the red dirt in the housing community was barren, Kimbrough got her children to haul black soil up from Salem Creek to nourish the flowers.
Kimbrough and other parents got involved with the PTA for Anderson High School. They held fundraisers to pay for band uniforms for students whose families couldn’t afford the full cost.
Even in those early days, a stigma attached itself to what was colloquially known as “the projects,” but Kimbrough told her children there were people who lived in rundown houses who would be glad to live in Happy Hill. She was mindful to counteract the negative image that the term “the projects” conjured, and make sure it didn’t constrict her children’s sense of possibility.
“That concept has to be cleared up by the mother and father,” Kimbrough said. “You should always let that child know that does not determine who you are just because you live in the projects. One of my sons worked in Johnson Controls in the laboratory. You got to be smart for that. My other son who got a masters in education from Harvard, he’s the only black person they’ve got a bust of in the school where he taught.”
The pride and cohesion that marked public housing under the first generation seemed to fray with the next cohort. Or, at least that’s the way Kimbrough saw it.
“The young people who came after us, they were just young folks,” Kimbrough said. “It was a place to live. I don’t think they took it as serious as us.”
Ambivalence among the architects and managers of public housing has been woven into the enterprise almost from its inception. Even as President Lyndon Johnson was pursuing a War on Poverty, Assistant Labor Secretary Daniel Patrick Moynihan proposed that the dissolution of the black family, not barriers to employment, was the cause of black poverty. His 1965 report The Negro Family: The Case for National Action nudged the nation onto a conservative course with an emphasis on personal responsibility. While the focus of the report was the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, or welfare, the charged language in the report would prove to be an early salvo in an often racially tinged debate about whether government assistance perpetuated poverty by promoting dependency.
The same preoccupation with moving poor people from dependency to self-sufficiency animates Housing Authority of Winston-Salem CEO Larry Woods today.
“There is economic stagnation of non-elderly, non-disabled families living in subsidized housing resulting in unnecessary lengthy stays, generational poverty, increased demands for governmental subsidies and lengthening of waiting lists,” Woods testified before the US House Ways and Means Committee in July 2013. “Current policies, rules and regulations provide for unconditional, open-ended housing subsidies that discourage self-sufficiency and nurture generational poverty.”
Woods’ characterization of some of the residents did not spare tender sensibilities.
“In surveys taken of non-elderly, non-disabled residents in Winston-Salem’s public housing, residents stated that they liked living in public housing because they were on their own and taking care of themselves,” he said. “They have reached their goal of independence. Many have no intention of furthering their education or finding employment. When asked how long they plan to live in public housing, the answer is forever. There is no understanding by the residents that someone is supplementing their ‘independence.’”
Notwithstanding Woods’ concern that current policies “discourage self-sufficiency and nurture generational poverty,” the number of Winston-Salem residents living in public housing has hardly budged since the first 1,085 units were introduced with the construction of Happy Hill Gardens, Piedmont Park, Kimberly Park and Cleveland Avenue Homes. The Housing Authority of Winston-Salem currently houses 1,100 traditional public- housing residents, along with about 4,000 people who receive vouchers to subsidize private housing, according to numbers provided by the agency. While the number of public-housing residents has remained constant, the overall population of Winston-Salem has more than doubled from 111,135 in 1960 to 236,441 in 2013.
The image of public housing in the popular imagination often fixates on towers as a symbol of concentrated humanity and a compounding of problems associated with poverty. But in Winston-Salem, the first four public-housing communities for families that were built in the 1950s — similar to counterparts like Smith Homes in Greensboro and Carson Stout Homes in High Point — were one- and two-story brick buildings.
Whatever the challenges of Happy Hills, Smith Homes and Carson Stout, they paled in significance to massive public-housing towers like Cabrini-Green Homes and Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, which became synonymous with drug infestation, gang warfare and disrepair. (Both have since been demolished.) The fictional towers in the television series “The Wire,” set in Baltimore, function as a setting for the Barksdale gang’s drug sales. Their demolition in Season 3 doesn’t even merit a backstory; audiences could be expected to implicitly appreciate their dysfunction. The towers’ demise merely serves as a plot device to push the drug sales out into the street. Lexington Terrace, the real-life inspiration for the towers in “The Wire” was also demolished, representative of a nationwide trend.
In the late ’60s, with the Moynihan Report framing public-policy debate, the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem pioneered a much-vaunted program to transition residents from public housing to homeownership. But while the idea of dispersal and “scattered” housing was gaining favor, the agency was also gearing up to build its most concentrated projects ever.
An August 1968 article in the Winston-Salem Journal about a new program called Turnkey III included only a glancing reference to additional federal funds for Sunrise Towers and Crystal Towers, two 11-story projects that would soon be on the drawing boards.
“The scattered housing idea will be a new twist on local public housing,” the article reported. “Until now, all of the public housing has been concentrated in a few large projects. Through scattered housing, the federal government hopes to break up segregated housing patterns.”
As the article explained, private developers would build almost 1,000 single-family homes and then sell them to the housing authority, which would in turn rent them to people who met the eligibility test for public housing. Eventually, if the tenants’ income increased sufficiently, they could buy the house from the agency.
Almost as an afterthought the article mentioned, “Only a week ago, the housing authority received the go-ahead from the federal government to build 400 units of high-rise housing for the elderly.”
Public-housing construction created a massive infusion of real-estate investment in Winston-Salem from December 1969 through October 1970, with the Twin City Sentinel reporting that projects of the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem accounted for almost half of residential construction during that period. Of $10.7 million in building permits secured by the housing authority, most were obtained for 792 Turnkey III homes, but the construction of Crystal Towers accounted for $3 million. Tenants were already moving into the newly constructed Sunrise Towers, the newspaper reported, and Crystal Towers was expected to be ready for occupancy by late 1971.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, people were living longer. Increasing geographic mobility and women moving into the workforce in greater numbers, leaving them less time to care for aging parents, conspired to increase the need for public housing for the elderly. Compared with the conditions of fiscal austerity that prevail today, federal funding was more flush. A boom in senior housing was on. The Greensboro Housing Authority built Gateway Plaza with 221 units in 1974, and the High Point Housing Authority erected the 11-story Elm Towers in 1977.
With the completion of Sunrise Towers in East Winston and Crystal Towers on the north end of downtown in the early ’70s, the construction spree enabled by a $5.6 million bundle of US Department of Housing and Urban Development-approved loans wasn’t completed. The shorter, six-story Healy Towers, located off Stratford Road near Forsyth Medical Center, went up in 1978.
While Winston-Salem and other cities were addressing the need for senior housing, Doris Kimbrough was just moving into middle age. Her family’s trajectory represents the broad goals of national public-housing policy. Many of her children have moved away from Winston-Salem to pursue careers. A daughter lived in public housing for a time, and then bought her own house. A son moved to Morningside Manor, one of the Turnkey III communities financed by the housing authority.
Close-cropped white hair frames a face that exudes vitality, giving her the appearance of someone much younger than her 91 years. Weathering arthritis and heart problems, she moves slowly with the assistance of a walker, but displays a nimble and engaged mind.
“People say, ‘What did you do to live so long?’” Kimbrough recounted. “I say, ‘I worked hard. And my faith.’ People say, ‘What does work have to do with it?’ You have to work for what you get. Working hard is not the end of it. You’ve got to have a reason. If I wanted a lot of things, by working I could get them for myself. I didn’t have to ask anyone else.”
After most of her children were grown, Kimbrough made a down payment on a house on Alder Street near Happy Hills. Maintaining the house eventually got to be too much of a hassle, and she sold it to one of her sons. She moved in with another son and his wife at the culmination of her 27-year career with Forsyth Childhood Development.
She decided to move back to public housing in 1998. Her daughter-in-law was, as she noted with a wry chuckle, something of “a cleaning fanatic.” If Kimbrough slept in until 9 a.m. on a Saturday, she would hear her son’s wife vacuuming downstairs. That was fine; she felt like the couple had the right to set the ground rules for the house. But she wanted her independence.
“Coming here was just a matter of coming to a place I could afford, be free, be comfortable,” Kimbrough said. “I couldn’t afford a condo or a townhouse. This is a wonderful place.”
Two years after moving back into public housing, she was the president of the Healy Towers residents’ council. After being a single parent in Happy Hill Gardens, it was natural for Kimbrough to get involved in community activities, and her sense of concern for the welfare of others transferred into a leadership role at Healy Towers.
“I try my best to practice unity in this place,” she said. “Being president, I say, ‘We are our brother’s keeper.’ How you feel inside, I don’t know. But outwards we get along. That’s all you can ask for.”
The Healy Towers residents respect each other’s personal space, she said. The building has only one entrance with 24-hour security, so residents don’t worry about intruders. Many residents leave their rooms unlocked when they go downstairs for community activities, Kimbrough said.
When visitors come to the building, they have to sign in at the front desk and state whom they’re visiting. If visitors are found wandering the halls, Kimbrough said, they’ll be asked to return to the room of their host “or be excused.”
Among Winston-Salem’s three public-housing towers, Healy serves elderly residents, while Crystal serves elderly and disabled residents. Sunrise is the least restrictive of the three towers, serving any adult 18 years or older whose income meets the eligibility threshold. Sunrise Towers, Cleveland Avenue Homes and Piedmont Park — all in East Winston — are among the locations targeted for the “step-up housing” program launched in 2012.
In echoes of the Turnkey III program in the ’70s, “step-up housing” is designed to put public-housing residents on a path towards self-sufficiency. All adults who sign up for the program, with the exception of the elderly and disabled, are required to work at least 30 hours a week; in exchange they receive educational, employment and financial assistance through an array of partnering agencies, including Goodwill Industries of Northwest North Carolina and Winston-Salem State University.
The housing authority held an open house for the new Oaks at Tenth townhouse development, the agency’s first “step-up” community with 50 units, in November 2013. The community is located about a block north of Sunrise Towers, part of an area slated for redevelopment in an effort led by the housing authority.
Camden Station, a second “step-up” townhome development another two blocks north, has an anticipated grand opening later this year.
While attempting to move people out of public housing — particularly in the East Winston area, with a high concentration of low-income residents — the housing authority is trying to attract new investment from retailers and higher-income residents to reverse the spiral of environmental poverty. As outlined in a 114-page document, a master plan focuses on a 130-acre area flanking Cleveland Avenue north of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, with a recommendation to increase “the density and spending power” of the area, with an eye towards diversifying income levels to support retail.
Larry Woods, the CEO of the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem, has suggested in previous comments that he sees little future for public housing, at least where the young and able-bodied are concerned. Woods could not be reached for comment for this story.
“Free housing is not going to be here anymore,” Woods told a group of about 25 East Ward residents at Shiloh Baptist Church in 2012, as reported in Yes Weekly.
“The federal government’s going broke,” he continued. “I don’t care who is the president. This country is going broke. The country is trillions of dollars in debt. No one is going to raise taxes. This country is not going to cut spending on the military. So what’s left? Social services. They’re already talking about cutting food stamps. If you don’t think they’re going to cut housing, they’re going to cut housing.”
Woods expressed frustration to the House Ways and Means Committee in 2013, noting that when the “step-up” program was introduced the year before only 60 residents out of 729 households attended.
“Additional efforts were made to engage tenants with these services and opportunity for them to improve their lives,” Woods told Congress. “Upon investigation and interviews with the tenants and former tenants who had successful exits from public housing, the reasons for lack of interest in the program were basically the same: There was not a requirement that the tenants participate in order to continue receiving housing assistance.”
For Woods, moving people who don’t truly need assistance out of public housing is a matter of allocating the agency’s resources most efficiently to assist those who do need help. He said the housing authority’s waiting list for public housing is 30 percent over capacity, and new applicants have to wait two to three years to get in.
Douglass Hayden moved into Crystal Towers in the summer of 2008, just before the onset of the Great Recession. The wait at the time was six months. His mother and father, with whom he had been living, had recently passed away.
“I came here at the age of 55,” said Hayden, who now serves as president of the residents’ council. “It attracted me because it was for seniors starting at the age of 55 based on income. I had been working in restaurants and bartending. With the economy fluctuating I had the benefit of having a rent that adjusted to my income. Employment at that time was, how shall we say it, somewhat inconsistent.”
Now 62, he works part-time for a janitorial service cleaning Hanesbrands offices. Preparing for second shift on a recent Friday, he wore a green shirt emblazoned with a corporate logo, tucked into neatly pressed khaki pants with an ID card clipped to his belt. His close-cropped hair was flecked with gray.
With about 200 residents, he said the atmosphere at Crystal Towers reminds him of college.
“There’s a certain amount of noise,” Hayden said. “But once you go in your apartment, you have your freedom. If you open your door and let the undesirable element in, that’s on you. Most people are very respectful.”
Getting into public housing will allow him to retire this year, Hayden said. Without it, he would probably need to work until he was 67 or 70. He’s looking forward to performing volunteer work with Goodwill and downtown-area shelters. He still plans to work — at the ballpark and as an usher at the Stevens Center — but it will be on a seasonal basis and he’ll be setting his own schedule.
Hayden is aware of widespread negative perceptions of public housing, and he said he sees a certain amount of hypocrisy in the notion that government assistance promotes dependency.
“What we’re going through in America with the so-called politicians that’s looking at less government, I guess it comes from Reagan,” he said. “Everybody is supposed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Everybody don’t have boots.
“With Obamacare, the whole idea started out to make sure everybody’s covered,” he continued. “I work 20 hours a week. Then you put in a subsidy, but you have to be working 40 hours a week to qualify for it. The state’s saying I can’t have Medicaid, but I’ve been paying into it for 40 years. The state says they don’t want to expand it because they don’t want the federal dollars and they might have to pay more down the line. That’s hypocrisy.”
There might be some merit to incentivizing a young person to pursue more education and better employment so they can eventually move to self-sufficiency. But that’s not for him, Hayden said.
“When you look at America today — economically, socially, et cetera — most of the people in this situation, even like myself, have worked in the minimum-wage bracket,” Hayden said. “As you get older, why at the age of 62 would I want to go back to school and retrain? Why would I want to own a home as a single person? I have no children. All the so-called American Dream — that’s not my concern. I’m comfortable, and everyone needs to find that for themselves.”
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Thanks for a very well researched and interesting article. I really do wonder what the future of public housing will be. Though both political parties have abandoned public housing I think it is needed now more than ever. More resources, not less should be devoted to public housing. Thanks again for providing a nice history of public housing in Winston-Salem.
Reminds me of P.G. County’s infamous “T p of t e Hil ” apartments.