Last Friday was homecoming for Verlean Gibson.
Gibson, who lived in Hurt Village for 15 years, celebrated the grand opening of The Metropolitan, a 19-building community on the former public-housing site. The combination apartment, townhome, and loft complex is the newest project in Uptown, the city's public-private redevelopment of the historic Greenlaw area.
Gibson called it "an amazement." Across the way is a little park and a cove of pretty little houses in a rainbow of hues.
"The difference is that there aren't any gunshots. You don't have to duck," said Gibson. "You have quietness and peace."
Gibson, a former president of the Hurt Village Resident Association, didn't think she'd get to come back.
"We thought they just wanted to build new stuff and put the residents out," she said.
For Gibson, Uptown is a success story, a chance for a different, better life. But buried beneath the tidy green grass and the balconied brick apartments are some hard questions: How exactly is the city using eminent domain? And what does affordable housing mean in actual dollars, especially downtown? The Metropolitan's opening came just days after a City Council housing and community development committee meeting attempted to address those questions.
"These rents range from $562 to $772," said council member Barbara Swearengen Holt. "Where's the number that's considered affordable?"
That same day, however, Memphis was cited as a model of affordable housing by HUD's national director. And, factoring in the cost of living in Memphis - 7 percent lower than Atlanta, 6 percent lower than Little Rock, and 2 percent lower than Dallas - we're already at an advantage.
But part of Memphis' challenge, says city director of housing and development Robert Lipscomb, is the gap between affordability and the actual cost, especially in places such as College Park, formerly called LeMoyne Gardens, where the average yearly income is $5,000.
"It's almost impossible without having subsidies," said Lipscomb. "If you make $500 a month, how do you afford food and utilities and still pay rent? Even if you use 30 percent of your income on housing, that's about $150. It's still nothing."
Developing affordable housing is made more challenging because of the need to balance what may be in the public's best interest with that of individual citizens.
James Sneed, for instance, owns property on North Third Street. A Millington resident, he recently put about $6,000 into the house and says his college-aged son would like to live there. But the city would like him to sell. And if he doesn't, they may begin the eminent domain process.
So far, 176 properties have been acquired for the Uptown project, 66 of them through eminent domain.
"The city doesn't have enough money to clean up all these areas," said Lipscomb. "To do that, we have to attract the private sector to help us. ... We don't acquire a person's property if it's occupied, because we think, philosophically, it might not be the right thing to do. But to move the development forward, we have to eliminate slum and blight."
But Sneed doesn't think his property is blighted. "I told them, just tell us what we need to do. We have the means to do it," he said. "The train just kept pushing. ...I want to keep my property. I want my family, my children, to be able to enjoy what other people will be enjoying."
With current redevelopment in the city and the recent Supreme Court ruling on eminent domain, it's an issue that's not going to disappear anytime soon.
For Gibson, the redevelopment in Uptown is a dream. For Sneed, it's a nightmare. It just goes to show that making a house into a home is hard, but sometimes, making a city into one is even harder. n