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Tallahassee public housing tenants face displacement due to redevelopment

By Zachary Schultz |
November 5, 2019
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Oliver Hill, Sr. Community Center at the Orange Avenue Apartment.
Oliver Hill, Sr. Community Center at the Orange Avenue Apartment. (Fight Back! News/Staff)

Tallahassee, FL - November 5 marked the due date for 2019 applications to the Florida Housing Finance Corporation. This year the city of Tallahassee has submitted two applications along with $1.3 million to secure funding for the redevelopment of Orange Avenue Apartments, currently the largest public housing community in Tallahassee, a 200-unit complex is on Tallahassee’s Southside.

The redevelopment effort is being led in part by Purpose Built Communities, an Atlanta non-profit founded by billionaire investors Warren Buffett and Julian Robertson, along with the wealthy Atlanta real estate developer Tom Cousins. The non-profit’s mission statement is to replicate Cousins’ redevelopment of the East Lake Meadows public housing complex in Atlanta throughout the United States.

The East Lake Meadows redevelopment has been criticized as “not a case study in community development, but instead a case study in community replacement.” by the Atlanta Studies Journal. In 1998 the East Lake tenant association sued the Atlanta Housing Authority in an attempt to stop the demolition of their community, however, the courts ruled against them. Only about 16% of families returned to the East Lake Meadows community after redevelopment, due to strict screening practices used by the development company.

"In Atlanta, I was there when they did it, I saw it, and I had friends who actually got mixed up in all of that. They kicked those people out," said Tifany Hill, a Southside resident. Hill grew up in Orange Avenue Apartments with her father Oliver Hill, Sr., the co-founder and president of the Orange Avenue United Tenant Association (OAUTA), which represents all public housing tenants in Tallahassee.

The Tallahassee Housing Authority director Brenda Williams has stated that tenants will have a right to return after redevelopment. Hill is not convinced. "You are saying that all the tenants can come back, but let's put it in writing. Let's have all the parties sign it, let's get lawyers in, let's sign this paperwork, and that's what they are not doing here."

She also criticized the lack of tenant representation, asking, "How are you going to have a committee when there's no tenant on it. And then you aren't talking to the tenant association. You're not even involving them."

While tenants are given no representation, powerful business owners do sit on the boards of Whole Child Leon and its South City Foundation, which serves as the local arm of the Purpose Built Community redevelopment.

"The city has no intent of replacing all demolished public housing units or of allowing residents to return. These wealthy developers only see poor Black people as an obstacle to overcome in their hunt for profit on the Southside," said Regina Joseph, president of the Tallahassee Community Action Committee (TCAC), an organization which campaigned earlier this year against the construction of the Tallahassee Police HQ in the Southside.

According to the proposed development plans, the new apartments will only include 157 public housing units, while 97 market rate units will be added to the community. A two-bedroom market rate apartment would cost $1000 a month according to the plan, higher than what 80% of South City residents currently pay. The plans further specify that only “eligible” current tenants may return.

Leon County suffers from a lack of affordable housing, with 43% of residents unable to afford their basic living expenses on their income according to the 2018 ALICE report by United Way. The Tallahassee Housing Authority has accepted applications for Section 8 vouchers for only one month in the last decade, and over 15,000 qualifying families remain on the waiting list.

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