Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

When 'The Projects' Meet the Suburbs Fulfilling a Federal Mandate of Locating Public Housing in White Neighborhoods Will Mean Dealing with All the Perceptions of Decades Past

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

When 'The Projects' Meet the Suburbs Fulfilling a Federal Mandate of Locating Public Housing in White Neighborhoods Will Mean Dealing with All the Perceptions of Decades Past

Article excerpt

Two years ago, Chris and Sandra Reeves bought their first house, a tidy bungalow in a middle-class part of Argyle Forest. Life has been good. Chris is in the Navy and the couple is expecting a child in May.

Then they heard public housing may be coming to a neighborhood near them, a prospect that has been unsettling for many Jacksonville residents over the years.

"You mean the projects?" Chris Reeves said last week with wide-eyed interest. "That means traffic, crime, problems. Nobody wants that. Would you?"

Reeves' words reflect a challenge facing Jacksonville housing officials who must begin locating public housing in mostly white neighborhoods next year or face possible takeover by the federal government. The predicament comes after the Justice Department filed suit last year contending Jacksonville violated fair housing laws by failing to locate public housing outside black neighborhoods for the past two decades.

The sides agreed to bypass court if the Jacksonville Housing Authority builds 225 new units in predominantly white neighborhoods by 2006, including 75 by next year. An area off Youngerman Circle near Reeves' home is one being considered.

The agency found itself in the high-stakes dilemma because of Jacksonville's long history of public housing mismanagement. By the 1970s, financial problems began to emerge. And the crime and rundown conditions that plagued public housing in the 1980s became the political albatross that blocked its integration in the 1990s.

Although vast improvements occurred since formation of an independent housing authority five years ago, fulfilling the federal government's mandate will mean dealing with perceptions of decades past, officials said.

"Our failures as a city have been well-chronicled," said Ronnie Ferguson, the authority president who took over public housing when City Council relinquished control of perhaps the worst public housing in the nation.

"It was in bad shape. No question about it," Ferguson said.

In short time, the authority moved Jacksonville off U.S. Housing and Urban Development's "troubled" list and among its "high performers" by hiring new managers, pouring millions of dollars into physical improvements and putting in place programs that significantly reduced crime.

Still, five years of fixing won't erase decades of neglect in the mind of property owners across the city, such as Reeves.

"First things first," Ferguson said. "It's hard to sell someone a shirt when they are hungry. For us, it would have been hard to sell public housing to the community until we got our house in order. I think we've done that."

THE LOWEST POINT

By most accounts, Jacksonville's public housing was a mess for years. It became official in 1979 when HUD first placed the city on its "troubled" list, citing a high number of vacancies and a $2 million operating deficit.

Its problems persisted partly because the city's Housing and Urban Development Department was seen as a place for politicians' friends to land jobs, according to former Mayor Ed Austin and others.

Public housing reached perhaps its low point by the early 1990s, when Austin took over and reported that a third of the city's 3,012 units were uninhabitable; another 600 to 700 were occupied but violated codes; and an estimated $75 million was needed to repair leaky roofs and rooted walls.

Jim Chaplin, HUD's field manager for Florida from 1986 to 1995, remembers taking a tour of Jacksonville's housing and returning to his office feeling shocked at what he had seen in Jacksonville's public housing neighborhoods.

"It was deplorable," said Chaplin, now a senior adviser in HUD's assistant secretary's office in Washington. "I had been in that job for many years . . . But I had never seen anything like that."

It was in the 1980s that the city began what the Justice Department now says were several missteps that led to its current problems. …

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