The Charleston Housing Authority wants to preserve Gadsden Green, one of the city’s oldest and largest housing projects.
It should, instead, want to tear it down.
Gadsden Green is a symbol of the problems and opportunities confronting Charleston as poor and middle-income residents alike are squeezed off the peninsula by a voracious tourism-fueled economy that builds hotels but not much else. Plagued by crime, drugs and flooding (Flood Street literally runs through the place), the 264-unit Gadsden Green is the “hardest sell” of all the city’s housing projects. And those on the long waiting list will sometimes get back in line rather than go there, says Donald Cameron, the authority’s executive director for 35 years. “I don’t like it, but it is someplace to stay for now,” a woman sitting on her front step told me.
She is 52, has been at Gadsden Green for two years and like everyone else I talked to had no interest in having her name in the newspaper. “Everywhere is crime,” she said. “I can’t even bring my grandchildren here. I am afraid something will happen.”
Gadsden Green is all black and has been since it was built in 1940.
Just across Harmon Field is Burke High, which last year was 98 percent African American.
About a mile away, the city’s largest housing project, 417-unit Meeting Street Manor and Cooper River Court, is also all black. Beside it is Sanders Clyde Elementary, which was 97 percent African American last year.
And we wonder why America can’t bridge its racial divide.
In a handsome brochure celebrating the housing authority’s 75th anniversary in 2010, Cameron told about how the city’s worst black slum was torn down in the late 1930s and replaced by Robert Mills Manor, which was then “whites only.”
“Yes, segregation had raised its ugly head,” Cameron wrote at the time.
Segregation, in fact, never went away in Charleston’s public housing.
Fifty years ago, Charleston ran two public housing systems: one for whites and one for blacks. Today, Charleston has only one — and it is for blacks.
Ninety-nine percent of the authority’s residents are black, and 90 percent of the 1,200 families on the waiting list are black, Cameron says.
What the housing authority has done, against difficult odds, is help African Americans remain on the peninsula as gentrification has forced them out. About 6,000 black residents — or half those still on the peninsula — now live in housing provided by the authority. In 1980, there were 28,000 blacks on the peninsula.
Cameron differentiates between then and now by saying the days of Jim Crow were politically sanctioned. Today, segregation is driven by economics.
“The result is the same,” Cameron says. And he adds: “I don’t think it is healthy.”
So what to do about it?
Cameron’s answer is to keep doing what he is doing. That means building a few apartments like the 60 or so he is planning at the foot of the old bridge and some senior housing nearing completion by the aquarium.
Meanwhile, he will try to maintain the current 4,100 units in the face of reduced federal subsidies.
With luck, the authority will celebrate its 100th anniversary — or its 150th — looking a lot like the one we have today: decaying projects filled with a permanent black underclass.
We have to do better.
Some cities already are. In Boston, the housing authority is facing the same pressures we are: aging public housing projects and no money to improve or replace them. Rather than standing still, the Boston Housing Authority asked developers for proposals on all its properties, particularly its older federally subsidized projects.
Already, Boston has signed a deal to rebuild the largest housing project in New England, the 1,100-unit Bunker Hill behemoth in the city’s Charlestown neighborhood. Boston developer Corcoran Jennison Associates and SunCal of Irvine, Calif., will replace the public housing units one for one and add 2,100 market-rate units.
The key to making the numbers work is Boston’s hot real estate market and roughly tripling the density, allowing the market-rate units to subsidize the public housing units. The developers will own the buildings, but the housing authority will ensure affordability for low-income residents through a 99-year ground lease.
One of the trickiest issues will be overseeing the transition, moving residents out and back in during construction, says Sarah Barnat, who will help manage the project for Corcoran. All current residents in good standing are guaranteed a place in the new development, which will be done in phases over a decade. In a recent community meeting, residents wanted to know how they could get in on the first phase, she said.
Bill McGonagle, who heads Boston’s housing authority, says rebuilding Bunker Hill is just the start.
“The federal money for public housing as we know it is gone, and it is not coming back,” he said. “This is the future for better or worse.”
Count Cameron as a skeptic: “I just don’t know that it is appropriate for us.”
If Charleston and Boston have similar needs, they also have similar assets: Both have strong property markets and decaying housing projects in prime locations that could accommodate much more density.
Think what is about to happen in the city’s new WestEdge district next to Gadsden Green, and what is already happening on the upper peninsula near Cooper River Court.
Once upon a time these projects were welcome replacements for rat-infested slums with colorful names like “Rotten Borough” and “Cool Blow.”
As Charleston has been transformed, the projects have become relics, frozen in time, not serving their African American residents but isolating them from their own city, generation after generation.
Shame on us if we can do no better.
Steve Bailey writes regularly for the Commentary page. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.