“Caleb” is not his real name. He did not want to reveal his identity. He’s lived in the Lee Apartments for six years.
"Me and the other residents kept hearing that they would be tearing down the apartments, but I didn’t hold my breath because we’d heard it before," he says. "Having to move out almost immediately, got thrown on us at the last minute."
"It is an aggressive schedule," says Terry Cunningham, Kingsport Housing and Redevelopment Authority director. "HUD approved our demolition application for Lee in the last week of August, and we had been working since then to get our residents ready. But the relocation assistance vouchers that many residents were waiting on to help them move did not arrive until Dec. 5. Since we were hoping to have everybody moved by Dec. 29, the time frame was shortened considerably.
"Right now, we’re hoping to have everybody relocated by the end of January."
Although the weather right now is sometimes frightful, "seems like there is never a good time to initiate a residential move," Cunningham says.
The 76-year-old Robert E. Lee Apartments complex is part of a plan to replace the aging 128 units there with new townhouses on the site. "New townhouse apartments, a new community center and a new office area there should get us ready for the next 76 years," says Cunningham.
First, there will be some site renovation to the area of Dale Street, Tennessee Street, East Sevier Avenue and Poplar Street itself.
"The Lee Apartment buildings were built in a kind of bowl that is lower than all of the land surrounding them," Cunningham says. "Before the new units are built, the city is interested in seeing us raise the ground level higher, which will change the look and feel of the new complex.
A government topographic map shows a mostly underground pipe system in place that drains storm water that collects in the "bowl" and takes it through downtown, emptying into Reedy Creek near Sullivan Street and Lynn Garden Drive.
Begun in 1939 along with the Riverview Apartments, both complexes were finished in 1941 as part of Kingsport’s efforts to provide affordable housing to lower income residents. The 92-unit Riverview Apartments were torn down beginning in 2008 and new public housing, affordable rental, and affordable homeownership units were built over the next two years in their place. The funding source was an $11.9 million dollar HOPE VI revitilization grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. With that money, those new homes were built both in Riverview and the Sherwood-Hiwassee neighborhood, and the old Washington School was also transformed into a senior living complex. A portion of the money also renovated the V.O. Dobbins Community Center.
A grant like HOPE VI will not be utilized for the Lee rebuild, according to Cunningham.
"We’ll be using 9 percent tax credits to finance the new townhouses," he says. "There will also be project-based assistance to make up the difference between the tax credit levels of rent and the families paying 30 percent. We’re also not doing the type of homeownership program at Lee like we did for Riverview and Sherwood-Hiwassee. We’re hoping that families who are interested in owning their own homes can participate in our Family Self-Sufficiency program. We also have opportunities with several agencies including Eastern 8, which also built homes in Riverview alongside the HOPE VI homes there.
"We’ve been answering tenants’ questions, hearing their complaints," Cunningham says. "Our folks have been trying to step into their shoes to feel what they’re feeling, to try and resolve issues to make the moves as smooth as possible."
"Are you ready to go?" an anxious “Caleb” asked the movers helping him load his belongings. He says he’s lucky to be able to move back into the rental home he lived in before moving to Lee.
"The Lee Apartments have always been here, and because they were so inexpensive, I thought they were pretty stable," he says. "Because of that stability, I thought they’d be around because they were also very historic. As historic as they were, I guess it’s OK to tear history down now."
Another part of that history are the Frank L. Cloud Apartments, about eight blocks away. Cunningham says plans to remodel and rehabilitate the units at Cloud will continue, also with renovations in public housing at Dogwood Terrace, Holly Hills and Tiffany Court.
"At Cloud, we’ll be making improvements both inside and to the outside facade," he says. "Those plans involve new kitchens, new bathrooms, upgrades to the plumbing and the wiring and the HVAC systems."
While the progress is going on, Cunningham says funding for public housing has dropped considerably over the years.
"We’re having to transition out of the public housing sector to what’s known as ‘project-based’ housing," he says. "We feel that is a good move for us because funding for public housing, particularly in capital funding, has gone down significantly over the last 20 years. Meanwhile, the program for ‘project-based’ housing has been more stable. From a financial standpoint, that program will be more beneficial to us and our residents in the future."
Meanwhile, it’s almost time for “Caleb” and his movers to close the door for the last time. He says his experience at Lee was both good and bad.
"The good thing about it is, Lee has provided a roof over my head the past six years, and I’ve been able to save some money," he says. "But I’ve learned to always make sure to have a backup plan. Right now, I’ve got a place to move to, but many people here had to rush and find a place at the last minute.
"In the short term, you may like living somewhere because it’s cheaper," he says, "but you may end up spending the money you’re saving in the long run."
Midtown neighborhood redevelopment timeline
2012: The KHRA received a $300,000 Choice Neighborhoods Initiative planning grant from the federal government to develop a transformation plan for the Midtown neighborhood.
2015: The KHRA failed to receive $11 million in federal tax credits for the first phase of the project, pushing the overall time frame back about a year.
2016: KHRA officials modify the plan and announce they are going after non-competitive tax credits to help fund the project. Soon after, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen agrees to pitch in $3 million in One Kingsport funds over the next decade to support the project.
August 2017: HUD signs off on the demolition of Lee Apartments.
December 2017: The Tennessee Housing Development Agency announces the KHRA is one of three finalists for its 9 percent Innovative tax credits.
January/February 2018: The relocation of the residents of Lee Apartments takes place.
Spring/Summer 2018: The THDA will announce the winner of the Innovative tax credits. The demolition of Lee Apartments will begin.
Fall 2018: Construction of the new town houses on the Lee site will begin, as will the rehabilitation of KHRA’s other public housing units.
Summer 2020: Project completion.
COMPILED BY MATTHEW LANE/ SOURCE: KHRA, KINGSPORT TIMES NEWS