Official touts public housing upgrade
Sometimes less is more, and that seems to be the case with the city of Charleston's public housing stock.
The idea to upgrade the existing public housing stock and reduce the density of the units dates back to the early 2000s, said Mark Taylor, chief executive officer for the Charleston-Kanawha Housing Authority.
The city's population peaked around 1960 at nearly 86,000 but stood at just over 51,000 by the latest Census estimate.
Many of the public housing units in the city were originally built and occupied back in the 1940s. The large, drab units were difficult to maintain, Taylor said.
They were also unsafe because residents shared entrances, and that made the buildings breeding grounds for crime, he said.
So housing authorities around the country have moved toward smaller, more efficient units with their own entrances, Taylor said.
"In terms of security, these smaller units are much easier to police," he said.
Upgrades are under way at Littlepage Terrace and Orchard Manor on Washington Street West, as well as Jarrett Terrace on Central Avenue.
Nine efficiency apartments on the 10th floor of Jarrett Terrace, a high-rise that houses elderly residents, are being renovated and increased in size, Taylor said. The apartments are being turned into six one-bedroom units, he said.
The upgrades and reduction of units are also taking place at Washington Manor in downtown Charleston near Charleston Town Center.
This upgrade in housing stock will make for nicer, more appealing neighborhoods, which are more attractive to people wanting to move into a community, Taylor said.
"We want to invest on the West Side, and we hope that will spur others to invest in the area," he said.
Prospective homebuyers and developers would be loath to build units on lots beside the older public housing complexes, he added.
The upgraded units look more like townhouses than housing complexes and are more likely to promote growth and development in a community, Taylor said.
"Why would you build next to one of these old units?" he asked.
Mayor Danny Jones agreed, saying the improvements would benefit all residents, not just those living in public housing.
"Of course it's going to attract more people to the West Side," Jones said. "It's going to make things better for everyone."
The new units, such as the ones being constructed on Washington Street West near Littlepage Terrace across from the entrance to Orchard Manor, will help increase property values in the neighborhoods, Taylor said.
The housing authority is building 28 units on the plot of land just off Washington Street West within a stone's throw of Littlepage.
The $7 million project, which includes the cost of acquiring the property and installing infrastructure, should be completed by the end of 2013, Taylor said.
This project, once completed, will be dubbed The Greystone, he said.
Plans are eventually to demolish the 108 units at Littlepage and replace them with new units such as those currently under construction on Washington Street West.
However, the upgrade to the public housing stock does not come without some consequences, the Rev. Matthew Watts believes.
"I applaud Charleston-Kanawha Housing for what they're doing to upgrade the housing in the West Side," said Watts, founder of HOPE Community Development Corp.
"My only concern is there is still a significant concentration of public housing in areas like the West Side."
Such concentration can mean many low-income students attending the same school.
"When the concentration of poverty is high in a single school, you see a decline in the academic performance within the children of that school," Watts said. "That's not the fault of anyone with Charleston-Kanawha Housing; it's just that these unintended consequences do occur."
Taylor disagrees, saying the authority is not increasing the population in the area and is instead building new units to replace the old.
"I would agree with him (Watts) if we weren't getting rid of Littlepage Terrace," Taylor said. "But we're just replacing existing housing with better quality housing.
"We're not really bringing new people in," he added. "We're serving the people that are already here."
Once the original Littlepage buildings are demolished, 49 new housing units will be built on that site, he said.
"We're going to be really busy in the next three or four years," he said.
The number of public housing units in the city has decreased since 2005, Taylor said. That year, there were 1,440 public housing units in Charleston.
In 2012, that number had dropped to 1,271.