July 13, 2018 10:37:14 AM
Loren "Bo" Bell stood before an audience of about 60 concerned citizens Thursday night at the Greensboro Center in Starkville and tried to paint a pretty picture.
The Starkville Housing Authority board chair wanted to convince us that by relocating the residents of Pecan Acres public housing units on Highway 12 to new, "better" houses to be built on Highway 182, those people's lives would improve. He also cast a development group wanting to obtain the current Pecan Acres and replace it with an "entertainment district" -- complete with a hotel and bowling alley -- as the purveyors of grand opportunity for all parties involved.
The way it would work: The developer would buy the land on 182, build new public housing units, then swap that land with the Housing Authority for the existing Pecan Acres.
To this particular crowd, though, Bell's presentation came off more like a traveling salesman trying to peddle patent medicine to people who knew snake oil when they saw it.
Bell repeatedly on Thursday called the decades-old Pecan Acres "the Sherwood Forest of public housing," a reference to an affluent private subdivision off South Montgomery Street. When questioned, he admitted the 74 homes at Pecan Acres are adequately maintained and properly weatherized.
Yet, he still insisted moving residents from the public housing development into new houses would be better -- regardless of location or, quite frankly, the optics of tearing down decent public housing because someone with a big bank account wants to find "better use" for the property.
The Housing Authority board supports this land swap, and it's pretty easy to see why. As Bell put it, the federal Housing and Urban Development agency won't build new units, so this is the only way to get new houses for Pecan Acres residents. With this project, the houses won't require the same maintenance costs as those at Pecan Acres, meaning less stress on Starkville Housing Authority's budget.
On the developer's side, there's prime real estate smack in the middle of a Highway 12 corridor poised for a development boom. Why not monetize it for themselves while adding property value to the local tax rolls from which everyone can benefit?
All these positions are understandable, but their critical failure is the same: They make secondary some basic quality of life needs for Pecan Acres residents.
"New" is not always better, especially when it means relocating low-income residents, many of whom are elderly, to a food desert. Now, Pecan Acres sits adjacent to a full-service grocery store and within walking distance of other services, as well as many residents' jobs.
It's a low-crime area with sidewalks and ready access to public transportation, with a SMART bus stop right outside the adjacent grocery store.
The proposed new location, a spot in west Starkville once included in a failed proposal for an industrial park, is an area without adequate sidewalk access in a largely undeveloped part of town. The closest access to food would be a convenience store and a Dollar General, with the closest full-service grocery stores at least a mile away.
This whole thing feels icky, and most of the 60 community members present Thursday -- many of whom did not live in Pecan Acres but were advocating hard for those residents' best futures -- said as much. Those cries largely fell on deaf ears, as Bell and Housing Authority consultant Johnny Taylor looked increasingly exasperated they couldn't force-feed public approval of the project.
Bell claims the project has "overwhelming support" from Pecan Acres residents, as he claimed to have obtained signatures from 40 of 50 residents SHA met with earlier this year. Something tells me those "informational meetings" smacked with the same level of objectivity as a preacher "inviting" a bunch of church campers not to go to hell. Also, there are more than 100 residents at Pecan Acres.
Pecan Acres residents are not obstacles to be moved out of the way of economic progress. They aren't squatters whose interests should be made secondary for the sake of cost-savings.
These are people, pure and simple. This project will affect their lives. If Thursday is any indication, the Housing Authority leadership truly believes they understand it. I don't think they do.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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