“Dry Katrina”: In Memphis, Hundreds Of Families Are Being Forced Out Of The City’s Last Public Housing Units

By Courtney Anderson

MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE- More than 700 families in the city of Memphis are at risk of losing their homes due to a mandatory relocation that some are equating to a manmade disaster.

This displacement comes from the mandatory relocation of residents from apartment buildings that were found to have housing code enforcement violations.

The residents were living in government subsidized housing units- the last such project in the city until the owner of the buildings lost HUD funding according to local paper The Commercial Appeal.

If they are made to relocate, many residents say that they will have nowhere to go.

But one organization in Memphis is working to provide assistance to residents in need.

For the better part of a year, The Mid South Peace and Justice Center (MSPJC), in Memphis, has been working on a renter’s rights collective to addresses the issues that led to the possible relocation of hundreds of Memphis citizens.

MSPJC director Bradley Watkins describes the collective as an effort to “engage in renter’s rights and training workshops on how tenants can form their own tenant associations,” in order to eventually create a network of organizations in Memphis—or “Memphis Tenant’s Union—” that work to protect the rights of tenants in the city.

In short, they are trying to stop what Watkins has dubbed as Memphis’s “Dry Katrina.” The nickname makes reference to the New Orleans housing crisis that followed Hurricane Katrina more than a decade ago.

Watkins said there is no other organizations in Memphis of its kind and that tenants have been taking a “great risk standing up for their rights,” and that the residents who speak out “need more support than is often available.”

The Mid South Peace and Justice center began the collective by working with residents of low-income apartments Warren Apartments and Serenity Towers.

Both apartment complexes are owned by Rev. Richard Hamlet of Global Ministries Foundation in Memphis and subsidized by the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

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Watkins said he and members of the MSPJC saw many violations in both Warren Apartments, Serenity Towers and an apartment called Tulane, also owned by Hamlet.

Two weeks later, HUD notified Hamlet that Global Ministries Foundation had failed to correct the violations and that the tenants would have to be moved.

Recently, an inspection of Serenity Towers found massive bug infestations. Residents were told they would have to be moved, as well.

Watkins said that he felt the relocation was inevitable and that they were the result of “decades of systemic neglect on the part of the landlords.” To Watkins, it was only a matter of time.

“Honestly, we all have to ask: What did we expect to happen? Now our collective chickens have come home to roost,” Watkins said in a blog post.

Watkins said that these relocations have created a serious dilemma in the city of Memphis.

“The relocation of residents at Warren and Tulane, if not properly handled, could lead to a massive crisis in housing here in Memphis,” Watkins said. “This will affect thousands of families and they will need this community and this organization to stand with them in this.”

Jessica Johnson-Peterson was one of the residents who spoke up about the housing violations. She said some of her closest associates had come to her with complaints for years and that she felt compelled by the Holy Spirit to “be a voice for the community.”

Johnson-Peterson said that after a conversation with her husband and a resident named Cynthia Crawford, she typed a letter to Hamlet and then contacted Watkins at the MSPJC.

Johnson-Peterson said there are still many concerns not being addressed by HUD or by Global Ministries Foundation. She also said the new appointed receiver has expressed that he has no interest in working with tenants.

“It seems that being a criminal has more benefits than being a law-abiding citizen. The citizens that do their best with the resources, they are forced to live impoverished and the ones that compromise and give into the corruption more than thrive,” Johnson-Peterson said.

On March 11, 2016, Watkins posted an email he sent to Memphis city councilman Worth Morgan, members of the administration of Memphis mayor Jim Strickland and management at Memphis Code Enforcement onto the MSPJC Facebook page.

The post detailed a proposal that would create two initiatives between MSPJC and Memphis Code Enforcement. Both initiatives would have used Serenity Towers as a “pilot program.”

The initiatives listed included the creation of tenants associations that would be recognized by HUD and a program in which college interns who work with MSPJC would be paired with residents of Serenity Towers who have mobility issues.

In the meantime, the MSPJC is keeping track of HUD’s responses to the violations in Serenity Towers and Warren and Tulane Apartments.

The MSPJC Facebook page is consistently updated with local news articles about the apartment buildings and the tenants who called them home.

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Cover Photo Credit: Guillaume Capron/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

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