The asbestos was already being removed from the Tindall Heights housing project by the time the politicians were ready to celebrate its demolition.
Thelma Dillard was one of the local politicians there to say goodbye before the pre-demolition news conference in May. She serves on the Bibb County school board and grew up in the 76-year-old public housing development.
“My mother moved here when I was a baby. And I lived here until I went off to college,” Dillard said.
She said that once upon a time, Tindall Heights was the place to be.
“A lot of good people grew up in this neighborhood,” Dillard said. “It was a launch pad for greatness.”
These 400 or so apartments built during the New Deal were radically better than the tar-paper shacks they replaced. But by 1960 the wiring was out of date in units that had never had air conditioning, and the complex eventually was labeled substandard. So Dillard was all too happy to pick up a sledgehammer and take a turn knocking out a few ceremonial bricks.
Plans call for low-cost housing for senior citizens to be built on about a third of the property. Should tax credits come through, a larger mixed income retail and residential development will be built on the remainder of the property.
But first, everyone in Tindall Heights has to go. That presents both a promise and a challenge, as the stories of two former residents reveal.
One day last October, when plans to demolish the homes was still news in the neighborhood, people talked about what they would like to happen once they moved. Some like George Neel were indifferent.
“It doesn’t really matter. Whatever I can afford, basically,” he said.
Others like Diane Collins didn’t want to go.
“I really got attached to my apartment,” she said.
But most of the people interviewed by a reporter were single mothers like Auset Reaves with one thing on their minds.
“I just think it’s time for me and my kids to move onto something better,” she said on the stoop of her apartment in the heart of Tindall Heights. “Well, the school he’s at, it’s OK. But I want more for him.”
Reaves, 25, is a mother of four and in school herself.
“I was already ready to move. And I’m excited about it. And I’m glad that they doing this,” she said.
Luckily for Reaves, she and everyone else in Tindall Heights will be offered monetary help in the form of a Section 8 tenant protection voucher. Section 8 is the rent subsidy program that helps ease low income renters into the open housing market. But finding Section 8 housing comes with challenges.
Last October at the start of the housing search, the Housing and Urban Development website listed eight or so Section 8 compliant apartments in Macon-Bibb County. While HUD is the place landlords sign up to offer Section 8 housing, the agency keeps no master list of those landlords. Linda Couch, formerly the senior vice president for policy with the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said that just isn’t feasible.
“There’s no one-stop shop,” she said.
The Macon Housing Authority keeps a local Section 8 landlord list, but residents must make an appointment with a housing counselor in order to see that list. Other websites such as gosection8.com and georgiahousingsearch.org yielded more publicly accessible results.
A desire for better schools is often part of the search for new housing.
When nearly 200 Section 8 properties listed on various websites were mapped against a backdrop of elementary school performance — specifically third-grade literacy as described by the 2015 Georgia Milestones test — most of the properties were apartments clustered in the Bibb school district’s lowest performing elementary schools zones. There wasn’t a single property in the highest performing school zone.
Six months after Reaves first got news of the demolition and her move, Tindall Heights looked and sounded like a ghost town. Folks were clearing out. But Reaves was still there, waiting to move to her new place.
“It’s a three bedroom house and it’s two bathrooms and I love it,” she said.
She had been waiting for weeks to find out if the place met the health and safety standards for using Section 8 vouchers. Just getting to that point wasn’t easy.
“It hasn’t been like a walk in the park like. ‘Oh, you can go find this, then you get to move,’ ” Reaves said.
She had 60 days to search for a new home.
“You might not find something in 60 days. It was like I have to find something like as soon as possible or I’m going to get messed up,” she said.
And though Reaves is happy with what she found, it wasn’t her first choice. That was a house on Vineville Avenue, one of the more well-to-do arteries running from downtown Macon out to the northern suburbs. Along the way, her excitement and the sense of promise that came with it cooled.
“No, you can’t get your hopes up too high,” she said. “I know that we all happy about being able to move, but it’s still like you have all these disadvantages.”
For Reaves, the main disadvantage was the fixed value of the Section 8 voucher.
Housing assistance is based on fair-market rent values set by HUD, and in Macon-Bibb County, that standard is $610 for a one bedroom unit, $700 for two bedrooms and $950 for three bedrooms, according to the Macon Housing Authority. Renters may be required to pay part of that cost based on their income.
Whether you look in a well off neighborhood or struggling neighborhood, the voucher’s value is the same. For Reaves it wouldn’t cover enough of the rent for her first choice of housing.
Instead, she and her 9-year-old son are moving to a home off Napier Avenue in Macon served by an elementary school with one of the lowest third-grade literacy rates in the district.
It didn’t matter. Reaves was set on going.
“I’m ready for a change. I’m really ready for a change. This what it’s mostly about. Ready for a change,” she said, her voice trailing off.
June Parker, head of the of the Macon Housing Authority, said the agency tries to encourage landlords in better neighborhoods to offer Section 8 housing. But if landlords can’t be convinced, the housing authority’s hands are tied, she said.
Back at the demolition event, Tyra Ann Tate, waited her turn to take a swing at the bricks.
She had just moved from her apartment at the top of Tindall Heights to a rowhouse in the north Macon suburbs. Tate had moved to Tindall Heights three years earlier just after her divorce. She had three daughters with her and was homeless.
Still, “I didn’t go in there with a mindset that I would be there long,” she said.
Her new place is on a street tucked between neighborhoods of single family homes. The highest performing best elementary school in the district, Springdale Elementary, is half a mile away, accessible by sidewalks. On a recent morning, there was incense burning and reggae streaming on the TV.
“I get to wake up and look at the lake every morning,” said Tate.
Sure enough, there was a small lake just over her fence. The sound of birds singing filled the air.
Tate has done nails for 20 years. She’s been working hard to build a clientele since moving to Macon from Cleveland, Ohio. She said she’d been trying to leave Tindall Heights for a while when she got the news about the demolition and the vouchers. She got to work.
“Me and my middle girl, my 22-year-old, we would just ride around neighborhoods, you know, get numbers, look on Craigslist, the newspaper, everywhere,” she said. “Everybody just kept on showing us these garbage places. They were just terrible. I would actually want to ask them, ‘Would you put your mother in this place?’ ”
She kept looking.
One day she was making small talk while doing nails for an old client. She talked a little about the house search. The client and her boyfriend were fixing a place up and told Tate to take a look. She did, the same day.
“And when I walked in I was like, wow this is it. I’m done. The search is over,” she said.
Except the landlord wasn’t taking Section 8. Again, Tate was persistent.
“I just was basically was like me and my girls deserve … we need a place, a nice, safe environment for us to live,” she recounted. “You know we’re all in school, we’re good people, we won’t tear up your house, and I know that’s, you know, a stigma that people have with Section 8.”
The landlord bit. He signed up to accept Section 8 and rented Tate the house. As far as Tate is concerned, this is how the whole thing is supposed to work.
“This is one of the reasons for Section 8. So you can upgrade your life,” she said. “You don’t want to go from a project to a slum.”
Tate says that just wouldn’t make sense.
Grant Blankenship: firstname.lastname@example.org