Tutor Column

Anniston Housing Authority director Sonny McMahand is shown at the Cooper Homes demolition site in 2018.

Earlier this summer, Anniston City Councilman Ben Little floated an absurd idea — the city should sue the Anniston Housing Authority. As absurd ideas go, it wasn’t among the councilor’s all-time top five, but he’s set the bar astonishingly high.

“They’re trying to dilute the vote and hurt the Anniston school system,” Little said.

That’s not merely absurd. It’s asinine. It’s also not the point.

Little’s litigious suggestion — which didn’t happen, mind you — came amid the Housing Authority’s project to replace some of the city’s aging public housing units. 

A majority of former Cooper Homes tenants now live elsewhere in Calhoun County; more than half live in other Housing Authority units. The number of former Cooper Homes tenants residing outside of Anniston, either temporarily or permanently, is minuscule.

Little was apparently concerned that (a.) the Housing Authority was intentionally moving tenants outside the city; (b.) those moves would damage the city’s 2020 Census count, especially his ward’s count; and (c.) Anniston City Schools would suffer from a migration of students to faraway lands. Like Oxford or Saks, perhaps.

Well, no.

“We relocated them properly,” Willie “Sonny” McMahand, director of the Housing Authority, told The Star last month.

Since tarring and feathering is a bit extreme, Little also suggested that the council should fire Housing Authority board members who voted to tear down Cooper Homes and relocate tenants elsewhere.

Well, no.

Again, that’s not the point. Instead, it’s that one of Anniston’s most critical issues — affordable housing — is indeed a critical issue, and not even the absurdity of Little’s suggestion can overshadow it. It doesn’t resonate among the city’s middle- and high-wage earners because it usually doesn’t affect them. But it is real.

Anniston is a diminutive Alabama version of, say, Detroit. (Hang with me here.) 

Its poor neighborhoods are overwhelmingly poor. 

Its trademark industries — its iconic job creators — are long gone.

Racial and class flight have forever altered its demographics. 

Gardens of blight and vacant lots have sprouted in too many neighborhoods. 

And homelessness abounds. Anyone who doesn’t believe that isn’t clued in to this city’s realities.

There’s a reason why the housing authority in a city of barely 20,000 residents owns and operates seven public housing communities. The need is great. In turn, there may be no job as critical to the hopes of Anniston’s low-income residents — if not all Annistonians — than McMahand’s.

His effort to replace Cooper Homes and Barber Terrace with a collection of modern houses and townhouses exemplifies what’s often missing in Anniston. Anniston is rooted in the past, a city that talks about its losses — Fort McClellan, iron factories and pipe shops, thousands of residents, retail defections to Oxford — more than it does its gains, such as its 21st-century ecotourism marriage to mountain bikes and cycling, the Freedom Riders national monument and the embryonic regional federal courthouse. 

McMahand and the Housing Authority aren’t merely replacing Cooper Homes and Barber Terrace with 2019 versions of the same. They’re embracing a humanitarian concept that empowers residents and improves the neighborhoods in which they live. It’s OK to think grandiose thoughts.

Anniston needs more of that style of thinking, not less.

I’m not sure “tiny homes” — usually less than 400 square feet — are part of Anniston’s housing solution, though. Last week, the City Council discussed them and the zoning ordinances that regulate them, and it wasn’t time wasted. I suspect that Councilman David Reddick was right when he questioned how far the city should go if it embraces tiny homes as a stopgap solution. “We don’t want to get into a situation where people go to Home Depot and get one of those storage sheds and call it a home,” he said.

But What Would McMahand Do?

Probably, he’d notice that other cities and their charitable organizations have successfully used tiny homes to lower homelessness, especially among military veterans. That’s happened in Detroit, Denver and Seattle, where tiny-home villages have sprouted on city-owned vacant lots, and in smaller cities like Midland, Texas, and Racine, Wisc. There’s even a tiny home effort for veterans down in Clay County.

In the year or so remaining on its lifespan, this council could do worse than to concentrate on affordable and sustainable housing in Anniston — for the homeless, for veterans, for those in public housing, for those in need. 

Want to know what’s really absurd? Doing nothing. 

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is a Star columnist. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.