The Anniston Housing Authority’s board of directors Thursday decided to postpone approval of proposed one-year and five-year plans after local residents asked why they didn’t include a timetable for rebuilding the demolished Cooper Homes.
“The question is this: When you tear down, rebuild. Don’t just say you’re going to rebuild,” said Rev. David Curtis of Pine Avenue Church of God, one of four people who spoke at a public hearing at Glen Addie Homes.
The board in September announced that it would hold a hearing on long-term plans that have to be submitted regularly to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. A number of projects are listed in the plan, from security camera installation at the board office at Glen Addie to sidewalk repair at Constantine Homes.
Not present in the plan was any timetable for a rebuild of Cooper, the 102-unit public housing complex the authority tore down in 2018. The demolition promised to be the start of a new era for the housing authority, saddled with decades-old buildings in neighborhoods ravaged by the 2008 recession and a longer-term decline in Anniston’s overall population.
The plan was to replace Cooper with less-dense apartment housing and build other, smaller public housing units in surrounding neighborhoods. Demolition of some of the city’s other housing units — Barber Terrace and Glen Addie among them — would follow, with similar rebuilding plans.
Anniston’s history soon caught up with the plan. Environmental contractors found toxic PCBs under the foundation of at least one of the buildings — a common-enough problem in Anniston, once a major manufacturing site for PCBs. A massive cleanup replaced much of the city’s PCB-contaminated soil, but PCBs under houses typically gets cleaned up only when the house is torn down.
More troublesome was the presence of other forms of industrial waste in the ground at the site, leaving the soil with levels of arsenic, manganese and other chemicals too high to meet the standards of public housing financing agencies.
The authority has yet to get state funding for a complete removal of soil from the site and it’s awaiting word from the Alabama Housing Finance Authority about the possibility of relaxing some restrictions to allow them to finance the project.
Former Cooper residents went on to other housing projects, or got vouchers to rent elsewhere, leading some critics to argue that the demolition has depopulated the neighborhood where Cooper was. At Thursday’s meeting, Anniston activist Rev. Freddy Rimpsey accused the housing authority of damaging the political clout of Black Anniston.
“You’re hurting Black people,” Rimpsey said. “Just like Donald Trump. You’re undoing things that people died to establish.”
Rimpsey walked the board through the history of Anniston’s City Council wards, set up after civil rights lawsuits. During the segregation era, he said, Anniston’s council seats were elected at large. Black residents, then a minority in the city, had little chance of getting elected until council wards were set up.
Rimpsey said the demolition of Cooper took voters out of mostly-black Ward 3 and likely cost the city its first black mayor. Former Councilman David Reddick lost a runoff election to incumbent Mayor Jack Draper by 199 votes last month.
Data provided by the Housing Authority last year shows that 52 of the families that left Cooper went to other Housing Authority projects within the city. It’s harder to tell how many of the people who received rental assistance stayed within city limits, but 11 stayed in the same ZIP code as Cooper and more than a dozen others were in ZIP codes that were at least partly in Anniston city limits.
Rimpsey said activists may sue over the demolition, under the Voting Rights Act.
Housing Authority Director Sonny McMahand said the authority plans to build 56 units of housing for older people on the site, but still it awaits word from the Alabama Housing Finance Authority on its plans for providing financing. COVID-19 concerns have kept the AHFA’s board from meeting, housing authority staff said, and could delay approval well into 2021.
Board members decided to postpone a decision on the housing plan. Board member Trudy Munford said she’d like to see a clearer statement in the plan about what the authority intends to do with the Cooper site.
“It seems we need to bring Cooper Homes back to being No. 1 on our priority list,” Munford said.
“It never left the top, really,” McMahand said. “We’ve never given up on the Cooper site.”
Board members plan to take up the plan again in December.