If you’re low-income and elderly, Decatur Housing Authority will let you live in its subsidized riverfront towers and enjoy the view and other amenities, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — unless you happen to be Black.
In a compliance review obtained by The Decatur Daily, HUD charged Decatur Housing Authority with discriminating against Blacks who were on waiting lists for Jordan-Neill and Summer Manor apartments, the multi-story buildings that bookend Rhodes Ferry Park and offer views of the Tennessee River. Instead, according to HUD, Blacks were steered toward Westgate Gardens, a Northwest Decatur housing project off West Moulton Road.
“According to the tenant roster that was provided to the compliance review team, 100% of the units in Westgate Gardens are occupied by black tenants,” according to the document signed by HUD Region IV Director Carlos Osegueda. “In comparison, the tenant roster for The Towers indicated that 94% of the units are occupied by white tenants.”
Decatur Housing Authority settled the claims for $200,000 — which HUD was distributing by hand to victims of the alleged discrimination last week — and a commitment to upgrade Westgate Gardens at an estimated cost of $1 million.
Decatur Housing Authority Executive Director Andy Holloway and Housing Director Jeff Snead did not return numerous messages from The Daily last week. The authority’s treasurer, Donna Gibson, declined comment Friday.
Decatur Housing Authority Board Chairman James Ridgeway, who was the recipient of the March 25 compliance review from HUD, referred questions to Snead and Holloway.
“I’m not going to answer anything pertaining to the board. I don’t run the thing. I’m just a board member,” Ridgeway said Friday.
He said the board does have authority to terminate or discipline the directors, but it has not done so.
“We don’t have nothing against them. They’ve done a good job,” he said.
Mayor Tab Bowling on Friday said he appointed Ridgeway to the board, but declined comment on the HUD allegations.
Allen Stover, supervisor of Community Development for Decatur, said the city has no oversight authority over Decatur Housing Authority.
The HUD letter cited multiple instances in which “black applicants on the waiting list for The Towers were not offered units as they became available,” but instead “were only offered units at Westgate Gardens despite being on both waiting lists.”
During the compliance review period it analyzed, according to the letter, HUD found 15 instances “where white applicants were offered and/or placed in units at The Towers before black applicants even though the black applicants were on the waiting list for a longer period of time. … The evidence revealed that black applicants were repeatedly skipped over when units became available at The Towers.”
One Black applicant “remained on the waiting list for a unit at The Towers for 1,948 days, and still was not offered a unit,” according to HUD.
HUD also determined that amenities at 61-unit Jordan-Neill and 85-unit Summer Manor were far superior to 46-unit Westgate Gardens.
“The Towers are located on the banks of the Tennessee River and both properties are adjacent to a city park where community and social events are held. Tenants of The Towers have access to walking trails along the river and spectacular waterfront views. Each property has at least one community/meeting room, a library with hundreds of books, community kitchen, mobile food pantry, two pianos and an outdoor patio,” according to the HUD letter.
Tenants at The Towers also are offered numerous social activities, Osegueda wrote.
“In comparison, Westgate Gardens is a garden-style, isolated public housing development located in a highly concentrated minority area with a poverty rate of 61%. The tenants at Westgate Gardens do not have similar or comparable amenities like those found at The Towers,” according to HUD. “Additionally, none of the social activities that are provided to tenants in The Towers are offered to tenants at Westgate Gardens.”
The HUD letter also cited several occasions in which Westgate Gardens tenants were charged fees for routine maintenance, whereas no such fees were charged to residents of The Towers.
“When Decatur Housing Authority staff was asked about the apparent patterns of segregation at The Towers and Westgate Gardens, the … compliance review team was repeatedly told that ‘Black elderly tenants do not like to live in high-rise buildings. They prefer to live in garden-style units so they can sit on their porch and come and go as they please.’
"It is unclear how staff at the Decatur Housing Authority reached this conclusion,” Osegueda wrote, since Black applicants were never offered units at The Towers. “Instead they remained on the waiting lists until a unit became available at Westgate Gardens — in some cases over 330 days.”
The settlement agreement requires Decatur Housing Authority to create a $200,000 settlement fund. HUD officials distributed $116,000 of the money to Westgate tenants last week, with the largest amounts going to those who were on the waiting list for The Towers but were skipped over.
Westgate Gardens has a community center that is currently used by Decatur Youth Services. DYS will no longer have access to the building, and the settlement agreement requires Decatur Housing Authority to renovate it for senior activities by Dec. 31.
The settlement agreement requires the authority to end its alleged discriminatory practices and to make rooms at The Towers available to Black applicants. Westgate tenants wishing to move to The Towers will be provided up to $2,000 in moving expenses by the authority.
The agreement also requires Decatur Housing Authority to upgrade Westgate Gardens, with the planning process for the improvements required to begin last week. Anticipated improvements, according to the settlement agreement, include renovating kitchens, bathrooms and parking areas, landscaping and making structural repairs.
Carrie Garth, 76, a tenant at Westgate, said she welcomes the promised improvements, but will believe it when she sees it.
“Baseboards are coming loose from the floors. We have a problem with bugs. The buildings are old and they’re not kept up. I’ve been here nine years, and we don’t get a paint job or anything. My cabinet isn’t level so things roll off, and I’ve got a leak under the sink,” Garth said.
She said the neighborhood, along 16th Avenue and First Street Northwest behind Reynolds Funeral Home, is unsafe.
“We used to try to come outdoors at night, but now you can’t come out here. There are too many drug deals. The street is just like a racetrack. We don’t see any police. We call them, but they’re not going to come,” she said.
Another tenant, Emily Jefferson, said frequent flooding attracts rats and creates holes in yards that are a danger to the elderly residents.
“It’s terrible,” she said.
A HUD spokesman said the compliance review and settlement is designed not only to benefit Black tenants, but to send a message.
“Residents of public housing are entitled to live in housing that is safe, sanitary and free from discrimination,” said Joseph Phillips. “The work we do is important for communities and the people that we serve, and bad actors will be penalized.”
The HUD investigation began with the U.S. Department of Justice finding patterns of housing discrimination in Alabama and Mississippi.
“Decatur Housing Authority was the most egregious,” Phillips said.
According to the HUD compliance review, the Justice Department notified Decatur Housing Authority of fair housing issues, including segregation at its properties, in 2017, “yet no actions had been taken at the time of the onsite compliance review to identify contributing factors or resolve them.”
If Decatur Housing Authority fails to abide by the settlement agreement, Phillips said, HUD can cut off federal financial assistance or place the authority in receivership.