Halifax Court’s back is turned to its neighbors. The stoops and front doors of the units that make up the Raleigh housing project face each other across a common strip of land where wash still hangs on clotheslines, though the complex is empty of all residents. Piles of toys and playground equipment are a splatter of color against the drab buildings and dusty yard. Once home to 700 families, Halifax Court has now been condemned. A fence has been erected around the entire site, and soon the bulldozers and backhoes will crush the bones of the old structures to rubble.
The destruction of Halifax has been deemed necessary for a variety of reasons. At age 60, Halifax Court and its southeastern sister project, Chavis Heights, are the oldest public housing projects in Raleigh. They were built as a result of the convergence of the Housing Act of 1937 and President Roosevelt’s New Deal efforts to revive America from its depression by creating jobs for the unemployed through the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Since then, there have been years of poor management and maintenance. Exposed heating pipes, asbestos insulation and the failure of the main water line to the city sewer system all contributed to the elimination of Halifax. But then the structures evidence their origins–built on the cheap at the behest of the government, Halifax is made up of poor housing built by the poor for the poor.
Studying the grim barracks of Halifax now, it is difficult to imagine their appeal. “It is important to remember that Halifax Court has an historical context,” says a retired Raleigh Housing Authority worker. He points out that when construction on Halifax began in 1940, Raleigh had a large tract of terrible slums. “Most homes were simply shacks without indoor plumbing or running water.” No safety codes existed then to protect inhabitants from slum lords and the awful conditions of their homes, or to require that there be safe forms of heating, ventilation and sewage removal.
An exchange was arranged. Wholesale destruction of the slums, referred to as “slum clearance” had been ruled unconstitutional, so Congress passed the Housing Act of 1937. This allowed the federal government to tear down existing slums on the basis of “equivalent elimination”–for every block of slum housing cleared, newer, better housing had to be built in its place. Halifax was one of the high-density housing projects into which the poor were then shepherded. With its bathrooms, radiators and mandated maintenance programs, the project, despite its shoddiness, was a welcome change, considered a step up from the shanties.
But living in Halifax was not a simple matter. The rules governing rent were complicated, based on formulas involving income and deductions that were specific to each household, and subject to review by the Housing Authority. Originally, there was also a set of “social constraints” dictating that no housing would be offered to people with a criminal history or women with illegitimate children. Of course it proved impossible not to include these groups in public-housing efforts. Many of the women who lived in Halifax were single mothers, and few received child-support payments from the fathers of their children.
The archaic rules eventually fell by the wayside, but another problem lingered. Public housing has long been considered by its engineers to be transitional, a way-station on the road to self-sufficiency, but many people lived at Halifax for a long time, some all their lives. Whether this was a result of miscommunication, misunderstanding, a failure of the system or the inability of the residents to follow the plan is not a question easily answered.
In order to help residents control their economic circumstances and become more self-sufficient, support programs were put in place: day care, a recreation center, a high-school-equivalency training program, job training. Skip Long, a Mennonite minister and member of the board of the Raleigh Housing Authority, runs the Jobs Partnership and Building Together Ministries that supported Halifax residents. “Halifax Court had more resources than many of the other housing communities,” he says. “They were receiving a lot of wealth, so to speak.” But, Long says, there are questions public housing residents have to ask themselves: “What were the roadblocks that got you in that place, and what steps do we need to take so that you won’t be in that situation again?” Long believes the destruction of Halifax was inevitable. “Raleigh Housing Authority cannot bring people out of poverty or dependence,” he says.
This is one of the problems that HUD’s new Hope VI plan will address. Rather than allow people to stay in a housing project for long periods of time, residents are expected to actively work toward home ownership. Rents will be calculated, as they are in housing projects, and money put aside in escrow accounts for down payment on a home. More responsibility will be placed on the Housing Authority tenants to take economic matters into their own hands. “Housing is transitional,” Long says. “If we treat neighbors as if [public housing] is permanent housing, we are setting them up to fail.”
Ask residents why they came to Halifax and there are many different answers. Some will say that they didn’t feel they had a choice. Others have lived in public housing all their lives and see a government-subsidized existence as a way of life. Others used Halifax as temporary quarters and got out as soon as they could.
“Mary,” a 15-year resident of Halifax Court (who requested her real name not be used), describes her life before public housing. Pregnant at 16, she says her parents “turned me out. It may sound harsh now, but they just said, ‘you got in this mess and you deal with it.’” Mary struggled to stay out of public housing for nearly 14 years, raising her first child and then a younger child in a series of substandard apartments. “I wasn’t raised to live in a place like Halifax,” she says. “My parents had their own house.” When her last apartment fell into grave disrepair, Mary’s landlady refused to fix it. Instead, she brought her a public housing application and delivered her to the Raleigh Housing Authority. An opening came up in Halifax Court, and Mary and her children, one son nearing his teens, the other barely 6, moved in.
Mary says she knows that, in theory, she was supposed to stay in Halifax only until she could “get on my feet.” So she obtained a full-time job, which she still holds 16 years later, with the Wake County Public School System. “But do you know how much money I make? And to raise two children on that money? Then I had to report all raises to the Housing Authority and they would raise my rent. How am I supposed to save money like that?”
Thelma Thornburg, on the other hand, was raised in public housing. “I lived in Halifax when I was little. My mother lived there. I loved it. When I got married, my husband lived in Oaks Terrace [another Raleigh housing project], and when his mother died they transferred us to Halifax because the apartment was in his mother’s name.”
Did she know Halifax was supposed to be temporary?
“I couldn’t afford to move out,” Thornburg says. “I had to go where my income would take me. Paying down payments, lights, water–I can’t afford that. We needed all our money. In the project, everything is included, and my husband is unemployed. Some people tell me I’m stupid, but I’m not stupid. I live where I can afford to.”
To Felicia Harris, however, living at Halifax was a necessary evil. “It was not a good place to live. I said to myself, ‘go to work, go to the gym, come home.’ I treated it like a temporary place. I didn’t feel trapped, I didn’t think about being trapped, I just thought about moving on.”
“I kept my bills paid up and didn’t get in no trouble, that’s why I stayed up there that long,” says Ada Brimmage, an elderly resident. “I had no problem with nobody, nowhere up there. I tried to tend to my own business, I read my Bible and tried to treat everybody nice, go to work, go to church, do my shopping, try to keep my house clean. I had no mind about moving until they told us we had to move.”
When Halifax closed, Brimmage moved to another Raleigh housing project, as did Thornburg and Mary. And she seems to have made peace with her circumstances. “I know one day I will leave this world, just like I had to leave Halifax.”