Low-income households rely on Memphis Housing Authority for stability

Before Crystal Vester could pack her things and move her three kids into their new home, she had to stay put while her name was being randomly selected from a list of 10,000 other people.

The wait took almost two years.

“I had to fill out the application,” Vester said. “Then, I had to wait until they called me for an interview. Once they called me back, I had to show proof of income or lack of income. I also had to show the social security numbers and birth certificates of my [kids], just to be put on a waiting list.”

People who are disabled, retired and living on a low income, and single mothers with young children are largely out of the workforce and considered hard to house. These people tend to drift toward public housing for assistance. Memphis Housing Authority manages low-income residents at affordable rents, but there are thousands of families waiting for one common thing – a home.

Vester, 28, lived with her aunt in Millington for several years, but wanted her independence.

“Anything is better than staying with someone else,” Vester said. “There’s nothing like your own freedom.”

Once Memphis Housing Authority approved her, Vester was able to choose from designated areas for her family to live.

“I picked the downtown area. It was ok. I made it home.”

[Memphis Housing Authority] doesn’t help with jobs. They just give you stability, I guess.”

While Vester was living in her new home, Memphis Housing Authority provided utilities, and her rent was income based. There was one main rule she had to abide by, only people listed on the lease could stay.

Vester said Memphis Housing Authority officials strictly enforced that term of the lease more so than any thing else.

“They didn’t check for living conditions or anything like that,” she said.

As defined by the Memphis Public Housing website, “Public Housing was established to provide decent and safe rental housing for eligible low-income families, the elderly, and persons with disabilities.”

Although decent, Vester doesn’t recall felling safe.

“The area wasn’t too good,” she said. “ I heard gun shots almost every night.”

Vester’s children were not old enough to attend school, but she said, “The schools weren’t too good either.”

Vester added that she didn’t live close to a grocery store, but there were a lot of convenient stores. For these reasons, Vester decided to move out after a year and a half.

Safety and the lack of fresh produce are the result of a disinvestment in public housing according to Laura Saija, visiting assistant professor for the University of Memphis Department of City and Regional Planning.

“We concentrate all of the people in one place and crime becomes high,” Saija said. “It’s a low income population so corporations that do grocery stores don’t go [to impoverished neighborhoods].”

In turn, there isn’t enough income to support the grocery stores so corporations go to more profitable neighborhoods.

“Today is the result of 20 years of bad decisions and is being paid by the low income families,” she said.

Vester is now applying for public housing again, but the waiting list is currently closed for families.

The need for government assistance is inevitable considering the state of the economy according to Elena Delavega, assistant professor for the U of M Department of Social Work.

“Families need [government] help because of low wages and high unemployment,” she said.

The average rent in Memphis is $690 a month for a one-bedroom apartment and an average of $759 for two bedrooms according to Rainmaker Insights.

“People earning minimum wage and working full time (40 hours a week) only bring home $240 a week,” Delavega said. “The working poor cannot afford rent.”

To help the working poor, Memphis Housing Authority offers rent for as low as $50, and the average contribution for a tenant is $312 according researchers at Affordable Housing Online.

Although there are Memphians being helped, there are still thousands of households who need assistance and are currently on the waiting list.

As for Vester and her kids, they are back living with her aunt. She said that she plans to keep trying to provide a better life for her family.

“I just have to wait and be patient,” Vester said.

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About the Author

Kitaen Jones
Kitaen Jones, a University of Memphis senior, runs a Memphis nonprofit organization called Clothes Minded Ones. Along with her nonprofit work, Jones writes for the The Daily Helmsman and VOICES magazine. Kitaen is involved with the U of M chapter of National Association of Black Journalists and the National Society of Leadership and Success.

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