MCG's purchase to displace residents

Former Augusta Mayor Bob Young said it was a "Christmas present" for the Augusta Housing Authority to get permission to sell Gilbert Manor to Medical College of Georgia. But to many who live there, it is a lump of coal.

 

Mr. Young, the assistant deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, announced Friday that the federal agency had given the housing authority permission to sell the 15-acre, 278-unit public housing development to neighboring MCG for $6.89 million.

"I feel like I'm bringing you a Christmas present," Mr. Young said.

The property, built in 1941, is "obsolete" and would cost more to modernize than it would to build a replacement. The primary reason for granting the request, Mr. Young said, is to get the residents in better housing. But longtime residents such as Barbara Gresham dispute that.

"There is nothing wrong with these apartments," said Ms. Gresham, 58, who has lived there since 1989. "I love it. I don't want to move. I don't want to go anyplace."

Like many others, she cites the close proximity to University Hospital and MCG Hospital and Clinics, in addition to convenient bus lines.

"It's a whole lot of people here who don't want to go," she said.

The authority will hold a meeting for residents at 3 p.m. Thursday and on Jan. 2, they will receive a 90-day notice to vacate, said authority chairman Rodger Murchison.

"Our primary concern is the residents," Dr. Murchison said. "So making sure this transition happens properly is our dedication to the residents of Gilbert Manor."

Staff members have already begun working with many residents on other options. Residents will be offered units in other public housing -- there are more than 140 recently renovated units in Olmstead Homes opening up soon -- or Section 8 housing vouchers.

But residents such as Thomas Banks, who has lived at Gilbert Manor for 15 years, said his voucher doesn't do him any good if he can't get out to look at apartments. And the money being offered to move isn't enough, he said.

There are practical problems with moving for many of the older residents, Ms. Gresham said: "These old people can't pack and a moving company is not going to pack you."

Looking down the road, the housing authority has plans to build $45 million in smaller, mixed-income developments in partnership with private developers using tax credits through the state of Georgia, said Housing Authority Executive Director Jacob Oglesby. They are looking at a couple of sites, but he said he could not disclose them yet because they are in negotiation.

The move is "a bold step to begin to deinstitutionalize poverty in this city, to no longer isolate Augusta's poor from the mainstream of Augusta's population," Mr. Young said.

MCG is planning a new building for the School of Dentistry and to expand the School of Medicine and both will now take place on the Gilbert Manor property, said MCG President Daniel W. Rahn. The University System of Georgia Board of Regents is asking the Georgia Legislature for $70 million for the dental school, which could include common areas and classrooms that could later be jointly used by the medical school. A plan for how to expand medical education in Georgia will be presented in January, but Dr. Rahn said he did not anticipate the Legislature will be asked to fund it next year.

The school is looking at several options for funding the Gilbert Manor purchase, Dr. Rahn said. That includes asking the city for "as much as the city can provide," he said.

Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver said no formal request has been made "but the city is willing to do anything we can to help Medical College of Georgia expand in Augusta." That could be in the form of bonds because currently the city has little debt tied to its general fund and that would not take directly from the taxpayers, he said.

For the residents of Gilbert Manor, just finding a new home is the least of their worries. Shacovia Brown has lived all of her life -- 15 years -- in Gilbert Manor. If she has to go live in a new area, "I walk around the corner and some girls might want to jump me because I'm new," she said. "I don't want to leave here because this is my home."

The red and green tinsel and string of lights outside of Ms. Gresham's door is one of the few holiday displays visible throughout the complex.

"This place used to be so pretty and lit up for Christmas," she said, her eyes shining briefly with the memory.

"They're just ruining everybody's Christmas spirit."

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com.

RESIDENTIAL MEETING

The Augusta Housing Authority will hold a meeting at 3 p.m. Thursday with Gilbert Manor residents to discuss relocation and services available to them. Meetings for those interested in the Housing Choice Voucher Program will be held Jan. 7 at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

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