Originally created 02/15/99

Man fights perception of 'projects'



AIKEN -- When Reggie Barner mentions a project, he's thinking bricks and mortar with a sense of anticipation.

But the executive director of Aiken's Housing Authority is painfully aware that others often see those projects as "the projects," crime-ridden and trashy. And theirs is a sense of dread and foreboding.

"A lot of people have an image of public housing that is really difficult to overcome," Mr. Barner said after narrowly winning the Aiken Planning Commission's endorsement of a zoning change that would allow construction of apartments for low-income elderly people.

Similar projects elsewhere in South Carolina -- in Greer, Laurens and Greenwood -- provide affordable living quarters for older couples who are no longer able to care for houses, or for elderly siblings whose spouses have died.

"But it doesn't matter how noble the aim or how much a community needs affordable housing," Mr. Barner said. "Some people think of the worst they have ever heard about `the projects,' and they don't want it in their neighborhood."

The people who live behind Aiken High School, on Teague Street and DuPont Drive and in nearby Brucewood, do not want those apartments or some 60 additional houses that the authority wants to build in their neighborhood on property that has defied other development for years.

Neither is a traditional housing project, however. The apartments would be privately managed. And the houses would ultimately be made available for purchase by the people who live there, fostering a pride of ownership absent in straight rent subsidies.

Homeowners from the neighborhood showed up in force at the planning commission and are likely to do the same when the zoning issue comes before the Aiken City Council, convinced that crime will soar and their own property values plummet because of "undesirable development."

Some of the same residents successfully opposed an earlier plan by the housing authority to build low-income housing near them. That project, Hahn Village, subsequently was built on Edgefield Highway.

Kay Lawton, who lives on Teague, said the neighborhood already is saddled with a nursing home and two group homes for mentally retarded adults who are able to live and work in a community.

Those people walk through the neighborhood and sometimes knock on people's doors -- "One came to my door and scared me to death," she said.

The proposed apartments would be "that much more to worry about" in her view. People would be afraid to bring their children to the honors academic program at Aiken High, she said.

And she predicted that no matter how beautiful they were when new, the residents would tear them up for "anything they can sell to get their drugs and alcohol."

"If you're so convinced it's not going to devalue my home, I'd like a written guarantee that when I sell my home, I'll be able to get my money back out of it," said Paul Creech, who also lives on Teague.

Mr. Barner had planned to ask separately for higher-density zoning for the houses, which would have allowed construction of 80.

He withdrew the request after the hearing on the apartments grew so contentious, including conjecture that the elderly residents would engage in drug-dealing and other crimes.

Three days after the vote, Commissioner Buzz Jackson had occasion to be in the neighborhood, waiting to meet someone.

"A man walked up to me and said, `Thanks for what you just did to us,"' he said.

Mr. Jackson was one of the four who voted for the zoning change. "I just don't see crime going up because of the addition of 60-year-olds to the neighborhood," he said.

Commissioner Rachel d'Entremont also was troubled by objections that residents raised. "When people reach an age when they can't take care of their homes any longer, it doesn't mean they don't want to be part of a community anymore," she said.

She also voted for the zoning change, as did Chairman Ronny Bolton and Commissioner James Holland.

Commissioner Lucy Knowles, Don Sprawls and Brad Brodie voted against the change because the city's growth plan calls for single-family housing in that neighborhood.

The housing authority is trying to alleviate some of the neighborhood's concerns and respect them all, Mr. Barner said.

Withdrawing the second request for a zoning change eliminates 20 houses from the overall plan. But it won't be clear until the issue gets to the city council whether opposition to the apartments has abated in the wake of compromise.

Margaret N. O'Shea covers the city of Aiken for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.