Gail Keeter, the development director for the Raleigh Housing Authority, froze in the hall of a near-finished townhome.
“Mark, am I seeing daylight?” she asked, nodding toward the sunbeam sneaking under the front door.
Indeed she was, her construction contractor confirmed. Add it to the list. Crews are roving the grounds of Walnut Terrace on a Feb. 2 deadline, nailing down the last details of a rebuilt, government-owned neighborhood.
With colorful paint schemes and faux-hardwood floors, Walnut Terrace looks more like a mid-market subdivision than the brick public-housing barracks it replaced. And it’s aimed, in part, at a new demographic.
“We do want the young, working professionals who can’t afford Glenwood,” Keeter said, referring to the posh party district. In other words, Walnut Terrace is no longer only a public housing community.
At a cost of about $50 million, the Raleigh Housing Authority has built 292 townhouse, houses and apartments. Just less than half will be kept as traditional public housing, with rents set at a third of each tenant’s income.
The rest will be leased at market rates, from $775 to $1,100 per month. Most of those full-price units, however, will be reserved for households making less than about $61,000.
The full-price tenants aren’t mixed in buildings with the public units because of the complexities of development and financing law, according to Keeter. The market-rate units are on the development’s northern half, toward Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and downtown.
The redevelopment aligns with a multi-billion dollar strategy known as HOPE VI, but was funded entirely by the Raleigh Housing Authority's financial reserves and loans. The theory is communities will establish better amenities in order to attract higher-income tenants, and that a mix of incomes is socially beneficial, according to the Urban Institute.
Walnut Terrace is Raleigh’s third recent redevelopment, and by far its largest, following similar projects at Capitol Park and Chavis Heights.
“They are our premiere properties,” Keeter said. “What they did on these properties not only transformed the sites – they transformed the neighborhoods.”
However, the new style of development has taken a toll on the city’s public housing stock. The supply is down from about 2,000 units in 1998 to about 1,400 now.
Of the current units, housing law requires that about 560 are set aside for households making less than about $23,000. The other units are limited to those making less than about $61,000. With the reduction in public units, low-income tenants instead are turning to vouchers, which can be used to rent certain privately owned apartments.
Those remaining units are in high demand. The housing authority reports occupancy rates of 98 to 99 percent, and a waitlist of more than 4,000 people.
Walnut Terrace will have its own waitlist, which Keeter expects will stretch years in length. Prospective tenants have been trying to tour the construction sites for months, and even the development’s construction contractors have taken scores of calls from would-be renters.
Diadera Staten, 41 will be one of the first new residents – and she was one of its last residents before redevelopment.
“It was very small. The bathroom was inside your bedroom. The kitchen – you couldn’t fit the kitchen table in there,” she said. Staten, who is an above-the-knee amputee, expects her new unit to be far more accessible to her.
“I wanted a fresh start for everything, a fresh start for a new apartment,” said Staten, who is unemployed and soon to begin classes in accounting at Wake Technical Community College.
Catherine Cooper, 73, watched Walnut Terrace vanish and reappear, her house perched on a hill above the development.
She remembers gunshots near her little white house, and she saw people selling sex on neighborhood streets.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to live there,” said Cooper, who works in a school cafeteria. Still, she was sad to see the old buildings go, and she’s optimistic for the redeveloped community.
“I don’t think the crime will come back,” she said. “I don’t think it will ever be like Walnut Terrace was.