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Jackson Street redevelopment sees new construction ongoing

TUPELO • With home prices and materials costs shooting up, one of the city’s most intensive efforts to spur residential construction has seen fresh activity in recent months.

Since 2013, the city of Tupelo has spent at least $3.2 million in public dollars to redevelop the Jackson Street corridor, according to Chief Finance Officer Kim Hanna.

That includes $1.8 million that was transferred to the Community Development Foundation, and then in turn used by the nonprofit Neighborhood Development Corporation. NDC purchased properties, razed some homes, and sold those lots to developers. Other homes were retained and sold to renovators.

The city spent an additional $1.4 million purchasing property, including blighted homes, and upgrading and installing infrastructure.

New home construction is underway within the redevelopment zone right now. The areas of development up to now have been near the intersection of Jacket Street and Joyner Avenue, with small, compact subdivisions dubbed Ingram Drive and Cicada Cove the site of residential construction.

The process has moved slower than many anticipated, and the homes have come to market at higher prices than originally projected. However, the original concerns over housing access and affordability that first launched the project remain very much present.

The Tupelo City Council first agreed to the ambitious plan to transform the West Jackson Street corridor in 2013, setting a budget at the time of around $2.4 million.

“In so many ways, it's the right thing to do and the right time to do it before it gets any worse,” said then-Mayor Jack Reed at the time.

The project hit some roadblocks over the years, including council concerns about the involvement of NDC, as well as the escalating cost of the project.

Restrictive covenants require the homes to be owner-occupied rather than rentals, and officials once said that these homes would be targeted toward middle-income and lower-income buyers.

NDC chairman Duke Loden said in 2016 that Tupelo has few available homes priced between $110,000 and $150,000 and that the new Jackson Street homes would fall into that price range.

However, many of the new homes in the area have come to market well outside that range. The new construction has, however, increased the city’s inventory of newly constructed homes. Tupelo’s aging housing stock has long been of concern to local officials.

Public officials have also cited the redevelopment project’s positive impact on home values in the nearby Joyner neighborhood as a reason to count the effort a success.

“Joyner had to be protected, and that’s a fundamental understanding of the Jackson Street project,” Tupelo’s former Development Services Director Shane Hooper said in 2018. “The blight and deterioration that was on Jackson had started to impact the Joyner neighborhood in a negative way.”

Tupelo Regional Rehabilitation Center to honor Lisa Hawkins with Raspberry Award

TUPELO • Regional Rehabilitation Center will honor Room to Room owner and longtime volunteer Lisa Hawkins as this year’s Red Raspberry Humanitarian Award recipient.

Hawkins will be recognized during an award dinner Tuesday, May 18, at the Tupelo Furniture Market, Building 4. The meet-and-greet starts at 6 p.m.; the dinner starts at 7 p.m. A virtual watch party on Facebook and YouTube will start at 7 p.m.

The award, named after the late John “Red” Raspberry, will honor Hawkins for her commitment to the community. Hawkins currently serves on the Sanctuary Hospice and CREATE Foundation boards, was a previous chairman of the Community Development Foundation, and is an ardent support of the United Way of Northeast Mississippi and nonprofits like the Regional Rehab Center and Eight Days of Hope.

According to Regional Rehab executive director Robby Parman, the virtual watch party seemed like a fitting way to both share both the nonprofit's story and honor Hawkins for her philanthropy. 

“This award ... goes towards people that (don’t) just do things for the Rehab Center, but overall for the community," Parman said. "(Hawkins') had that impact on nonprofits and the business world, and individuals throughout the area. We hope just by seeing Mrs. Lisa and hearing what she’s done with her life and how many people she’s impacted, that that will in turn inspire others.”

In order to allow attendees to socially distance and follow CDC safety guidelines, the dinner will be a smaller event than in years past. It will be a sit-down dinner rather than buffet-style, and guests will asked to wear masks. Sanitizing stations will also be available.

It took a year to plan this year’s dinner after having a virtual event last year. Each year, RRC speaks with former honorees as part of their planning. VM Cleveland of the Tupelo Furniture Market offered the facility as a location for the Red Raspberry Dinner, and sponsors were very generous with their time and donations.

Each fall, Parman and former Regional Rehabilitation Center executive director and continual volunteer Kay Mathews visit their donors to say "thank you" and share the organization's accomplishments. The dinner also gives the nonprofit rehab center an opportunity to share what they do. This past year, Regional Rehab helped 891 people from 18 counties in Mississippi and two from Alabama, equaling to 44,142 services provided.

The Regional Rehabilitation Center honored other community legends through fundraising events such as the Alan Bank Memorial Tennis Tournament on April 30 and May 1 and the Tom Evans Memorial Kentucky Derby Party on May 1, both named in memory of two men who were instrumental to the organization.

“Both those men meant a great deal to us and helped us along the years, helped us see more kids and adults here at the Rehab Center with their leadership,” Parman said. “Both of those (events), we can’t thank the community enough for coming out, supporting it.”

Volunteers and sponsors helped make both events a success. This was the first year Kentucky Derby party in Evans’ memory. Traditionally, the event is held at Evans' Tupelo home; this year, it moved to the Country Club.

“It was an overall great event. I think we had a great turnout,” said director of development Bre Moreno. “It was bigger for sure, but we still did a good job of honoring Tom and having those traditions that we always had.”

Donations are still being counted, but leaders of Regional Rehabilitation Center are optimistic the funds raised during this year's Derby party are the highest in the event's history.

Events like the Derby party and tennis tournament have helped Reginal Rehab grow. In June, the organization will add a speech therapist to its staff, bringing its total employment to 23 members.

The goal is to raise $190,000 from the Raspberry Humanitarian Award Dinner. It's a lofty goal, but Parman said he feels “super confident” they can reach it.

“People have already given so much time and donations for this event and to the Rehab Center overall. It’s opened doors, it’s paid off for our future and us being able to help more people in our community,” Parman said.

Access to affordable housing is one of the top issues for Tupelo voters this election cycle

TUPELO • When Timiko Hampton was notified she was finally getting a housing voucher to help her afford rent in Tupelo, she quickly began looking for potential apartments.

But as she searched, she soon found that many private landlords in the All-America City would not accept her voucher. It was weeks before she found a property owner who would accept the voucher.

While thankful to now be in a secure apartment in south Tupelo's seventh ward, she admitted that where she’s living isn’t necessarily where she would like to stay long-term, but she currently doesn’t have many other options.

“You really have to accept what you can get here in this region,” Hampton said of her housing situation.

Hampton’s initial struggle to find an affordable and desirable apartment in the largest city in Northeast Mississippi underscores a concern voiced by many voters— affordable housing is hard to come by.

To guide election coverage this year, the Daily Journal used a survey and other forms of feedback to find out what issues local voters most want to see the next mayor and City Council tackle over the next four years.

Hampton and other residents said that access to affordable housing remains a top issue. This includes a spectrum of options, from subsidized housing to market rate rental properties to market rate homes that are accessible to first-time homebuyers and middle income residents.

“Sometimes I think the council members who don’t experience this type of lifestyle, they don't understand the lack of affordable housing and what a damper it is on your life,” Hampton said.

Affordable housing a top issue

City leaders over the past decade have worked to establish new housing units in Tupelo through public-private partnerships, while also reducing the number of blighted properties in town.

Beginning in 2013 during Mayor Jack Reed’s tenure, for example, the city has spent as much as $3.2 million to spur the construction of new housing along the West Jackson Street corridor.

And the city spent even more than that to purchase a series of blighted apartment complexes on Lawndale Drive and what’s now Ida B. Wells Street, and in turn completed a tax-credit financed deal with private developers to construct about 76 homes.

City officials recently participated in a ribbon cutting event for those two new subsidized housing complexes — King Pines and Hancock Estates — located on Ida B. Well Street and on Monument Drive that were completed in 2020.

“The intent was that if we basically bought (the apartments) we could tear them down and eliminate the issues,” Pat Falkner, the city planner and director of development services, said.

These issues included advanced disrepair of the previously existing apartments, as well as criminal activity.

These newly constructed housing complexes represent a Section 42 housing development, so named because they were funded through tax credits authorized by that section of the country’s federal tax code.

In exchange for these tax credits, developers agree to keep the rents below market rate and impose income restrictions on tenants to ensure only lower or middle income buyers are the ones who can live in the properties long term.

The two complexes are reserved for people who make 60% of the mean income in the county, which is around $56,000 per year.

David Strange, the developer of the Hancock Estates complex, told the Daily Journal families that occupy the homes on average pay $750 in rent per month. After 15 years of paying monthly fees for the house, the occupants will then have the option to purchase the home from the developers.

But all of the 76 homes created as part of that project are now occupied, and there’s a waitlist of around 100 or more people wanting to live in them. It's a good indication there’s a hunger for more affordable housing units in Tupelo.

“We could do this four more times, and they would still have a waiting list,” said Shane Hooper, the former director of Tupelo’s development services who was involved in the creation of the units.

Additional homes planned

The Ida/Monument homes were part of a long-term plan crafted under Mayor Jason Shelton’s administration. But it will be up to the next mayor and council to decide whether to keep pursuing that plan.

The council during the Shelton administration agreed to purchase the President’s Gate apartment complex, which has since been demolished, on Lawndale Drive and other parcels of land in that area to develop other forms of affordable housing.

Falkner and Don Lewis, the city’s chief operations officer, said the general, working plan for the next phase was to construct affordable homes on the vacant lots that are one tier above the new Section 42 housing units, but a concrete plan is not currently in place.

The new mayoral administration could decide more subsidized housing is needed on the property or decide to go in a new direction altogether.

If the new administration goes the later route, it then must decide if they want a developer to construct the buildings and the infrastructure or have the city build the infrastructure and sell it to the developer.

Investing in citizens

Subsidized housing, or government-developed housing, only represents one portion of affordable housing, though. Many voters believe that existing market rate homes in Tupelo are too expensive, which is a barrier to younger residents and first-time homeowners.

Mary Johnston, a voter in Ward 2, has worked in real estate for years and believes that the cost of buying a home in Tupelo is more expensive than in other areas. She even suggested a creative way elected officials could solve this problem: a down-payment assistance program for people looking to purchase a home in Tupelo who simply need assistance.

“Anybody who works at Toyota should be able to own a home here,” Johnston said.

Although the specificity of a potential program could vary, Johnson said a program could be a zero-interest or low-interest loan program that borrowers would pay back.

“It would all go back to investing in the citizens,” Johnston said.

The city’s history of eliminating blighted properties and cultivating more affordable homes has been complex and drawn-out, but most planning officials agree: Whatever course of action the next round of elected officials chose for affordable housing, it will have to be intentional and well thought out to be effective.

“It will ultimately be up to the next mayor to decide whether they want to take what the current mayor has done and expand on it or go in a different direction,” Lewis said.

Runners get through the starting line along West Main Street Saturday morning for the annual Gumtree 10K.