What do you know, or think you know, about the people who live in Asheville’s public housing communities? According to a group of students from Mars Hill University, commonly held notions often fail to capture the full picture — which is why the students are launching a documentary film project to share the stories of public housing tenants with the rest of the city.
Working in collaboration with Housing Authority of the City of Asheville residents and Nicole Hinebaugh, program director at the Women’s Wellbeing and Development Foundation, the undergraduate social work students will spend a semester interviewing and filming tenants before assembling their footage into a short film.
The idea, Hinebaugh says, is to increase a sense of connection in a city where public housing communities are physically and socially isolated.
“Many of the people that live in this city have never come into contact with anyone who lives in public housing or ever found themselves in a public housing neighborhood,” she says. “The film will largely focus on ‘What are their stories? What do the residents want to share? What do they wish could be different in their communities? What do they love about their communities?’ It would bring that human face and, with it, awareness and connection.”
The project comes as the Housing Authority moves forward with plans to shift funding of the developments (with the exception of Lee Walker Heights) to a pilot program called Rental Assistance Demonstration, which uses a Section 8 funding stream. The city has also announced plans to demolish Lee Walker Heights, with the intention of partnering with a private developer to rebuild the existing 96 units and add rentals of higher market-value — resulting in a mixed-income development.
In addition to crafting the film, the students will work with the residents to facilitate an understanding of how RAD will affect the communities and to make sure the residents’ concerns are communicated to the Housing Authority.
“This project does have a personal interest for me, and I chose it because I have friends and family members that live in public housing that will be affected by RAD,” says student Shamika Davidson.
Davidson believes some residents in public housing fear the change may lead to a loss of affordable housing units or that units closed for remodeling may never reopen. Many residents still carry apprehension following the closing of McCormick Heights, she says. The affordable but troubled housing complex was torn down in 2007 after the city backed out of plans to turn the site into a mixed-income housing development.
“With the [closing] of McCormick Heights, a lot of people have fear,” Davidson said. “I would like to see [the Housing Authority] build up the trust of the residents that this could be a great opportunity and a great change, instead of just saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’
“I wouldn’t want to be displaced from my home, knowing there has been a history that I might not be able to come back,” she adds.
The students will aid residents as they craft a Tenants Bill of Rights, which Hinebaugh says will address concerns about RAD — including fears of displacement similar to those caused by previous public housing reforms in other parts of the country.
“There were a lot of questions and quite a bit of mistrust that residents had for the process,” Hinebaugh says. “We hope one of the things the project can facilitate through the interviews is a lot of input from the residents in what they would like to see within that Tenants Bill of Rights.”
The interviews will be conducted by the students and “resident interviewers,” including community activists Bella Jackson and Olufemi Lewis in the HillCrest neighborhood. Nicole Townsend, founder of the Color Me Brown Project, has volunteered to help edit the film, but as far as shooting goes, the students are on their own — using their own equipment and volunteering their time. Many are also working full-time jobs or raising children.
“We’re just jumping in there and doing the whole nine,” Davidson says with a laugh. “But we’ve done our research — stayed up late doing that research pretty much every night.”
“It’s pretty intense,” adds student Paige Stack. “But we’ve got this.”
Stack adds that her hope is that the film will overcome “instantaneous stereotypes” that she says often haunt public housing residents.
“So many people have an automatic judgment of people that live in public housing,” Stack says. “There is racial discrimination, and there is an idea that these people are lazy or don’t care about their communities. My hope is these personal stories will help people to overcome that.”
Hinebaugh has launched a GoFundMe campaign that aims to collect $2,000 for expenses associated with the film. The funds would be used to provide a small stipend for the resident interviewers as well as incentives for the interviewees, including grocery cards. Additional funds would be used to hold screening parties in the communities following the completion of the film.
Mars Hill students Jennifer Flood, Tammie Welch and Lori Jenkins will also work on the documentary project.
To find out more or contribute to the GoFundMe campaign, visit gofundme.com/fku178. For more information on the project, contact Hinebaugh at 255-8777 or firstname.lastname@example.org.