Jerome Ryans arrives for work many mornings to find people sitting on the doorstep of the Tampa Housing Authority. He ushers them into his office, seats them at a table and listens to their problems. ¶ "It's like a ministry," said Ryans. "But we save lives, not souls."
Ryans lives in suburban Riverview and is director of the Tampa Housing Authority, which provides housing and support services throughout Hillsborough for those in need. His office is next door to North Boulevard Homes, the oldest public housing complex in the county.
But five decades ago, he lived in Tennessee in public housing where inspectors would stop by to make sure the place was kept tidy.
To outsiders, public housing often has a negative connotation, Ryans said. In reality residents don't always fit the stereotype. They are people of all races, the elderly with nowhere else to live, young mothers struggling. Seventy percent of them work at low-wage jobs. They pay 30 percent of their income for rent.
Ryans is convinced that somewhere along the way the system went wrong and that much needs to change. His approach falls in line with a national push in the last decade to move people out of public housing, as the federal government's funding to Housing and Urban Development programs shrank. Designed in the 1930s as a temporary solution for those in need, public housing has evolved into a multigenerational quagmire, Ryans says. The waiting list for Tampa's nearly 3,000 public housing units stretches 9,000 names long. Section 8, the government program that pays rent to landlords countywide, has 10,000 families waiting for 8,600 vouchers.
Ryans hopes to demolish North Boulevard Homes, which he deems decrepit and too big. He wants to replace it with a community where families of various income levels live together. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn says something like that would be a long way off.
While many agree with Ryans, others are content with the status quo or insist that history be preserved.
At 61, Ryans wants to complete the job before he retires. "No bones about it," he said. "We're going to tear it down. We can do better."
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"Truly, I like it right here," Martha Lewis says.
She's 85 years old and was born in West Tampa, moving into public housing in 1963. She lives alone at North Boulevard now and has never had air conditioning. She raised 12 kids of her own, some in public housing, plus two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, she said. People around here call her "Mama" or "Grandma," although her own children have moved on. When the neighbors get loud, she retreats to her back bedroom to read her Bible. She has heard of Ryans' eventual plans for the complex but feels sure that the authority will take care of her. She just wants to stay on the west side of the Hillsborough River.
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Jerome Ryans was born in Knoxville, Tenn., in a three-room shotgun house next door to his grandparents, who grew peanuts, corn, cabbage and okra.
His father wasn't around much. His mother made $6 a day doing domestic work. When he was 10, she moved the children, a daughter and seven sons, into public housing.
"It was the first time I had heated running water," Ryans said.
He no longer had to go out on cold mornings to chop wood for a fire. They raked their yard and kept the home tidy. Neighbors were proud to live there.
His mother wouldn't let him get too comfortable. "I don't want you to do what I'm doing," she told him. "You can do better."
He left at 18 for college, where he got a bachelor's degree from Knoxville College and later a master's in social work from the University of Tennessee. He worked his way up to director positions for housing authorities in Memphis and Birmingham.
Ryans says public housing is to help people transition, not stay put.
Large low-income complexes, or "superblocks" — such as North Boulevard, with 682 units — can pose problems, Ryans says. If parents settle here permanently, their children aren't exposed to other styles of living and sometimes grow up and do the same. Also, living conditions in the sprawling, aging complexes are often deplorable.
Ryans once found a bathtub that had fallen through a floor into an apartment below. Some complexes, including North Boulevard, have no central air conditioning, although residents can buy their own window units.
In recent years, administrators have considered tearing down North Boulevard and replacing it with a pro baseball stadium. In February, the nonprofit Urban Land Institute recommended demolition. But in March, residents held a small rally demanding a voice in the discussions.
Some see value here.
Dwight Bolden, 58, a disabled veteran, was raised at North Boulevard by his grandfather, who worked as a yardman. Bolden moved out two years ago and recently took a reporter on a proud tour. Strolling through, he remembered where lush gardens had grown in front of buildings. He pointed out the former homes of Hilton Smith, who went on to become a professional boxer, Winston Davis, who became a basketball player, and George E. Edgecomb, the county's first black judge.
They have a common history. The community was African-American during segregation. "The whole place should be restored," he said.
Ryans disagrees. "People say it's historic," he said. "But what's historic about it?" The Tennessee complex where he grew up was torn down. He felt no such sentimentality.
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"I just live day to day here," says Kelli Bass.
She's 28 and grew up in Town 'N Country, but now lives here in a three-bedroom apartment. Completed jigsaw puzzles cling with tape to cinder-block walls. More tape covers cracks where walls meet concrete floors, but bugs still get in.
She doesn't work, saying she has to take care of her four boys — ages 10, 9, 8 and 7 — two of whom have learning disabilities. She pays $250 in rent from child support and Social Security disability for the sons, plus an eight-hour volunteer commitment each month.
Bass keeps her boys mostly inside. She sometimes hears gunshots at night. Her mother is scared to visit. Bass won't be sad to go.
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Ryans' department is working on a strategic plan for North Boulevard, preparing residents to move in three to five years.
If he is able to get funding for demolition, residents will be given Section 8 vouchers or be added to the public housing list. Experience shows that less than 20 percent return, he said.
"They move on with their lives."
Using millions in federal grants, including stimulus funding, Ryans already has had five complexes torn down: College Hill, Ponce de Leon, Moses White, Riverview Terrace and Central Park Village. Moses White, which is relatively small, was rebuilt as an energy-efficient public housing complex. Three others were torn down and revamped into mixed-income communities that include public housing and market-value rentals. The fifth, Central Park Village, where 483 families lived until five years ago, is under construction. The project to replace it, Encore, will be a 41-acre campus with office buildings, senior centers, parks and a grocery store. It, too, will include public housing mixed with market rentals. But more money is needed.
"Encore is going to be a crown jewel," Ryans said. "When we do what needs to be done in North Boulevard, that's going to be a diamond."
Newer, smaller public housing communities scattered throughout Tampa are less problematic, he says, than places like North Boulevard, which opened during the World War II era for wartime workers. He also wants to tear down the aging Robles Park housing complex, with 436 units. No such complexes exist outside Tampa's city limits, where Section 8 is used to house those in need.
In public housing, 5 percent of the residents cause the problems, Ryans said. To weed them out, he enforces a sometimes controversial one-strike policy. He has also started programs to train residents in certain trades, such as a construction program that hires young adults to do maintenance for the Tampa Housing Authority.
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"This is hindering us," Beronica Williams said while watching her kids playing on the front porch of the complex. "I see people get in the mode of being dependant."
Williams, 20, doesn't want to get too comfortable here. That, she says, is what happened to her grandmother, who moved into public housing more than 20 years ago and never left.
Now both live at North Boulevard, in separate apartments. Williams moved in last year with her two young sons, but she has a plan to get out. She enrolled in health care classes and hopes to become a patient care technician. She isn't working now, but a stable career, she believes, will allow her to live independently.
She found her motivation during a meeting one day. Ryans was talking to residents, telling them to aim higher than flipping burgers.
"He got me thinking," Williams said. "What do I want to do?"
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.