This story is by, and originally appeared on, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism.
Latoya Akinyemi watches her youngest children as the warm-for-winter weather allows them to play outside on a Sunday afternoon.
Her 4-year-old son shows off his scooter skills on the driveway, stopping periodically to make sure he’s got spectators. His older brother rides his bicycle nearby, crashes into the grass and laughs.
Akinyemi, who works in medical billing, likes living in the quiet Winsdor Pointe subdivision in Whitehaven. There’s little traffic to interrupt her kids’ play and relatively little crime.
But Akinyemi, who grew up nearby, isn’t as thrilled with the surrounding neighborhood. She and her husband see too many teens with too little adult supervision and too few constructive outlets, as well as decline in the neighborhood’s schools.
The Akinyemis and thousands of other Memphians live in neighborhoods with poorly rated schools and low incomes because of policy choices made by a little-known state agency.
As part of a federal program, the Tennessee Housing Development Agency largely dictates in which neighborhoods affordable housing is built. In the last 15 years, THDA has awarded just over $2 billion to subsidize more than 200 low-income housing developments across the state, including Windsor Pointe.
Tennessee’s system for determining which developments receive subsidies makes it an outlier. Of the nation’s 20 largest states, only Tennessee and Florida don’t reward developers for building in middle-class neighborhoods or in neighborhoods that have amenities like grocery stores.
Without such incentives, known as Low-Income Housing Tax Credits or LIHTC, developers build where the land is cheap, test scores are low and poverty rates are high.
In Shelby County, these are almost always majority-Black neighborhoods. Because the developments have virtually no white residents, experts say the program perpetuates racial segregation.
Decades of research – including the THDA’s own – shows when affordable housing is built in higher-income neighborhoods, it improves residents’ health and economic opportunities.
But in the last 15 years, none of the 18 developments built or renovated with the credits in Shelby County are located in such neighborhoods, according to an analysis by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism.
And in recent years, when THDA’s staff proposed new policies that would push development toward such neighborhoods, the agency’s board of directors rejected them. Developers argued such changes would increase their costs, which could mean fewer apartments built.
The board, which has one Black member and five with ties to either the development or banking sectors, has opted to uphold the status quo.
In effect, THDA policy steers thousands of Black Memphians toward neighborhoods that are segregated and where research shows their children have little chance of reaching the middle class.
The THDA could direct affordable developers to other parts of town but chooses not to, said multiple experts, including Roshun Austin, a prominent community developer. She recently built housing with the LIHTC (lie-TEK) subsidy in Frayser, where the poverty rate is 42%.
While THDA sometimes talks about the benefits of having people of different income levels living side-by-side in mixed-income apartment complexes, its LIHTC policies make her question its commitment to economic desegregation.
“‘We don’t want (low-income people) in our mid-income areas.’ … [The THDA is] saying that loud and clear,” Austin said.
Where the land is cheap
When developers build rental housing for the middle class, they place it in areas where they’ve determined that people want to live. A new apartment building in Midtown or Downtown has become a sure bet to attract tenants willing to pay top dollar, so that’s where the construction is.
For low-income housing, though, developers’ calculations are dramatically different.
Developers can only charge rental rates the federal government deems affordable for low-income Memphians. And because of the Grand Canyon-sized deficit of quality affordable housing, finding occupants is rarely a problem.
In this environment, developers hunt for cheap land, developers and experts told MLK50.
The problem is that the cheapest land often sits in the least desirable parts of town, said Adam Gordon, executive director of the Fair Share Housing Center in New Jersey. One of the largest tax credit projects in recent years, the Crescent Bluff Apartments, is sandwiched between two loud railroads and the busy E.H. Crump Boulevard. Two others sit in the shadows of I-55 in Whitehaven.
“(Tax credit developers choose) the sites that nobody else wants,” Gordon said.
Other states are increasingly forcing developers to build in places where people with means choose to live if they want to receive the tax credits. Massachusetts, for instance, places a major emphasis on the quality of nearby schools and proximity to jobs, leading to LIHTC developments throughout suburban Boston.
“It’s state policy that determines where people have the choice to live,” Gordon said.
Where the test scores are low
In interviews with MLK50, advocates for affordable housing in middle-class neighborhoods all pointed to the research of Harvard University economics professor Raj Chetty.
Chetty’s now-famous Opportunity Insights research shows a distressing connection between the neighborhood a child grew up in and how much they earn at age 35. For example, a 35-year-old who grew up in Whitehaven tends to make half the income of someone who grew up in the more affluent Germantown — even if both had low-income parents. Chetty and other experts refer to neighborhoods as “high-opportunity” or “low-opportunity,” depending on how well they set children up for economic success.
In Shelby County, the median household income is just over $52,000. However, in the last 15 years, THDA hasn’t granted a tax credit in a Shelby County census tract where low-income children would be expected to have household earnings of $30,000 per year by age 35, according to the research. That’s the equivalent of a single full-time worker earning about $15 an hour. Someone who grew up with low-income parents in the Akinyemis’ tract would be expected to earn about $20,000 per year at 35 – or about $10 an hour.
The Harvard economist’s work fits with other research that shows economically disadvantaged students have brighter futures when they attend low-poverty schools, thanks to the school’s quality themselves and the social network benefits of learning alongside the children of college-educated parents.
“Because of multiple levels of systemic racism … high-poverty areas are often the ones with the least educational resources,” Gordon said.
Before the pandemic interrupted standardized statewide testing, Tennessee evaluated public schools primarily using its Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System.
Here’s how TVAAS (TEE-vahs) works: Using a five-point scale, with five being the best, it measures how well a school improves its students’ knowledge.
For example, a school that helps a student move from a second-grade reading level to a fourth-grade reading level will score higher than a school that takes a student from a fourth-grade level to a fifth-grade level. TVAAS is designed to level the playing field between schools in under-resourced neighborhoods and those in wealthy suburbs.
For instance, Westside Elementary, which is in a Frayser census tract where the median household income is just over $35,000, received a 5 in the 2018-19 TVAAS rankings, the most recent year available. In a Collierville census tract where the median is just under $105,000, Tara Oaks Elementary received a 3.
Of the competitive credits the THDA has awarded in Shelby County in the last 15 years, it’s given 75% of them to projects where the neighborhood elementary school received a 1.
In other words, the State of Tennessee is awarding these credits next to the schools it’s rated as the worst at helping students improve.
The two youngest Akinyemi kids are zoned for Westhaven Elementary, which received a 1. Akinyemi and her husband, Hanif, didn’t like the education their daughter got there, so they sent her little brother to Vision Preparatory Elementary — a TVAAS 3 school.
On the topic of schools, Hanif Akinyemi can go on and on. He’s confident that education can be an equalizer because that’s his life story.
When Hanif Akinyemi — born Brandon-David Louis Waller III — grew up in North Philadelphia, he saw violence all around him. Drugs got the better of his uncle, and his much-older brother dropped out of high school.
At 7 or 8, Akinyemi, his mom and her new husband moved the family to a Philadelphia suburb he compared to Southaven, Mississippi.
Suddenly, Akinyemi had his own bedroom in a peaceful subdivision, all the adults he was around had jobs, and there were more extracurricular activities at school.
To describe the feeling, Akinyemi crooned the opening line of the theme song from “The Jeffersons” TV show: “Moving on uh-up!”
For college, Akinyemi attended the historically Black Florida A&M University. Through classes and reading materials his godfather sent him, he realized “there’s more to my Blackness.” Wanting a name more consistent with his ethnic heritage, he decided to change his name to Hanif, which means “true believer” in Arabic.
Though his degree was in nursing, Akinyemi dove into social work soon after graduation, working in mental health facilities in St. Louis. He received a master’s degree in social work from the University of Memphis in 2019 and now provides therapy to help people cope with trauma.
Akinyemi is hesitant to judge majority-Black schools primarily on the basis of standardized test scores. He thinks the schools in his neighborhood need improvement and additional investment — especially after seeing the physical grandeur of the mostly white Arlington High School. What’s most important, though, is for schools to give children “a high sense of racial pride” and teach them how to “navigate the dominant culture.”
To Akinyemi, improving schools and job opportunities in Memphis’ Black neighborhoods is better than moving Black people to high-opportunity areas. But that’s a massive task, and he also sees the benefits of building housing near quality schools.
The Akinyemis, who have four children, have been saving money to buy a house since before they were married. Once they have enough, they hope to move elsewhere – although, Hanif Akinyemi notes, no area is perfect.
“Every community has their problems,” he said. “(But) we want to know that if the boys are going outside playing ball, there ain’t nobody speeding up the street. … We know that that’s possible. We know that people live in nice, quaint communities.”
The developers won
The THDA knows the ways its LIHTC system can harm low-income families.
In early 2021, it published five research papers on fair housing. In one, staff members Laura Swanson and Teresa Anderson write that placing affordable housing in high-poverty neighborhoods, through LIHTC or other means, “may exacerbate the incidence of poverty by pushing low-income households further from jobs, schools, and services, such as broadband access.”
In another, researcher Kevin McCarthy, who has since left the THDA, wrote that the lack of affordable housing in high-opportunity areas is a major impediment to fair housing in Tennessee and that targeting state programs to “opportunity-rich” areas would “expand housing choice for Tennessee families.”
In July 2020, the THDA staff sent the board a plan that would have evaluated projects based partially on the school quality, transit access, poverty and unemployment rates in the surrounding census tract.
“These are the factors real households use to evaluate housing opportunities,” said McCarthy in an email MLK50 obtained through a public records request.
Developers, though, fought back.
Phyllis Vaughn, whose company consults on many Tennessee LIHTC projects, said the plan received as much opposition as she can remember in her almost 40 years in the industry — opposition that she helped lead.
Vaughn said it’s hard enough to find properties to develop affordable housing on without being pushed toward more expensive land. This increase in developers’ expenses, she said, would have slashed the number of units built.
“The land would have been so expensive that you would have been building fewer units and that’s not what Tennessee needs,” Vaughn said.
Archie Willis III, a prominent local affordable housing consultant, also worries about this tradeoff. Memphis needs as many additional affordable apartments as it can get — regardless of location.
However, the THDA does increase developers’ costs in other ways. It forces them to cloak their buildings in brick veneers or stucco, build gazebos and use energy-efficient toilets. And despite these requirements, the tax credits are profitable enough for developers that THDA always receives far more applications than it can subsidize.
The THDA board sided with the developers over the agency’s staff. At the time, longtime low-income housing developer Mike Hedges was chairman of the board.
“My No. 1 goal (as chairman) was to produce as much quality, affordable housing as we possibly could,” Hedges said. “I was, in general, opposed to things that would decrease the number of units.”
Hedges’ predecessor as chair was also a developer — albeit in the world of single-family homes. And his successor, Matt McGauley, is president and CEO of Fidelity Trust Co., which claims to be “Chattanooga’s oldest full service commercial real estate firm.”
Along with McGauley, the current board includes a banker who specializes in affordable housing and other real estate lending, a lawyer who represents real estate firms, a residential mortgage banker, the leader of a rural public housing agency, the lawyer for an investment firm, five government officials and a mortgage lender who also founded a small nonprofit that seeks to improve under-resourced neighborhoods in Knoxville. The nonprofit founder is the board’s lone Black member.
These direct industry ties on the board surprised Gordon and Michael Daniel, a civil rights lawyer who argued a case challenging Texas’ LIHTC practices before the Supreme Court in 2015.
When Daniel learned how many THDA board members have ties to the development industry, he laughed. That’s proof, he said, that developers have significant power over Tennessee’s allocation system.
Gordon said giving so many industry representatives power isn’t inherently bad, but it could lead to the board siding with developers over residents.
“If you have a board that is overly dominated by developers, the risk is that (their focus could be), ‘What’s the way to get projects to make the most money?’” Gordon said.
THDA board member Rick Neal, a Memphis-based commercial real estate banker who works in affordable housing lending, said he fears unintended consequences if the state steered developers to higher-income neighborhoods.
“Part of the way the program works is to let the (private) market determine where housing needs to be,” Neal said.
In 2018, the THDA made it harder for developers to build LIHTC housing in the state’s poorest neighborhoods. It decided to award credits to new housing in the lowest income census tracts only if a public housing agency such as the Memphis Housing Authority was involved.
“Over time,” McCarthy wrote in his fair housing research paper, “(this decision) will reduce the degree of residential segregation in Tennessee.”
But the policy was not given much time to work.
The THDA reversed this policy when creating its 2022 program guidelines — a decision THDA executive director Ralph Perrey said was made to help developers such as Willis improve low-income parts of cities such as Memphis.
Also, while creating the 2022 guidelines, the THDA staff presented a scaled-back way to push development toward low-poverty, low-unemployment neighborhoods. But the board again decided against the change.
In other words, there’s little chance an affordable apartment complex will be built in higher income neighborhoods such as Cordova or Collierville anytime soon.
Though Shelby County’s population is just over half Black, its LIHTC residents are almost all Black.
A THDA survey of county LIHTC residents found that just 2.5% of residents reported their race as white and 96.5% as Black; the rest were other races. About 25% of those white LIHTC residents live in a single affordable retirement home in Midtown.
When the THDA chooses which housing developments to subsidize, it’s deciding where hundreds of low-income, Black people should live. In the last 15 years, it’s made almost all of its Shelby County awards to projects in predominantly Black neighborhoods — Whitehaven, Westwood, South Memphis and Raleigh. The Akinyemis’ ZIP code is 96% Black.
This is the obvious outcome of how the THDA has designed its tax credit program, according to Laura Beshara, Daniel’s law partner. She reviewed Tennessee’s program at MLK50’s request.
“It’s pretty clear the way they have (the program) set up is going to direct housing into racially concentrated areas,” Beshara said. “We’re continuing to deny people choice in … where to raise their kids.”
Tennessee has one of the nation’s highest shares of Black LIHTC residents, at just over 50%. That could help explain why the state doesn’t push LIHTC development toward higher-income neighborhoods, said Daniel.
States with more white LIHTC residents do better at subsidizing developments in high-opportunity areas, he said, which means white residents are better served by the program than Black ones.
Beshara and Daniel don’t think Tennessee’s handling of the federal program should count as abiding by the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which was designed to produce “truly integrated and balanced living patterns,” according to one of its co-sponsors. The law requires the federal government to make sure all its programs “affirmatively further fair housing,” though the interpretation of that clause has varied through the years.
In 2015, HUD — during President Barack Obama’s administration — released a rule that recipients of federal housing dollars must take “meaningful actions” to reduce segregation as well as disparities in access to opportunity. It gave the example of using the LIHTC program to “(develop) affordable housing in areas with low poverty and proficient schools.” In 2018, HUD — under a President Donald Trump appointee — suspended the rule before replacing it in the summer of 2020 with one that placed a much smaller emphasis on fair housing. In mid-2021, new HUD secretary Marcia Fudge’s administration reinstated most of the 2015 rule but left out parts experts said were necessary for enforcement.
No matter the specifics of HUD’s current rules, Beshara thinks the way Tennessee segregates Black residents into Black neighborhoods while administering the federal LIHTC program shouldn’t be legal.
Perrey strongly disagrees. The Texas system that was scrutinized by the Supreme Court allocated credits only in the low-income neighborhoods of the state’s largest cities, Perrey noted. In contrast, Tennessee has long distributed credits in smaller cities across the state.
Perrey acknowledged that Shelby County’s LIHTC housing is home to almost exclusively Black Memphians and located primarily in Black neighborhoods but noted that the THDA has also subsidized projects in predominantly white parts of the state.
The THDA’s scoring system is “objective,” he said.
“The way Memphis has come together over the years, you have areas that are almost entirely African American and other areas that are almost entirely white. That’s a larger set of issues than we can tackle with the housing program,” Perrey said.
More than 50 years after the Fair Housing Act passed Congress, Memphis remains one of the most segregated cities in the country, with many neighborhoods home to almost no white residents. While LIHTC can’t reverse this on its own, it is a huge program. Tennessee awards a little more than $170 million of credits per year, with almost $20 million ending up in Shelby County.
Gordon, the New Jersey-based fair housing advocate, said the program can certainly be used to push back against age-old segregation patterns but can also reinforce them if states aren’t careful.
When told how THDA almost always awards tax credits to developments in the county’s Black neighborhoods, Hanif Akinyemi assumed white people must be making the decisions. And he was right: the THDA’s 12-person board has one Black member, and the tax credit committee has none, according to the agency’s website.
With this lack of representation, Akinyemi sees the THDA’s actions as “steeped in racism,” whether or not they are made with racist intent.
“That’s what we’re fighting for: more inclusion,” Akinyemi said. “But we know Tennessee don’t want integration. They don’t want change.”
Of course, many low-income, Black Memphians like their neighborhoods and wouldn’t move to whiter, more-affluent areas if given a chance.
In the 1990s, the Department of Housing and Urban Development experimented with helping low-income Americans living in “inner-city” public housing move to neighborhoods with a lower poverty rate. About half of the people offered help from this program took the government up on it.
These nationwide findings match what residents of local LIHTC housing told MLK50. Though more than a third wish they could move to high-opportunity areas, the rest said they prefer their current neighborhood. Many of these residents have spent their entire lives in that particular part of town, have parents in the neighborhood or work a short drive from their apartment, so the idea of moving to Cordova or Bartlett didn’t appeal to them.
“(The location in) Whitehaven is what drew me to this particular apartment,” said Ebony Box, who lives in the LIHTC-subsidized Winchester Grove Apartments in Whitehaven. “I love the area.”
But the Akinyemis were also far from alone in wanting more from their neighborhood.
Carletta Davis, a neighbor of Box’s, tells her 18-year-old daughter to drive instead of walk no matter how close her destination is, so she doesn’t have to worry as much about her safety. Winchester Grove is surrounded by self-storage, properties with barbed wire and another huge apartment complex. Within a quarter mile of Winchester Grove, there have been seven homicides in the last two years, according to Memphis Police Department data.
Davis, a factory manager from rural South Carolina, is looking for apartments just across the state line in Southaven, Mississippi, attracted by the lower crime rate and proximity to her job.
Pierre Booker, who lives seven doors down from the Akinyemis in Windsor Pointe, grew up in Southaven and wants his six kids to have childhoods more similar to his. He remembers spending summers at the suburb’s pools, jumping into the water with his friends or playing other pool games.
“There was more things to do as a child in Mississippi than there is here,” Booker said.
Even when his kids — whose ages run from 4 to 13 — are just playing in the neighborhood, Booker and his wife feel compelled to keep an eye on them. Though Windsor Pointe has little crime, the apartment complex immediately to its north isn’t quite so quiet, with one homicide, seven car thefts and a couple of drug offenses in the last two years, according to Memphis Police Department data.
The Bookers are also looking to move, hoping for somewhere with less crime and better schools. A towering man, Booker loved playing football in school, but his kids’ charter middle school doesn’t have a team.
“I would like them to get that (football) experience as well,” Booker said. “The charter schools don’t even do a lot of extracurricular activities.”
Booker would love it if an affordable community like Windsor Pointe were available in Bartlett, Cordova or East Memphis.
However, experts aren’t calling for limiting LIHTC housing to high-opportunity areas. The program is one of the few ways multimillion-dollar investments occur in Memphis’ Black neighborhoods and has some potential to lead to other nearby investments.
All of the experts who MLK50 spoke with said there should be a balance that gives low-income residents a choice.
“Some families want to live in (low-income neighborhoods) because that’s community for them, (even if) there’s no access to jobs or fresh food and the public schools are failing,” said Ann Lott, the executive director at the Inclusive Communities Project in Texas. “They should be given that choice … (but) the ones that want out should be afforded that opportunity.”
Vaughn, the affordable housing consultant, thinks LIHTC residents have choices already.
While they may not be able to afford to live in a suburb, she said, “anybody can move out to a rural area.”
“They’re not stuck.”
The large majority of LIHTC residents she’s met, she said, like living in the neighborhoods they’ve always lived in. Forcing them to move to middle-class neighborhoods would be “social engineering.”
Lott gets frustrated when she hears people such as Vaughn say that Black people live in predominantly Black neighborhoods purely out of preference — forgetting that decades of housing policy had intentionally segregated American cities.
“The culprit was the government,” Lott said. “(And) where you can effectively segregate people by race, they will never have the same opportunities.”
A bright future
The Akineymis met through a shared passion, rhythm skating.
They used to both be regulars at the now-closed Crystal Palace rink. After seeing each other there for years, Hanif asked Latoya a simple question in June 2018: “When are you going to let me take you out?”
In a video on Latoya’s phone, the two skate with expert knowledge of the sport and each other’s movement — like a pair of ice dancers at the Olympics without the aerial spins.
Latoya loves dancing in many forms. Before leaving their old church in 2020, she led a contemporary dance ministry there, in which her eighth-grade daughter took part.
Both of the women are far better dancers than he, Hanif said.
The Akinyemis are working hard to make sure the middle-schooler succeeds. During her fourth and fifth grade years at the poorly rated neighborhood school, she “fell off a bit” academically, Latoya said.
So for middle school, Latoya moved her to John P. Freeman Optional School, which also has a low TVAAS score. But there, she’s thriving on the softball team, student council and yearbook club. And unlike her mother, she’s an A student.
Recently, her parents got good news: Their daughter got into Middle College High School, a TVAAS 5, in Midtown.
Of course, many residents of LIHTC housing don’t have the transportation or the time to get their children to a school 20 minutes away.
But the Akinyemis are excited to take advantage of this opportunity. Even though it’s well outside their neighborhood.