Subsidized Housing Tour

In Sacred & Profane by Donna Johnsonleave a COMMENT

On my first night at Cagle Terrace, a subsidized housing facility off Sutherland Avenue, I was awakened by the sound of loud, repetitive sirens. Over and over they went, like the sudden alarm of a surprise inspection in a correctional facility. I hurriedly threw on a robe and grabbed my dog, Mallory, who was hiding in the corner of the closet trembling with fear. I became even more alarmed when I found that the elevators were not in use. What to do next?

Trudging down six flights of stairs, I finally saw throngs of people, also in their nightclothes, laughing and drinking various alcoholic beverages for all the world like it was an elegant, formal tea party outside. Had they lost their minds? Had I?

One beautiful girl, whose looks were marred when she opened her mouth by the fact that she had no teeth, told me, “It’s only a fire drill. They happen once or twice a month.”

Once or twice a month? This gruesome violation of the senses? Still, I felt some relief, and despite my irritation at this unnecessary, rude awakening at 4 in the morning, began to take stock of my surroundings.

The grounds of Cagle Terrace are large and sweeping. Under the light of the full moon, it looked as though the flowers had been ever so gently dusted by fairy dust. The effect was startling and otherworldly, as were the residents scattered about the lawn like figures in a George Seurat painting—only instead of wearing fancy dress clothes and top hats, they were in pajamas and robes.

A young girl with honey colored hair that fell in a tangled mass down her back played a guitar and sang: “I woke up and said today is going to be great…I’ll do the laundry and bake you a birthday cake…”

Though she, too, lifted a shot of whiskey in her hand, her eyes were clear and her countenance pure, untainted by the debauchery around us. Next to her sat a young man in his mid-20s, wearing a plaid shirt and striped shorts. Such a miscue of style usually disturbs my obsessive-compulsive self, but on him it worked. This pair was somehow set apart from the others; I suspect they will eventually question the rules here and depart from the world of subsidized housing, where at least a pretense of mild submission is advisable to be a favorite with management.

That’s the thing about subsidized housing: It’s fair and equal housing for some, but if you stand up for yourself, there is no question that the squeaky wheel will be the next one out on the street.

At Cagle, which is in a prime neighborhood of Bearden, I found the waiting list to be about a year. At Summit Towers, which is downtown, the wait is generally shorter, as evictions are more frequent. In the projects, such as Western Heights or Isabella Towers, there is rarely a waiting list at all, as these are considered to be higher-crime neighborhoods.

There are inspections, sometimes surprise ones by HUD or KCDC, at which apartments must be clean and free of bedbugs. As I experienced at Summit Towers, if an apartment is even suspected of having bedbugs, you must bag up all of your belongings so that a team of inspectors can burst into your apartment and demand an accounting. If you actually do have bedbugs, your belongings must remain in plastic garbage bags for days.

I think Westview Towers, a high-rise near West Town Mall, is by far the nicest subsidized housing facility in Knoxville, with beautifully decorated lobbies (which unfortunately cannot be enjoyed after 9 p.m.). Tobacco products of any kind—cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, and even vapor cigarettes—are not allowed, and if one is caught breaking this rule in even the slightest infraction, you guessed it: out.

At Isabella Towers, you must be greeted by a resident in order to gain access. This is a good thing, for it is used as a protective device for the residents. But if you happen to be let in by a stranger and management finds out, all hell breaks out—you may even find yourself escorted out as though you were a common criminal.

How did I escape from subsidized housing? I fell asleep in the bathtub with the water running.

The tub overflowed, flooding three floors, and I awakened to see men in orange suits and hoods using large, noisy machines to soak up the excess water. (Aren’t tubs supposed to have an outlet for the water to go through before it overflows?) Summit Towers sent me a bill for $25,000 and banned me from the building permanently. As the scent of marijuana still wafted down the hall of the sixth floor, I questioned this bill, stating that surely a subsidized housing facility funded by HUD would be covered by insurance in the event of such disasters.

Oddly enough, I never received any answers to these questions, and now I have an outstanding debt of $25,000 added to my already poor credit.

Am I happy to be out of subsidized housing? You bet! No more unwelcome inspections, no more “three strikes and you’re out.” Though I still have a couple of friends there that I would like to visit, many have since died or moved on to greener pastures, like me.

In a much larger apartment in Fourth and Gill, I am as happy as a lark. People smile there and really do try to do the right thing. Plus, for once in my life, I have a landlord who likes me. And that is nothing short of a miracle!

Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”

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