Activist fights to save housing project in South Carolina

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Local attorney and civil rights activist Hemphill Pride II is calling on the city to preserve the 80-year-old Allen Benedict Court public housing project, which he says is an important symbol of Black history in Columbia.

“The project produced some of the most outstanding lawyers, doctors, ministers, teachers and workers in this community,” he wrote in a letter addressed to Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin. “On behalf of Allen Benedict Court Alumni we oppose its destruction.”

Allen Benedict Court is widely known today for a carbon monoxide leak that killed two residents there in 2019. But Pride said it was once a revered establishment within the Black community.

Built in 1940, Allen Benedict Court is one of the oldest public housing projects in the country. The Gonzales Gardens housing project, which was built a year before, strictly prohibited Black residents at that time.

“It was the first time the white community showed any deference to the African American community by providing housing,” Pride said.

Though Pride himself did not grow up in Allen Benedict Court, he recalled fond memories of spending time with friends who lived there.

“I lived across the street from Valley Park — which is now Martin Luther King Park — but I couldn’t play there because it was whites only,” he said. “I had to travel four miles to Allen Benedict Court to use the playground and it was the first playground I had ever seen in my life.”

In his letter, Pride accuses Benjamin of “destroying public housing,” and claims that there is “a lack of transparency between you and the Columbia Housing Authority.”

Benjamin declined to comment.

But a representative from Benjamin’s office stated that the redevelopment of Allen Benedict Court was under the purview of the Columbia Housing Authority, not the mayor’s office. Benjamin and and city council are responsible for appointing members to the Columbia Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners.

Ivory Mathews, the CEO of the Housing Authority, acknowledged the importance of preserving the history of the housing project and said her office has invited the community to share stories, artifacts and mementos through a project they’ve launched called “Allen Benedict Court: Forever in My Heart.”

Mathews went on to say that Allen Benedict Court had “reached its useful life.”

“The responsible thing to do is to raze the property and build a new state-of-the-art housing community so that future families will experience some of the same benefits experienced by former families.” she said.

Cindi Herrera, the Housing Authority’s senior vice president for development, estimated that the cost of restoring Allen Benedict Court would be around $27,123,225, nearly 71% of what it would cost to simply replace the housing complex.

“(Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development) guidelines state that when rehab costs exceed 58.6% of replacement costs the property is considered obsolete and should be demolished and replaced,” she said.

Last November, inspectors found 869 code violations at the property including missing carbon monoxide detectors, faulty smoke detectors and exposed wires. In January the Housing Authority plead guilty to those charges in municipal court and was fined just under $11,000.

Pride said he is well aware of the extensive upgrades needed in order to bring Allen Benedict Court up to standard. “By the time the two people there died, it was a slum,” he said.

Pride is currently representing two former residents who are suing the Housing Authority for failing “to maintain the premises in such a manner that they are safe, fit and habitable.”

Still, he said he fears that Allen Benedict Court could be redeveloped in such a way that it will end up benefiting white subcontractors, construction workers and architects while simultaneously pushing Black residents out.

“Finding the money never seems to be a problem unless it’s coming to the black community,” he said.

Mathews said that the Housing Authority is working to ensure that 30% of the total costs for tradesman go to minority and women owned businesses and that the Housing Authority will hold workshops to encourage those businesses to submit bids to work on the project.

As far as the racial makeup of the new development, “When it’s completed, the footprint will represent our community as a whole,” Mathews said. “Just like our community as a whole, it will be very diverse and very inclusive.”

Pride said one solution he has considered is getting the property designated as a national landmark in order to prevent it from being torn down.

“There is a historical value and unfortunately we as a race have a problem with preserving our heritage,” he said. “I know it’s going to be an uphill battle but I have a good team behind me.”