This public housing complex is 85 years old and lacks air conditioning, but there’s a waiting list
Editor’s note: This story is the first in an ongoing series on affordable housing in Oklahoma City in partnership with the local media collaborative Oklahoma Media Center, the nonprofit newsroom The Frontier, The Oklahoman and the Oklahoma City-based magazine Curbside Chronicle.
Without air-conditioning, it is sweltering in the summer at Will Rogers Courts. Built during the Great Depression, the 348-unit complex is Oklahoma City’s largest and oldest public housing development. The walls are thick concrete and brick and lack central air conditioning.
Richard Stewart, who has lived at Will Rogers for 12 years, had to buy his own window air conditioner to stay cool.
But it’s a minor inconvenience in exchange for paying no more than one-third of his monthly income in rent.
Stewart’s one-bedroom unit overlooks a playground near Stockyards City. He sometimes hosts neighborhood cookouts with the barbecue smoker in front of his apartment.
“A lot of people come and go, but the bricks is the same,” Stewart said.
Public housing like this was envisioned almost a century ago as part of the New Deal but is slowly disappearing even as thousands are being priced out of the market or evicted from their homes.
Stewart says he feels fortunate to have a home as people from nearby homeless camps drift in and out of the complex in search of shelter during the hot summer or cold winter months.
“They don’t have nowhere else to be,” Stewart said. “They’re not bad people, they just have a bad situation.”
Will Rogers Courts, though worn out, is still home for many.
“It’s not bad when there’s some cats a few blocks down from here sleeping in tents,” said resident Marcus Wren, who moved into the complex with his young daughter after losing his job as a forklift operator.
It’s been 85 years since the first low-income families moved into Will Rogers Courts, and the complex is still one of the few solutions to address the city’s ever-growing need for affordable housing. There were more than 6,200 people on the waiting list in June for a one, two or three-bedroom unit at Will Rogers Courts. The wait for a unit can be 15 months to two and a half years, depending on available bedrooms.
More than 68,000 households in Oklahoma City spend over 30% of their gross income on housing, generally viewed as the threshold for affordability, according to a 2021 housing study commissioned by city officials. Wages have also not kept pace with increasing housing costs in the city over the past decade, the study found.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued a temporary moratorium to stop evictions for nonpayment of rent in September 2020 to help tenants stay in their homes during the pandemic. Evictions in Oklahoma County have risen to above pre-pandemic levels since the moratorium ended in August 2021, according to data collected by Legal Services Corp. Eviction filings swelled to more than 25% above average in Oklahoma County in June, with 1,593 actions filed.
The national brokerage RedFin, meanwhile, reports Oklahoma City home prices in June were up 14.7% compared to the same time last year.
Rising housing costs are driving a growing demand for housing assistance, said Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance in Oklahoma City. The nonprofit regularly fields 200 calls a day for people in search of housing assistance, he said. Many of the callers have jobs, but still can’t afford market-rate housing in Oklahoma City.
“This is not the guy you see sleeping under the bridge,” Straughan said. “These are Oklahoma households. Lots of them are employed.”
In the eight decades since Will Rogers Courts was built, federal housing policy has shifted away from funding large public housing complexes in favor of providing Section 8 housing vouchers, which help low-income families, seniors and people with disabilities pay rent to private landlords. But the waiting list for a voucher can be as long as two years.
Most of Oklahoma City’s public housing is more than 40 years old and has seen its funding from Congress through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development steadily decline over the past 20 years. The Oklahoma City Housing Authority is now looking to city government for help to stabilize most of its portfolio of nearly 3,000 aging public housing units over the next decade.
Not enough funding
Federal housing inspectors rated Will Rogers Courts as substandard during its most recent inspection in 2019, citing issues like crumbling walls, inoperable windows and soil erosion on the complex grounds.
With its limited budget, the housing authority prioritizes spending money for repairs on issues inside the units where 514 residents live, said Matt Mills, director of public housing for the agency.
Officials for the Oklahoma City Housing Authority know the aging complex will need to be replaced sometime in the next decade but haven’t been able to come up with a solution.
The agency has tried to come up with a plan to renovate or replace Will Rogers Courts but hasn’t been able to make the financing work or find enough available land for the project.
Housing officials are eyeing plans to use a combination of funding from tax credits and private debt, but renovations on a complex the size and cost of Will Rogers Courts will probably need to be done in phases over several years.
“It will likely take millions of additional funds to make financing work,” said Ian Colgan, assistant executive director for the housing authority. “It is hard enough to raise capital for much smaller projects.”
The sturdy concrete and brick walls at Will Rogers Courts are one reason it has endured, but they also make renovations more of a challenge.
“We honestly do not have an answer for Will Rogers Courts at the moment,” said Mark Gillett, executive director of the Oklahoma City Housing Authority.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development still lacks adequate financing mechanisms to replace a housing complex like Will Rogers Courts, Gillett said. There’s also not enough funding for maintenance and repairs.
An estimated $250 million is needed to address aging mechanical and electrical systems, windows, doors, and parking lots at Oklahoma City’s public housing complexes. Another $70 million is needed for upgrades including new kitchens, bathrooms, flooring and landscaping. But the housing authority only receives between $5 million and $6 million in annual federal capital funds.
The ever-growing backlog of public housing maintenance needs is a nationwide problem, said Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, whose members include housing officials in cities across the United States.
The National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials estimated in 2019 that $70 billion was needed to address deferred maintenance needs at public housing nationwide. Costs compound each year due to inflation and as buildings further deteriorate.
“We don’t have a structure or a funding mechanism to upgrade and improve these properties that we funded and built but now cannot operate properly because we haven’t made the investments,” Zaterman said. “So the fact that Will Rogers Courts is still there is quite a statement, and also I think speaks to the commitment of the housing authority to try to maintain as many affordable housing units as possible. But you’re gonna meet a test there when they become not viable.”
President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act included $70 billion to help preserve the nation’s deteriorating public housing but stalled in Congress.
A New Deal vision
The phasing out of public housing comes almost a century after it was first introduced as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and 50 years after the program went into decline. As the economy cratered in the 1930s, hundreds of families uprooted from farms and workers who lost their jobs at manufacturing plants set up homes built of scrap metal and cardboard along the south shore of what is now the Oklahoma River south of downtown.
A count in 1931 showed at least 2,300 people living in the camps. Roosevelt announced he wanted to find a long-term solution to homelessness. The Housing Act of 1937 funded public housing projects nationwide as a way to create jobs, clear slums and provide homes to low-income families.
Roosevelt called for public housing to be built nationwide, arguing he could not tolerate “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, [and] ill-nourished.”
Will Rogers Courts, built on an alfalfa field, would join a community in Enid as the first public housing in Oklahoma and some of the first developments of their kind in the nation.
The Federal Housing Authority announced in 1935 that it would buy 50 acres for the Will Rogers Courts development near the Oklahoma City stockyards.
The original plans include two recreation centers, supervised playgrounds, and courtyards with spaces for vegetable gardens. The city’s parks department agreed to oversee landscaping and tree plantings.
But the Oklahoma City Real Estate Board denounced the effort. Members argued that homes could be better constructed by private developers and that the government shouldn’t compete with homebuilders. Others claimed the federal government was set to replace existing slums with a new slum.
Will Rogers Courts opened in 1937 with a waiting list that started with applications from 750 families seeking new homes.
The first tenant, 41-year-old Richard Thomas, along with his wife Lavada, 30, and infant daughter Dixie Lynn, previously lived in a two-room apartment in an old wood-frame house where they could only get water from a bathtub shared with fellow residents.
In a 1937 interview with The Oklahoman, the couple described moving from squalor to adequate shelter. Window panes at their old house at 313 NE 4 were broken, screens were filled with holes and the only kitchen to speak of was an old gas stove. Water for cooking and washing dishes had to be drawn from the bathtub next to the toilet in the one shared bathroom.
Thomas, a cab driver earning $22 a week, paid $19.50 a month for the old apartment. Their new home was only slightly more expensive, $21.70 a month including all utilities.
The family’s three-room apartment at Will Rogers Courts, overlooking Rotary Park, was described as “ultra-modern” when they made the move in 1937. Lavada Thomas compared it to living in heaven. Their new home was advertised as being fireproof, with amenities including a refrigerator, stove, heat, and modern bathrooms.
“Gosh!” exclaimed Thomas, whose first tour of his new home was covered by The Oklahoman.“1603 Rotary Drive! It sounds like it might be in Nichols Hills.”
A decade would pass before another batch of public housing was built, this time the NE Duplexes in the Creston Park neighborhood. And even though public housing had a stigma with some, those who lived at Will Rogers Courts through the 1970s say they have happy memories of the community.
In a recent interview, Jeanne Bain Enyart recalled her family was barely getting by when they moved into Will Rogers Courts in 1960.
“My father deserted my mom with two kids and a newborn,” Enyart said. “Mom got work at Western Electric and we had to move (out of Will Rogers Courts) because she made too much money. We were still poor.”
Deanna Welch lived at Will Rogers Courts in 1978 when it was a tight-knit neighborhood where her mother walked her to Westwood Elementary each day, she said in an interview.
“We would pitch tents in the courtyard in front of our part of the complex and all of the kids in that section would camp outside,” Welch said. “We would roller skate through the parking lot, we had cookouts in the courtyard, and it was safe to leave our doors unlocked so all of the kids in the section would frequent each other’s house for drinks, snacks, a little time under the water cooler before going back outside to eat our popsicles or play in the sprinkler.”
The picture portrayed to the public, however, was much worse for newer complexes built in the late 1960s as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s revival of public housing with his “War on Poverty” program.
A mix of new construction and the addition of existing homes brought the Oklahoma City Housing Authority to a peak of 3,142 public housing units in the mid-1970s. The largest at the time, Hamilton Courts at SE 15 and Grand Boulevard, sprawled over 80 acres in an industrial section of the city.
The expansion of units in Oklahoma City coincided with a reversal in federal funding for new public housing. Hamilton Courts and another public housing property, Kerr Village, near SW 15 and Interstate 44, were quickly falling into disrepair just a few years after opening in 1969.
The Oklahoma City Housing Authority decided to use a $1 million grant to repair Kerr Village and sell the largely abandoned $6.6 million Hamilton Courts. The apartment complex closed in 1980 in need of millions of dollars for repairs. In 1982, The Oklahoman described the complex as “blighted” and a “scene of crime and race riots.” The closure damaged public housing’s reputation in Oklahoma City.
An uncertain future
Today, the Oklahoma City Housing Authority owns 2,920 units of public housing and also administers about 4,500 Section 8 vouchers to help low-income families pay rent.
Gillett, who joined the authority in 1991, recalls federal funding keeping up with public housing needs through the early 1990s, before dropping off.
“All of the sudden funding started getting depleted,” Gillett said. “The biggest depletion came in modernization funding for public housing. And it began dwindling at a time when the need was far greater.”
The option of taking out a mortgage for improvements at typical apartment complexes is not possible with prohibitions against taking out debt on public housing, Gillett said. In response, the Department of Housing and Urban Development started letting public housing authorities transition housing to management under a nonprofit organization. Tenants receive Section 8 housing vouchers to help pay rent.
Over the past decade, more than 160,100 public housing apartments nationwide have transitioned to Section 8 through this program, called Rental Assistance Demonstration, or RAD. But housing authorities still typically have to use a combination of funding from tax credits for low-income housing and other sources to finance renovations.
“Over the decade since RAD was created, we’ve seen a marked increase in the ability of housing authorities to make complex transactions work in response to these innovations, but many still don’t pencil out,” said Scott Hudman, a spokesman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The Biden Administration has asked Congress for $100 million in new funding for the program.
The Sooner Haven Apartments at 1444 NE 36 is the first public housing to undergo renovations in this manner. Originally constructed in 1970, the 150-unit garden-style apartment complex needed extensive updates before being renovated in 2019.
Today, the security guard booth and prison-like fencing that once surrounded the complex are gone, replaced with newly-planted trees and landscaping. The apartment units also have new windows, kitchens, and furnishings.
Colgan, who has guided master planning to renovate public housing, said the future for Will Rogers Courts is uncertain. Other housing authorities have ended up razing properties due to lost federal funding.
The gap between the federal funds the housing authority receives and what the agency needs “is so large that it is conceivable that in the near future, the capital needs could shut down the property,” Colgan said.
Will Rogers Courts residents would likely receive housing vouchers to help find new homes if the complex were to close, he said.
Without adequate federal dollars, the housing authority now hopes local funding can fill some of the gaps. The agency estimates it will take about $19.3 million from Oklahoma City to help renovate and replace thousands of long underfunded public housing units over the next decade. Funding would come from MAPS 4, a temporary, 1-cent sales tax that includes $50 million to address homelessness. The money from the city would be used to help line up millions more in additional federal and private financing for renovations.
Colgan hopes renovations at other properties like Sooner Haven offer hope.
“We are convinced that positive solutions like this are possible for Will Rogers Courts,” Colgan said. “We are biding our time to move it forward at the best possible time.”
-Oklahoma Media Center Reporter Joey Stipek contributed to this story.