Before Trayvon Martin, closure of housing projects stoked tensions in Sanford

theGRIO REPORT - The shuttering of six sprawling housing projects in two historically black sections of Sanford stoked tensions in the small city, even before the shooting death of Trayvon Martin...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

The shuttering of six sprawling housing projects in two historically black sections of Sanford stoked tensions in the small city of Sanford, even before the shooting death of Trayvon Martin inside a gated community in the city’s suburban core.

Five public housing developments were located mainly in Goldsboro, Florida’s second oldest city chartered by African-Americans, after Eatonville, when it was founded in 1891 (and the nation’s third) — until all-white Sanford stripped the city of its charter and absorbed it in 1911. A sixth housing project was in Georgetown, older than Sanford by 14 years, but which was also drafted into the city in the early 20th century. The spare, one-story buildings were spread out across seemingly endless acres in the predominantly black areas, located across the railroad tracks from Sanford proper.

The homes across from the ghost town of boarded up houses are now nearly devoid of value.

Some of the projects were named after Goldsboro founders: Castle Brewer Court, built in 1951, and Edward Higgins Terrace, built the following year; William Clark Court was also erected in 1952 and named after Goldsboro’s first tax assessor. Cowan Moughton houses was built in 1959, and named after the white contractor who designed and built many of the ramshackle dwellings. Lake Monroe Terrace, built in 1972, was named for the body of water on whose southern shore Sanford rests. An additional project, Redding Gardens, which dates back to 1971, was closed down in Georgetown.

The streets of Sanford once bore many of those names, but when the city was taken — older folks in Goldsboro say “stolen” — the street names were changed to numbers.

The closures meant hundreds of individuals and families were given the order — and the opportunity — to move. “People moved anywhere they wanted to go,” local activist and historian Francis Oliver said. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provided Section 8 funds for families to move. “Some left Sanford, others stayed.”

According to local residents, some of those families had lived in the public housing units for generations. The buildings were full of mold and falling apart for years, said Oliver, who curates the Goldsboro Historical Museum. His office sits in an elevated trailer on the old town’s main drag, 13th Street, not far from the railroad tracks that once separated black Goldsboro from the all-white town of Sanford, and which was once home to a post office, stores, restaurants, and the other amenities that fueled the once-thriving city of Goldsboro, which was founded by black railroad and agricultural workers who manned the celery fields in the area.

Today, 13th Street sports a liquor store, a small building housing a detective agency, a barber shop, and a still-standing row of “shotgun houses” that were picked up and moved in 1997 to the nearby town of Leesburg, to serve as the set for the movie Rosewood — a film about another Florida town destroyed, in that case violently, by its white neighbors.

Redding Gardens sits just across the street from the home where famed writer Zora Neale Hurston once lived, in Goldsboro, where her father, John Hurston, was, for a time, the pastor of Zion Hope Baptist Church. The Hurston house, like the projects across the street, now sits dilapidated and boarded up; falling apart, Oliver said, because the owner simply couldn’t afford to keep it up.

In some parts of Goldsboro and Georgetown, houses are selling for as little as $6,000, Oliver said.The ghetto of Seminole County

The projects had long been a source of tension, and challenges, for Sanford.

“Sanford is considered the ghetto of Seminole County,” because of them, one black resident said — because they were so close to private homes in the small city, where everything seems to be ten minutes away from everything else. Even the nicer parts of town, where older, larger homes sit on manicured lawns; or the newer townhomes and single family house developments surrounded by high walled gates, are no more than a ten minute drive from the acres of boarded up public housing.

Seminole is one of Florida’s most affluent counties, but of its eleven “pockets of poverty,” nine are located in Sanford, according to the Central Florida Dream Center. And Goldsboro and Georgetown, home to less than 10 percent of the city’s 53,500 population, have long been a focal point of crime and want.

FBI crime statistics show that Sanford has a violent crime rate of 6.65 incidents per 1,000 residents — higher than Florida’s crime rate of 5.42. The city’s burglary crime rate, 16.26 per 1,000 residents, is more than double the national average of 7.0.

The brand new Sanford police and fire headquarters opened just across the street? from the sign leading to the entrance of historic Goldsboro in November 2010 — something Sanford’s black community fought for, hoping the brand new complex would spur economic development along 13th Street.

An unwelcome exodus

The six vacant housing projects are slated to be torn down, and the area redeveloped. There are plans for mixed income, single family homes. Many of the families who left the projects sifted out into greater Sanford, often receiving a less than warm welcome from the residents of the gated communities and other residential pockets in the city, like the Retreat at Twin Lakes, where Trayvon Martin was killed. After the recession devastated home prices across Florida, some homeowners began renting out their places, and HUD pays nearly all of the rent, making Section 8 an attractive offer for some desperate homeowners.

Oliver said some homeowners associations actively fought the new residents, who received rent assistance from HUD, in some cases prompting the local chapter of the NAACP to get involved.

“When they couldn’t stop them,” Oliver said, frustrated homeowners “started moving out.”

As local activist Kenneth Bentley, who runs a Florida Front Porch program that provides after school tutoring and mentoring to Goldsboro area teens, put it, the middle – and sometimes lower middle class families who bought into the townhomes and gated developments around Sanford “wanted to get away from the ghetto, but here comes the ghetto following right behind them.”

Oliver spoke of a woman who claimed her daughter was told to get out of a community swimming pool in one development, because the woman said, “your parents don’t pay homeowners’ dues.”

And while there’s no evidence that the crime rate in greater Sanford rose after the housing projects were closed, the sense of unease and unwelcome was apparently palpable for many former Goldsboro residents.

People were just a little more suspicious of one another. A bit less welcoming.

Last September, the Retreat at Twin Lakes responded to a rash of break-ins by establishing a neighborhood watch. Its chief organizer and volunteer was George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old who began renting a townhome in the development with his wife in the summer of 2009 and almost immediately began calling police to report cars driving without headlights, an aggressive biker “doing wheelies,” an aggressive dog, and “suspicious persons” on the premises.

One man who claimed to be a Retreat at Twin Lakes resident, but who didn’t want to give his name, said he was aware of Section 8 voucher holders moving in, but didn’t think that prompted the homeowners association to push for a neighborhood watch. That, he said, was strictly about the break-ins.

However, he said, “there were people who weren’t happy they were there.”

Follow Joy Reid on Twitter at @thereidreport