by Courtney Tutt, Project Archivist
In 1966 in Sumter County, Alabama, forty black families of former sharecroppers formed the Panola Land Buying Association (PLBA). The families formed the association following their evictions resulting from a dispute involving the correct share of deferred acreage payments from the Department of Agriculture. No longer able to live on the land which they had worked, the group chartered the PLBA in 1967 and, with the aid of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC), was able to redeem a 1,164-acre parcel of land in a foreclosure sale. The land was located in Epes, in Sumter County, Alabama, and was used to build homes for PLBA members and to house the FSC’s Rural Training and Research Center.
The first phase of housing construction was called the Wendy Hills subdivision and included fifty houses for the PLBA members. The original hope of the PLBA was to establish cooperative housing on the site, but it became impossible when the state stiffened regulations on sewage and water supply just as the project was ready to get under way in the early ’70s. Efforts over several years to develop plans to comply with the regulations resulted in working for a U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant to extend county water supply lines from Livingston to Gainesville. When this was achieved in 1978, it again became feasible to move forward with the housing complex.
The need for adequate housing in the area had been examined in a 1975 Regional Housing Market Study undertaken by the Alabama-Tombigbee Regional Planning and Development Commission. The study stated that 70% of all rural housing in the area was substandard, lacking some or all plumbing facility, and that the present rural housing conditions were appalling.
The PLBA Housing Development Corporation determined that available financial assistance in the form of rental subsidies from HUD made it more practical to direct efforts toward the building of rental units than the originally planned cooperative housing. The architect firm of Owens and Woods in Birmingham was engaged to prepare plans. In August 1978 an application was submitted to the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) for a construction loan. As negotiations proceeded with FmHA, bids were called for site development and construction.
Innumerable and not unexpected bureaucratic complications and delays were compounded by a last-minute halt to the proceedings when a “confidential informant” contacted the Department of Agriculture and claimed that the project was not feasible. An investigation survey by the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Agriculture held up all negotiations but resulted in reconfirming the need and feasibility of the project.
By the time the survey was complete, the construction bid had to be withdrawn due to escalating costs. Additional funds then had to be procured in order to finalize negotiations and begin construction. The one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom units (ten of each) were completed by Lloyd Wood Construction Co. of Tuscaloosa. Site development had been carried out by Sommerville Smith and Associates, consulting engineers, including streets and drainage, water hook-ups and construction of a sewage lagoon.
Of the one hundred families who applied for housing, only forty could be accepted. The needs of the sixty families who could not be accepted did not go unheeded. The PLBA Housing Development Corporation continued to develop housing projects, including the Aliceville project, Eutaw Elderly Village, Marengo Homes and Willow Housing.
Along with the PLBA Development Corporation’s housing projects, the FSC developed their own housing program that organized information, services and technical assistance to provide housing to low-income families across the South. Many of the beneficiaries of new housing included elderly people, farm laborers and families who needed it most. The FSC’s Housing Program assisted their member cooperatives in establishing a Cooperative Housing Program, utilizing FmHA 515 Programs and other federal housing resources programs. The FmHA loans were used to update dwellings (construct, repair, winterize, relocate, provide water and sewage); construct rental housing; or provide self-help housing (a group of families who want to work together to build their own housing).
Another major program was the Farmworker Housing Rehabilitation and Training Program, an economic stimulus program under Title III of CETA from the Office of National Training Programs in the U.S. Department of Labor. It assisted eligible low-income families who owned their homes to obtain long-term, low-interest loans from the FmHA to fix up their property. There was no labor cost to the families who qualified, since the program also served as a sub-grantee of Rural Housing Alliance/Rural America in the implementation of a Department of Labor initiative which offered manpower training on the rehabilitation of housing. The Federation employed CETA-trained construction workers on at least six rehab housing projects to repair roofs, floors, doors, windows and porches; and create home weatherization to save heat in the winter.
This project has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Humanities Collections and Reference Resources. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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