The 22 acres of the overgrown, vacant property fronting Millwood Avenue and Forest Drive near downtown Columbia exist in stark contrast to the once bustling and densely populated community of Gonzales Gardens, located on the property for more than 70 years. The property’s former life is being replaced by a new community of townhomes, apartments, and single-family homes now under construction.
Demolished in 2016 to make way for a mixed-used planned community, Gonzales Gardens was developed and built between 1938 and 1940. It was named in honor of the prominent Gonzales brothers who were the founders in 1891 of The State newspaper. Ambrose and William Gonzalez, sons of a Cuban immigrant, were outspoken supporters in their newspaper of the housing reform movement of that era, which sprung from overcrowding and deplorable conditions for city dwellers.
Gonzales Gardens was one of two public housing projects run by the Columbia Housing Authority. The Columbia City Council created the Columbia Housing Authority in 1934 to provide safe, affordable housing for low-income families. It was the first housing authority in South Carolina and the third in the country. Commissioners of the housing authority are appointed by Columbia City Council, and the authority is governed by the commission.
The Columbia Housing Authority is arguably the single largest provider of affordable housing in the Midlands. “We have about 1,800 public housing units, which are units we own, and we receive operating subsidies from HUD to supplement the rent paid by tenants. And then we have more than 3,000 Housing Choice Vouchers that assist tenants in the private rental market,” says Julia Prater, deputy for affordable housing and Hope VI coordinator for the Columba Housing Authority. Hope VI is a program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that provides grants to revitalize decaying public housing.
Both Allen Benedict Court and Gonzalez Gardens complexes were built with funding from the U.S. Housing Authority. Gonzales Gardens initially included 236 apartments. The first 24 buildings went up in 1940, and another six buildings with 44 units were added in 1942.
Gonzales Gardens originally was planned as housing for residents with annual incomes between $500 and $900. The first residents moved in on Sept. 16, 1940, and it was completely full in two weeks. Monthly rent for the units ranged from $7.65 to $16.75, including electricity, gas, and water. Initially, families of non-commissioned officers at Fort Jackson had access to 100 of the new apartments, and the remainder housed civilian families in the low-income bracket.
Two historically black colleges anchor this neighborhood, which is often considered one of Columbia’s first suburbs. After desegregation, however, this area began to fall on hard times. Crime and unemployment in the 1960s and ᾿70s left the area struggling financially, which led deteriorating conditions in this Columbia community. By the late 1990s and into 2000s, the neighborhood was the site of regular gang activity — so much so, in fact, that the History Channel documentary series Gangland (2007 - 2010) spotlighted violent gangs living and operating in and around Gonzales Gardens.
Just as the original Gonzales Gardens met the housing needs of the times when it was first built, the new development, which will keep the same name, will do the same for today’s housing market. Bob Coble, mayor of Columbia from 1990 to 2010, recalls the sentiments of Congressman Jim Clyburn when they attended the demolition of the residences in Saxon Homes that were built in the 1940s. The congressman observed that those homes were exactly what was needed then, and they served their purpose. “But today we need something new,” Bob says.
Today, the Gonzales Gardens redevelopment project is following two other successful neighborhood redevelopment projects spearheaded by the Columbia Housing Authority in recent years: Rosewood Hills on Rosewood Drive and Celia Saxon off Harden Street. All include mixed-use housing so that the homes with residents who receive rent subsidies are indistinguishable from the homes owned by the residents.
One goal of this type of development is to help eliminate the stigma of public housing as a place to warehouse together the area’s poor. “With this newer development concept, when you ride through the neighborhood, you can’t tell who has an affordable rent and who pays market rent or who is a homeowner,” says Julia. “Like the rest of the world, it’s a mix of economic levels.”
Both Rosewood Hills and Celia Saxon were redeveloped with an infusion of federal grant dollars. The grants allow projects like this to better leverage private financing, making them more attractive to private developers. “Federal grants were about 30 to 35 percent of financing, but that was enough of an influx of free money to keep overall cost of development affordable,” Julia says. “Federal dollars help leverage private money.”
Partnering with the housing authority to make the project a reality are Columbia-based Mungo Construction and Ray Nix, co-founder and chief executive of UrbanMatters Development Partners in Washington, D.C., who specializes in the development of affordable housing communities.
Ward Mungo, vice-president of Mungo Construction, says that Mungo Construction, a general contractor, is an entirely separate company from the homebuilding enterprise founded by his family that was later acquired by Clayton in 2018. Focusing on general contracting and affordable housing, Mungo Construction began a relationship with the Columbia Housing Authority in 2002 in redeveloping TS Martin, a federally supported housing project off Two Notch Road, into affordable housing. That project later led the company to work with the Celia Saxon and Rosewood Hill developments.
Having been involved with similar projects in Columbia and North Charleston, Ray focuses on making sure the project can best leverage the federal funds needed to keep costs, and ultimately rents, low. “The part I’m responsible for is co-project management, master plan coordination, a creative financial approach, and public-private financing,” Ray says. Because the project will provide affordable housing, it will be able to secure favorable rates from federal financing. “The project will also seek FHA financing, state funding for tax credits and tax-exempt bonds, and local dollars, and the housing authority will provide some loans.” The development will be owned by Columbia Housing Authority Developments, Inc.
“Government funded work has allowed Mungo to expand as a general contractor,” Ward says. “From there the relationship with the Columbia Housing Authority blossomed, and we found ourselves in partnership with Ray Nix when he was working with another company for a single-family Hope VI project in North Charleston.”
Financing is not the only complexity in this public-private partnership to redevelop Gonzales Gardens. The colorful one and two-story single-family homes under construction on the McDuffie Street side of the property represent years’ worth of planning. “It means getting residents moved out, studies, planning … many steps we’ve gone through to get us to this point,” says Ward. “Most people assume the homes going up are the beginning. What they don’t realize is it has taken four years of work to get us where we are today.”
When the project is finished in 2021, Ward says it will include 269 residences that will house more than 400 people. This will include 16 senior-living quadplexes housed in four buildings, plus 53 senior garden apartments in a building on the property closest to Forest Drive across from Providence Hospital. The development will include 26 two-bedroom townhomes, 23 three-bedroom townhomes, 78 two-bedroom walk-up apartments, and 48 three-bedroom walk-ups. Eighteen three-bedroom, market-rate townhomes with garages and eight single-family homes round out the properties. These townhomes will be owner-occupied.
Residents who were displaced in preparation for the demolition will be given a choice to move back to Gonzales Gardens. “The families who were living in Gonzales Gardens were relocated with assistance to either other housing within our portfolio or to private rental units, assisted with a Housing Choice Voucher,” Julia says. “In our experience with Celia Saxon and Rosewood Hills, the redevelopment takes so long, most folks have gotten settled and happy in their new locations and have no interest in returning.”
People interested in moving into the new residences will either work through the Columbia Housing Authority or a management company. “The whole project is managed by a professional management company, but most residents will come through the Columbia Housing Authority,” Ward says. The townhomes that will sell at the market rate work a little differently. “For market rate, the management company will have more discretion.”
Employees at Providence Hospital are part of the potential market, including everyone from young professionals to minimum wage workers. “When we were doing initial planning, Providence participated in a survey of employees,” says Julia, noting a very positive response was received from all levels of employees. “To be able to walk to work, they said, ‘Oh, yes.’”
The development also calls for special amenities for senior citizens, Ward says. “The building will feature a community center on the first floor to house exercise equipment, a computer lab, leasing office, and a small gathering area.”
While the plan includes all new construction, a little piece remains from the original site. The only building left standing after the demolition is the community center. “We decided to keep and restore that building to its original architecture and design,” says Julia. “We will have a historical marker approved by the state and exhibits featuring oral histories from people who lived there.”
Flowers planted and tended by past residents remain visible in the grassy overgrowth of the currently empty site. The maintenance crews carefully mow around them as the new construction begins to emerge. Anticipated in the near future are new families that will move in and have their own yards and flowers that they will tend and enjoy!