The accusations flew like daggers.
The occasion: the March meeting of the Central Citizens Advisory Council inside the John "Top" Greene Community Center. The target: a middle-aged white woman with an up-North accent named Jeanne Tedrow, CEO of the nonprofit Passage Home—and more specifically, her organization's plans for South Park, a historic Southeast Raleigh neighborhood. The nonprofit has been active here for years, and since last summer, has been headquartered in the area's Raleigh Community and Safety Club.
"I don't feel welcome there," said one CAC member. A two-toned, two-story painted-cinderblock building on Branch Street, the Safety Club has also served as a neighborhood community center. "The atmosphere is not like it used to be. People are there, being brought in, that do not live in the neighborhood."
A second person piled on, echoing the sentiments of eight South Park residents, all African-American, who spoke to the INDY for this story: "You got a grant that was supposed to help all of us. You came in under that pretense."
Tedrow's responses were vague and defensive—and barely uttered before the next barrage came her way.
That evening, Tedrow was proposing using a city grant to open a community café in the Safety Club. She pitched it as a yearlong job-training program, in which a hired chef would teach residents of the mostly black, mostly poor neighborhood how to cook. Participants would get a monthly stipend of $500 and then, with luck, a real job somewhere. Eventually, she envisioned people from the neighborhood coming in to buy a meal at a nominal cost.
To Tedrow, that last part is very important. "The dignity of being able to purchase your own meal as opposed to coming in and getting a free meal is a step in the right direction," she told the INDY.
CAC members weren't buying it.
"You came to us for support for the use of city funds for something you want to do in a building that belonged to the residents of this community," Central CAC chair Lonnette Williams, a longtime South Park resident, told Tedrow. "You need to tell us what's actually occurring in that building."
That building, a once-decrepit structure that Passage Home purchased and began rehabbing in 2006, is at the core of the conflict between the venerable nonprofit and members of the CAC, some South Park residents and even former members of the Community and Safety Club.
But that conflict is about much more than a building—in a sense, it's bigger than Passage Home, too. As Raleigh grows, its downtown expands and affordable housing becomes more difficult to come by, the city is leaning on nonprofit and for-profit companies alike to step in where the city has thus far failed: revitalizing long-impoverished and overlooked communities. Those companies' presence is changing the dynamics of neighborhoods where longtime residents want more control over their evolution. They view entities like Passage Home as rootless, paternalistic interlopers, lacking in understanding of the neighborhoods' histories. Perceived as outsiders, they're distrusted and often unwelcome.
"All these scammers come in here, it's not just Passage Home," says Geraldine Alshamy, a South Park resident and former Passage Home employee. "They pay themselves exorbitant salaries, take advantage of the nonprofit status and do the people they're supposed to be serving such a disservice. They do the community a disservice."
This sort of enmity isn't normal for Passage Home.
Founded in 1991, Passage Home is roundly lauded, by Raleigh leaders, the media and the people it serves, for its work providing affordable housing to the very poor. It owns 125 apartment units all over the city: In the northeast, formerly homeless men live at Matthew House while they seek permanent housing. Creech Road House in South Raleigh is open to women leaving prison or who are otherwise struggling because of their criminal records. In South Park, Jobs Journey, Coleman Street and Brown Birch apartments all house low-income individuals and families, to whom Passage Home offers job training and after-school programs—as well as free meals—out of the Safety Club.
The nonprofit has garnered robust support from the city, which has awarded Passage Home more than $2.1 million in federal Community Development Block Grant and Emergency Solutions Grant funds, as well as local money, since 2008. (Two city councilmembers sit on Passage Home's board of directors.) Of that, Passage Home received $1.2 million—plus a low-interest loan—to build the 18-unit Coleman Street apartments as part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Neighborhood Stabilization Program. Wake County kicked in a $400,000 low-interest loan for that project, too.
Passage Home expects to net nearly $3.7 million in 2015, mainly from HUD and other grants, as well as individual, corporate and church donations and rent revenue.
But for all the love Passage Home gets, Williams, the CAC chairperson, insists that Tedrow has not cooperated with South Park residents or been transparent about her use of government funds. And she's not the only one.
Passage Home's critics allege that the nonprofit's affordable housing projects attract undesirables who wouldn't be in the neighborhood otherwise. They say Passage Home' s free meals bring in people from all over Raleigh, who then hang around and trash the neighborhood. And they say that Passage Home acquired the Safety Club duplicitously, reneging on a promise to turn the property back over to the residents to use as they wished once the nonprofit had restored it.
However, a more fundamental difference between Tedrow and the South Park residents can't be ignored: What does it mean for a white woman who doesn't live in the majority-black neighborhood to come in, buy property and try to help out?
Williams, who is black, spells it out bluntly.
"She just needs to stop asserting herself like we're a bunch of ignorant plantation folks waiting on her to come and lead us to the well," she says. "There has been leadership in this neighborhood since before she was born. It's disrespectful that all of a sudden, she's the Great White Hope that descended upon South Park to save us from our ignorant selves."
On a rainy Friday afternoon, amid the cleanup clang of pots and pans following a midday meal, a group of eight people sit around a plastic picnic table in the Raleigh Community and Safety Club's spacious common room area. With a few small windows, the room is warm and dimly lit. There's a little wooden stage in front and a full kitchen area off to the side.
All of these people are connected with Passage Home. Some are clients who've participated in the job-skills training program or have kids enrolled in the nonprofit's after-school program. Some are surviving members of the Raleigh Community and Safety Club who paid dues and used the building from the 1940s onward, until Passage Home took it over. And some, like Chris Kearney, work for Passage Home.
Kearney, 24, was first hired when he was 18, living in South Park and on house arrest for larceny. He maintains Passage Home's properties and is attending Wake Tech to learn to be an electrician. He's also raising a 2-year-old son.
"[Passage Home] gave me a chance to prove myself," he says. "They got me an apartment. A couple of months ago when I was having financial problems, they paid for my school."
Kearney served three months in prison in 2012 and '13 on the larceny rap. When he got out, he says, "Ms. Jeanne gave me my job back. It kind of saved me, so I didn't have to be out there selling drugs. Now I'm back in school, I've got two apartments, I've got a car, I've got a lot more to come."
Upstairs are Passage Home's administrative offices and a computer lab. There, the nonprofit administers BOOST, a three-week job-skills program geared toward helping the unemployed develop skills like preparing a résumé, learning to use a computer and learning interview techniques.
Outside—behind the Safety Club's heavy wooden door (always locked, for security) and around the corner, behind the building—sits brightly colored playground equipment and a community garden. South Park resident Lester Clay teaches kids how to grow vegetables there.
Passage Home has a staff of about 30, and of the $3.7 million it expects to bring in this year, $1.9 million of that will go to pay them. (Tedrow makes about $89,000 a year, less than the CEOs of other affordable housing organizations in Raleigh, including CASA and the Downtown Housing Improvement Corporation.) But the nonprofit has other significant expenses, too. For starters, Tedrow says she is still paying off the $800,000 in loans she took out to restore the Safety Club.
Tedrow is dismissive of her critics; her organization, she contends, has been a force for good in South Park.
"We have been the blessing in this neighborhood, because people don't come over here," Tedrow says. "We don't have to go looking for people who are struggling to bring them into the neighborhood, because the people living in this neighborhood are struggling. And we happen to notice that."
South Park is the city's largest historically African-American district—one of the nation's oldest—a collection of neighborhoods established during Reconstruction and developed well into the 20th century. African-Americans were drawn to the area by the Shaw Collegiate Institute (now Shaw University) and Second Baptist Church (now Tupper Memorial), where they could receive an education.
Under segregation, South Park thrived as a residential area for middle- and professional-class blacks. Manassas Pope and Calvin Lightner ran historic, though unsuccessful bids for City Council in 1919. They were both from South Park. So was Clarence Lightner, Calvin's son and, in 1973, Raleigh's first popularly elected African-American mayor. And so was John P. "Top" Greene, an activist with deep ties to the Central CAC who devoted his life to the preservation and development of his neighborhood.
The Raleigh Community and Safety Club was founded in 1945. Two prominent community groups, the Community Club (a women's group) and the Safety Club (for men) merged, and members of both used the Safety Club building to host events and church services, gather for meals, and raise money for when someone died or got sick.
Over time, the neighborhood deteriorated, mirroring the decline that haunted inner-city neighborhoods across the country during the latter half of the 20th century. Poverty took hold, and South Park today is a jumble of lingering homeowners with well-maintained properties, boarded-up single family houses and apartments in total disrepair, and high-density affordable housing projects.
Passage Home started buying up housing units there in the '90s and renting them to low-income people. Tedrow says Passage Home housed 538 people from downtown and East Raleigh last year using money from two grants; both programs approached 80 percent success rates, she says, with success defined as people staying in stable housing, finding a job or getting a raise.
The nonprofit has also received HUD funds to assist ex-offenders, the formerly homeless and unemployed people—and not everyone's happy about that.
"Passage Home is attracting criminals into our neighborhood, and they walk the street all during the day," says Williams. "[Tedrow] has changed the whole population over here. She's creating a subculture and a revenue stream for her properties, but these are not the kind of people you expect to find in anybody's neighborhood."
But it's Tedrow's acquisition and use of the Safety Club that has most riled the community.
Some residents who were—or whose parents were—dues-paying Community and Safety Club members say that Tedrow promised them when she bought the building that it would remain a community center for the neighborhood to use. That didn't turn out to be the case, they say.
"I am a little concerned that members of the community cannot use the kitchen or the facilities, because that was the original intent of the foundation of the building," Phebey Helen Jones, a Community Club member, said at the CAC meeting.
J.N. Sorrell, a Safety Club member, added that Tedrow led residents to believe that she would turn the building back over to them after she restored it.
"I felt I was promising that we would continue the legacy and spirit of the community care that the Safety Club Community Center had begun," Tedrow counters. "As long as members wanted to meet here, they could. There are people who are not members of the club who may not feel they have the same privileges, but it was the Community and Safety Club members we created that agreement with, not everybody in the neighborhood."
Another bone of contention: people come for the free meals—and don't leave.
"When [Passage Home] has these feeding programs and people come here from wherever, they throw cigarette butts and paper all over the neighborhood," says South Park resident Robert Sanders. "They walk through here eating and throw their trash down."
"We're not providing a soup kitchen," Tedrow says. "We know there are people who are very economically challenged in this neighborhood, so if we can create a venue for people to have a nice meal at no cost, that's a nice thing to do."
The CAC unanimously rejected Passage Home's proposal, and city staff recommended against sending Passage Home's grant application to the City Council. (The city is also investigating whether Passage Home's offices and full-service kitchen, housed in a residential neighborhood, comply with city code.) Tedrow's plans for a community café are on hold.
The CAC controversy sparked a city inquiry into proper decorum at CAC meetings after Tedrow sent an email to Passage Home board member John Odom, who also sits on the City Council, complaining about her treatment before the CAC.
Odom says the issues raised at that meeting hadn't been brought to the City Council's attention before, though he defends Passage Home's record and argues that Tedrow was treated rudely.
Fellow City Councilman and Passage Home board member Eugene Weeks, whose district encompasses the Safety Club, has also rallied to Tedrow's banner.
"They are doing a lot of good," he says. "They give a lot back to the community. The staff from Passage Home is very passionate about that, and I am a witness to it."
Tedrow says Passage Home plans to stay in South Park—and in the Safety Club building—for the long run.
"We wanted to meet our program participants where they are," she says.
It's also likely that Passage Home, along with many other Raleigh developers, will angle for some stake in the land where the Carolina Trailways building once stood. (The historic building was demolished in March, after ownership negotiations between Greyhound and Passage Home, which was partnering with a restoration business, fell through.)
That won't be welcome news to the nonprofit's critics.
"If [Passage Home] had been successful, it would have worked itself out of a job over here," says Williams. "You would weed out the problems, you would see good things happen. And then people don't need you anymore."
- Passage Home was incorporated in 1991. Since 2008, it has received more than $2.1 million from the city of Raleigh.
- Its CEO, Jeanne Tedrow, earns $89,256 a year. Passage Home has a staff of 30. Nearly $2 million of its $3.7 million in revenue goes to payroll.
- County records show that Passage Home paid $17,000 for the Safety Club building in 2002. Tedrow says she spent $800,000 to purchase and rehab the structure, and she’s still paying off the loans. In 2005, the late state senator Vernon Malone introduced a bill allocating $50,000 to Passage Home to help with the Safety Club renovations.
- In 2014, Passage Home served 538 people, primarily from two low-income zip codes in downtown and East Raleigh. In one, 27601, the median household income is just $23,554, less than half of the citywide median.