Envision Comanche: Reimagining Public Housing in North Tulsa

by Staff Writer Raynell Joseph

In 2017, Aaron Darden joined the Tulsa Housing Authority (THA) as their new CEO. After the change in leadership, the organization asked themselves this question: “How do we make sure we’re doing the best for our families?” The organization came to the conclusion that the current state of public housing in Tulsa was not at its best. THA begin to pull from a model similar to the work Darden had been apart of in Nashville, where the goal was to deconcentrate poverty. Similar to the Nashville approach, THA has opted to use Rental Assistance Demonstration  (RAD) to create mixed-income communities. Along with redeveloping the aging sites around the city, RAD will allow THA to own its own properties and stabilize its funding. Comanche Park, one of nine North Tulsa THA sites, is first in line to be redeveloped. 

According to THA’s website, the purpose of the Envision Comanche project is to transform the identified portion of the 36th Street North corridor into a mixed-use, mixed-income community while ensuring a strict one-on-one replacement of all existing apartments with an end goal of highlighting, enhancing, and improving economic and cultural diversity of that area of Tulsa. The project will include 10,000 square feet of commercial space as well.  

When it comes to deconcentrating poverty, one of the main criticisms has been the ability for residents to build social capital in order to keep up with the potentially higher housing costs, deconstruction of existing communities, and the potential elimination of social safety nets. Similar to the Unity Heritage plan, when it comes to development in North Tulsa, community members are often left out of the important conversations that shape plans such as these. 

The project, which kicked off in late 2018, seeks to use a community-driven planning approach. THA has engaged the community through a professional planning committee comprised of Comanche residents, community members, and  other stakeholders. Terry McGee, North Tulsa developer and owner of McGee Enterprise, participated in a few of those meetings. He believes the project makes sense and is happening during a perfect time for redevelopment in North Tulsa. “With the Kaiser and Muncie projects taking place across the street, Tulsa Technology in the area, and the new Rapid Transportation System on Peoria, this is an ideal location.” He would like to see Comanche residents get priority over others in opening up businesses in the commercial spaces. He would also like to see THA define what affordable housing will look like when it meets the intersection of mixed income. “Is there a threshold for affordable housing to be in mixed-income residential areas? Or is it just talk and there’s no real definition that says it’s included? What does it mean for someone with a lower income to be able to afford the affordable housing? Does this idea work for renters and owners alike?”

Jeff Hall, THA’s Vice President of Strategic Planning & Intergovernmental Affairs, has been leading the project and engaging with community members around the gaps in healthcare, ideas around redevelopment (with the non-negotiables being maintaining affordability for existing units and mixed income housing). “We also hired five resident advocates to conduct outreach,” stated Hall. Referred to as Community Engagement Assistants, these resident advocates are tasked with going door to door to gather community input. Mix of housing types, multiple entrances in and out of the complex, transportation, lack of food options, lack of daycare and pre-k spaces, lack of parks, and lack of access to workforce training and employment were at the top of residents’ minds. 

With 271 units at Comanche Park being incapable of rehabilitation, THA will conduct new construction while attempting to minimize disruption for residents. Hall shared that the project will not result in any rent increases for current residents and that there will be no new screenings. “We don’t think we will have to move families off-site during construction,” says Hall. He shared that THA plans to keep residents informed of any potential obstacles, but only foresees construction as the biggest inconvenience to residents. 

Sherry Lynn Pressnell, one of the five Community Engagement Assistants (CEA) , has lived in Comanche Park for six years. She feels THA has done a great job of keeping residents engaged and informed. Pressnell visited Dallas with fellow CEAs to observe redevelopment efforts there. Her favorite part of the trip was Boton Farms. “It’s a farmers market that hires residents. I would love to see this in the Comanche Park area.” Her time as a CEA will soon be coming to an end. Pressnell would like to see the position extended throughout the full length of the project. “I would like to be able to tell my kids that I started it and finished it,” says Pressnell. 

The $100 million dollar project is projected to be completed in five years and will require additional state and federal funding. Additional units will be added to bring the total from 271 low-income units to 560 units, which will include workforce and market rate housing. Two blocks will be dedicated to single-family homes with the goal of providing opportunities for homeownership. The project, slated to start in 2021, will be broken up into four phases with one hundred units being constructed during each phase.

Photo courtesy of Tulsa Housing Authority