Letter to Editor: Unity is not just a park

Letter to Editor: Unity is not just a park

Don Oglesby

January 25, 2023

A few years back I wrote an article intended to dispel some myths about affordable housing. It seemed to be well received and many new voices joined the conversation. Much has happened since then.

Now that Unity Park is open, two sides of a story have become prevalent. One side of the story focuses on the park as a great quality of life amenity for Greenville citizens — and it is. The other side of the story focuses on the gentrification it accelerated and the continued inequities that have always been present, whether the park was built or not, but now are getting worse.

But now that the park is here, and the conversation is raging, my focus is on what’s next. What needs to change now. And what change is needed to actually bring some solutions.

At Homes of Hope, we talk all the time about generational change. Change to the point of no return. Change that affects children and grandchildren and ways of life in perpetuity.

I’m often quoted saying this: “At Homes of Hope, handing the family the key to their new home is not the end of the story; it’s the beginning of it.”

Affordable housing is a foundational beginning, not an end. We read article after article about how many “units” of housing are needed and how many dollars need to be invested, and they are not wrong. But more talk, and of course action, needs to be had around the question, “What’s after that?”

Until more emphasis and investment is put on economic mobility for households that are in need of, and living in, affordable housing, in addition to this critical foundation, we are not finishing the job. “Units” don’t change lives solely by themselves; “units” change demographics. Relationships and investment and united efforts can lead to changed lives.

If Unity Park was worth $70 million to produce, how much worth can we assign to the lives of people who work in our community, especially those whose incomes fall short in affording this great quality of life we talk about?

Yes, we need more investment in producing more units, but please remember these things that are critical to not miss:

  • Units are not people
  • Units target certain income ranges, but unfortunately for the lowest income households that range is usually not theirs
  • Units, while critical, are not the sole answer

So we ask, “What’s next?” Hard work toward economic mobility opportunity is a good place to start. But not just on the part of organizations like mine, or by the city or county governments, or churches. Hard work is also required from the families living in additional “units.”

And from our experience, hard work has always been something those families have been willing to do. But barriers that they can’t remove themselves must be removed. And resources they can’t access themselves need to be made more accessible. And opportunities for real economic mobility must be provided by those who can.

Just between Homes of Hope and Habitat for Humanity there have been well over 1,000 “units” of housing developed in past years. But countless are the lives changed, because both organizations focus on the people over the “units.”

We should continue to invest, but at a level that truly represents the worth of the people. We should support a bond issuance that could finance more affordable housing, or dedicated tax revenues, or budget commitments from both city and county operating budgets.

But we must also support efforts focused on economic mobility. This is critical.

Greenville is known in many circles as great. We can be great in this too (both city and county). Great for everyone. We must be. If we don’t muster up this greatness, we will all regret it soon.

We must be in unity about this. But unity is not a park. If Unity Park teaches us anything, it should teach us that unity is a thing to be pursued by the community, not just a place for it to attend.

– Don Oglesby
President/CEO, HDFP, EDFP
Homes of Hope Inc.