Rory Doyle is a freelance photographer based in Cleveland, Miss. This photo essay is set in Leflore County (population 28,000), which has one daily newspaper, the Greenwood Commonwealth.
In early August, Gloria Jean Lewis, 61, walked into her completely remodeled home in Greenwood, Miss., with a huge sigh of relief.
She has lived in the house since 1998. But years of decay led to countless issues: a collapsing roof, bad plumbing, sinking floors, no central air conditioning and heating, inadequate wiring. Because she meets the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s standards as a long-term and low-income resident, Lewis qualified for a remodeling grant from the Mississippi Home Corporation’s HOME Investment Partnerships Program, a state-administered initiative that helps finance safe and affordable housing. The remodeling was done by Delta Design Build Workshop (Delta DB), a social impact design-build firm based in Greenwood. “There were so many things I had to get done,” says Lewis. “Without the grant, I know for a fact I wouldn’t have been able to fix everything.”
Support for housing is desperately needed in the economically depressed Mississippi Delta, a historically majority-Black rural region with a shrinking population. According to the Delta Regional Authority, all 18 counties that make up the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area are deemed distressed, with high unemployment rates and a low per capita income.
Delta DB co-founder Emily Roush-Elliott sees the primary housing issue in the Delta as one of systemic injustice, with homes and properties undervalued in Black neighborhoods. “If Ms. Lewis’s home, for example, appraises $40,000 today, but she has invested over $80,000 in it over the time she has owned it, that is clearly not the American Dream,” says Roush-Elliott. (These figures are hypothetical.) “It prompts the very scary question: Is housing a good investment for lower-income Delta residents?” When appraisals dip lower than the cost of construction, she notes, only high-income households are able to finance and build homes.
Lewis felt blessed to find a way out of a system stacked against her. “So many houses are dilapidated here, and some people just end up losing their homes,” she said. “It gets so bad for some folks that they just can’t stay, especially if they live alone and don’t have family members to support them. I know a lot of people who just end up renting because at least the landlords are supposed to fix things that need to be fixed.”
Williams paints a window frame.
Lewis organizes the blinds and other possessions.
LEFT: Williams paints a window frame. RIGHT: Lewis organizes the blinds and other possessions.
Pictures in Lewis’s remodeled living room.
Whitehead and BJ Kinds work outside.
LEFT: Pictures in Lewis’s remodeled living room. RIGHT: Whitehead and BJ Kinds work outside.
Read more from The Lost Local News Issue
Margaret Sullivan: What happens to society — and our democracy — when community and regional journalism dries up