Renee Glover has long been a star in the national firmament of public-sector agencies. As CEO of the Atlanta Housing Authority for the past 16 years, she has led the organization to achieve a series of milestones: the nation's first public housing authority to build units under the federal HOPE VI program, the first to privatize on-site property management and, within the past year, the first to demolish all its old housing projects to make way for mixed-income communities.
But recent changes to the membership of the AHA's Board of Commissioners suggest that Glover will not enjoy as much autonomy as she historically has. Although Glover had a warm, mutually supportive relationship with former Mayor Shirley Franklin, there are few visible signs that she is close to Mayor Kasim Reed, who holds the power to appoint the agency's governing board.
Last month, when Reed named three new commissioners to the seven-seat AHA board to replace members whose terms had ended, the event passed with little note. Except, that is, by local political observers, who realized that, with his next appointment — which likely will come this week — the new mayor will have hand-picked a majority of a board that has the power to determine agency policy, as well as hire and fire its CEO.
"There has been some speculation about what this might mean for Renee Glover," says one veteran political operative, who asked to remain anonymous.
When Glover took the helm of the Atlanta Housing Authority in September 1994, the city was home to 43 public housing developments, from elderly high-rises to sprawling projects with hundreds of families — including the nation's oldest, Techwood Homes, built in 1936.
In the early '90s, the system contained more than 14,300 free or rent-subsidized units, largely concentrated in such pockets of hopelessness and poverty as the remote Perry Homes and the notorious East Lake Meadows, whose violent crime rate earned it the nickname "Little Vietnam."
Almost as soon as Glover became the authority's CEO, the old public housing started to come down. Techwood was torn down in favor of college dorms and the townhouses of Centennial Place. East Lake Meadows was replaced by the privately developed Villages of East Lake. Carver Homes, just north of Lakewood Amphitheatre, made way for apartment complexes hugging a grassy hillside. Even part of the site of the blighted Perry Homes was reborn as West Highlands, a thriving subdivision of handsome single-family homes.
In June 2009, one of the last of the large housing projects, Bowen Homes — famously name-checked by rappers from OutKast to Shawty Lo to T.I. — was demolished. Like other former AHA tenants, most of the departing Bowen Homes residents were given vouchers under the federal Section 8 program and sent out to rent privately owned apartments and houses. Some were encouraged to apply under the HOPE VI program to move into the mixed-income housing that would eventually replace their old homes.
As the decaying projects vanished one by one, Glover's reputation as a reformer soared. The "Atlanta model" has been hailed in articles and studies as the future of public housing, a means of transforming both distressed neighborhoods and marginal lives. Last year, she was named Urban Innovator of 2009 by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.
"There's not a city in the country that doesn't look to Atlanta as a model for how to deliver affordable housing more effectively and in a more innovative way," says AHA spokesman Rick White.
Aaron Watson, who left his seat on the AHA's board of commissioners last year to join the Atlanta City Council, has nothing but praise for Glover. "She's taken us from being one of the most troubled housing authorities in America to being one of the most revered, so she's done a good job," he says.
Yet at the same time she was being celebrated in some circles as a national leader, Glover's somewhat imperious approach also has drawn spirited criticism.
Elected officials in Clayton and other suburban counties have complained that Atlanta effectively sent its poorest residents packing, knowing they couldn't afford to stay inside the city. Citing the Housing Authority's meager efforts to track where its former tenants ended up, progressive activists have accused Glover of pulling the safety net out from under the city's most vulnerable citizens in favor of urban renewal — a noble cause, perhaps, but an arguably odd goal for an agency with a stated mission to "develop, acquire, lease and operate affordable housing for low-income families."
Glover, however, has managed to remain above the fray, largely ignoring critics and even using a private "media management" firm as a fire wall between her office and press inquiries — including for this article.
In a 2006 interview with CL — one in which she would only respond by e-mail to written questions — she touted her organization's achievements: "Families have benefited from the opportunity to live in a safer, healthier environment and to break the cycle of poverty. Neighborhoods have benefited from lower crime, elimination of blight, and the restoration of thriving communities that attract new investment."
But while Glover continues to reap acclaim on the national scene, her position at home has suddenly become more politically tenuous with the emerging new board majority. The new appointees include businessman Dan Halpern, who served as chairman of Reed's mayoral campaign; Turner executive Yvonne Yancy; and Section 8 recipient Wayne Jones, a tenant representative. Watson's departure as AHA commissioner has cleared the way for Reed to appoint a fourth new board member, which he is scheduled to do before the board's next meeting on Sept. 21.
Although Reed declined to comment on his plans regarding Glover, a well-placed source within the administration says the mayor is less than pleased that Glover recently — and quietly — signed a new five-year, $1.2 million contract that was approved by a board half composed of members who were awaiting replacement. The action is especially high-handed, the source says, considering that Reed had publicly promised no senior city official would be offered an employment contract. On Monday, for instance, he named a new airport manager, Louis Miller, who will take the reins of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport without a contract.
Although Glover has always enjoyed an employment contract as Housing Authority CEO, earlier contracts were for three years. The shift to a five-year term places her beyond the reach of the current mayor, who serves a four-year term.
White, the private-sector spokesman for the AHA, says there is no connection between the mayor's aversion to contracted employees and Glover's contract because "the AHA is not a city entity; its charter comes from the state and the federal government. There's no correlation between the mayor's term and the CEO's contract."
Within the past few months, Glover also has inked large, multiyear contracts with a private consultant and several local law firms. While she isn't required to alert city officials before embarking on such agreements, Glover no longer enjoys a visibly cozy relationship with a mayor who appoints her governing board.
Says one administration source: "There has been no coordination between the Housing Authority and City Hall."
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