For hundreds of poor families displaced by an Atlanta Housing Authority obsessed with tearing down their homes, a move to Decatur has become the answer.
In Decatur and surrounding DeKalb County, neighborhoods are often safer, schools better and affordable housing more plentiful. So when the AHA decides to demolish dilapidated public housing, rebuild it as a "mixed-income" community and relocate the people who once lived there -- as it has done at eight projects and to 3,300 families -- word spreads among tenants that Decatur will pick up Atlanta's leftovers.
"It's not a move that we're choosing," says Sandra Sellers, a tenant who has to vacate Atlanta's soon-to-be-rebuilt Capitol Homes and who has picked out a discounted rental in Decatur. "But as far as being able to choose where you want to go, that's good."
Good for the families, who seek a promise for housing that the AHA is unwilling to uphold. Good for the AHA, which has made it a priority to serve middle-class tenants by inviting them into revitalized communities. But is it good for Decatur and DeKalb County, which must drain tax-funded resources to house an inordinate number of poor families that Atlanta is too preoccupied to deal with?
"We get an awful lot from Atlanta, recently from the Capitol Homes relocation," says Paul Pierce, executive director of the Decatur-DeKalb Housing Authority. "They come in waves when [the AHA] starts to relocate people."
The Sellerses, like most of the thousands of AHA families displaced before them, received a voucher for reduced rent from the AHA after the agency announced its decision to rebuild their housing complex. The voucher can be used to rent any apartment or home, so long as the landlord is willing. That's part of the allure of the federal voucher system. The public housing tenant pays no more than 30 percent of his or her income toward rent, and the government picks up the difference.
But the problem, at least in the Atlanta metro area, is that the AHA is rebuilding a third of its housing stock as mixed-income and is handing out more vouchers than usual. The voucher holders aren't necessarily staying in Atlanta. And once they move to another jurisdiction, the neighboring housing authority that was supposed to be a brief host often winds up serving the needy families for good.
Currently, 714 AHA voucher holders live in rentals in Decatur or unincorporated DeKalb County, according to statistics from the AHA. Those AHA refugees are a sizable addition to the Decatur-DeKalb authority's own 4,000 voucher holders. About 10 AHA voucher holders come to the Decatur-DeKalb authority for assistance each week, according to Carmen Harris, who handles voucher applications.
Because the Decatur agency is far smaller than the Atlanta one, with four public housing complexes to Atlanta's 42 and 5,200 total clients versus Atlanta's 45,000, it has far fewer employees. But those employees, because of the influx of Atlanta's clients, are seeing their workloads increase each week, according to Harris. "This place is understaffed," she says.
Sellers, her husband Raymond and their two children are stuck in the bottleneck of AHA clients eager to move to Decatur. The AHA sent them a letter earlier this year stating they had to be out of Capitol Homes by May 6. Raymond Sellers says he found a three-bedroom rental in south Decatur, with a landlord willing to rent to them. He says he sent his application to the Decatur-DeKalb authority, and that the authority accepted it. That was weeks ago.
The final step is for Decatur inspectors to approve the property, and for the authority to send letters to both the landlord and the Sellerses giving the go-ahead for them to move.
In anticipation of the May 6 move, Sellers returned the living room furniture he had rented. The family's tiny living room was left empty, with nowhere to sit but three metal chairs, nothing left to look at but stained linoleum, the exposed ribs of a radiator and an oversized television. Plastic crates of clothes were stacked five feet high.
As of Monday, a week after they were supposed to vacate Capitol Homes, the Sellers family was still there -- in the dark about whether they would have a place to go. Raymond Sellers blames the build-up of Atlantans at the Decatur-DeKalb authority. (Because of confidentiality issues, the authority cannot comment on individual cases, such as the Sellers family's delay.)
"We're trying to take action," Raymond Sellers says. "We're trying to find out what to do. We're sitting here day to day, and nobody is giving us an answer."
Sellers says his prospective landlord has been considerate in waiting for the inter-authority paperwork to get sorted out. The landlord could decide to rent the house to someone else, someone who doesn't have all the strings that are attached to a public housing voucher.
Meanwhile, Sellers had to pay $275 to the AHA for May's rent -- even though his move has been botched and postponed.
The Sellers family is one of four left living in their building inside Capitol Homes. Most of the building's windows are patched over with sheets of plywood. About a half-dozen families in the other buildings are trickling out each week. Few remain. Later this year, the AHA plans for all the people to be out -- and all the buildings knocked down.
On the Capitol Homes site, a block away from the gold dome of the state Capitol, the AHA plans to erect "Capitol Gateway," a mixed-use development with 650 apartments for middle-class families paying full rent and 350 for public housing families, as well as 45,000 square feet in office and retail space. AHA Executive Director Renee Glover has said she expects private investments in the public-private partnership to top $140 million.
Capitol Gateway mirrors eight mixed-income communities before it. So far, those that have been rebuilt have brought to the surface the same empty promises. Due to the fact that the AHA builds less than half as many public housing units than it tore down -- as well as the authority's decision to enforce ridiculously strict criteria for re-entry -- only 10 percent of original residents have returned to two mixed-income communities for which statistics are available. ("Locked Out," a cover story detailing the AHA's exclusion of needy families from its new communities, appeared in last week's Creative Loafing).
In theory, the vouchers handed to the approximate 700 families to be ousted from Capitol Homes are supposed to be used temporarily. The AHA has promised all displaced families that no matter where they cash in their vouchers in the short term, there will be room for them to return to the rebuilt community once it's finished.
If the past is any indication, there won't be. And Decatur and DeKalb County will inherit -- and have to live with -- many of the problems passed on by the Atlanta Housing Authority.
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