Angela Sheffield's body is dotted with ring-shaped, fungal lesions. So are her two children's. Her neighbors in the Moreland Woods apartment complex, Sahara Callaway and Latoya Withers, each have a child who's suffered a bacterial lung infection. All three of Withers' children also have asthma. In fact, dozens of the residents take the same medication, albuterol, for asthma.
In all, at least 70 families who lived and breathed in Moreland Woods have fallen ill there.
David Bennett, an indoor environmentalist hired by an attorney to take bacterial samples, says toxic mold began to thrive in Moreland Woods sometime after 1997, when the management slapped a stucco facade over 1930s cinderblocks. The renovation trapped excessive moisture in the blocks, practically creating a petri dish for legionalla, E. coli and Stachybotrys chatarum.
In Dimasha Ponder's apartment, black mold stretches from the closet's floor to ceiling. It has crept from the floorboard to the headboard of Ponder's bed. In her children's room, two bunks are pulled askew to expose the spreading fungus.
"Every unit has something close to this magnitude," Bennett says of the 50 he's tested. "I've never seen a complex like Moreland Woods, one that had so much consistency with the [bacteria] concentrations. They're huge."
This is the first property attorney Charlie Peebles has targeted in an Erin Brockovich-style mission to determine if people's homes are making them sick. He has found others. And like the illnesses themselves, the addresses have something in common: They are partly paid for by the feds and, supposedly, inspected by the Atlanta Housing Authority.
"It's clear that [the housing authority] has been aware of this problem for the past two years," Peebles says of the mold growing inside Moreland Woods. "And [they] have only acted on it because of our legal action." After he threatened Moreland Woods owners with a lawsuit, the housing authority started moving families out.
Authority spokesman Rick White says tenants are supposed to complain to landlords first. If the problem doesn't get fixed, the housing authority pressures the landlord to do something about it.
"To the best of my knowledge, that process was followed" in Moreland Woods, he says. "But clearly there was a breakdown. We don't know at this point where the breakdown came."
Moreland Woods is the most dramatic example of the housing authority's lax oversight. But it is no anomaly.
Faced with an ever-shortening supply of affordable homes, Atlanta's poorest families have been forced to find landlords willing to sign a contract with the government. Under what's called the Section 8 program, landlords can take only the rent that the feds are offering. Most landlords aren't crazy about that idea.
But for those who agree to it, a monthly check is essentially guaranteed. So there's hardly any incentive to maintain the properties. And the Atlanta Housing Authority, the agency responsible for keeping landlords in line, has failed to carry out inspections in a way that ensures properties are decent and safe.
White says an upcoming audit of all 10,500 Section 8 rentals will help identify what happened at Moreland Woods and what might be happening throughout the city.
Right now, the only promise is a program that offers no incentives to conscientious landlords, that shuttles the poor into homes often resembling slums, and that fattens the wallets of neglectful landlords.
Congress birthed the Section 8 concept in the 1970s to complement Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1937 Fair Housing Act, which set up the first federal public housing complexes. For nearly 30 years, the program ambled along quietly, obscured from public view save for a few classified ads in which landlords attracted low-income tenants with the phrase, "Section 8 OK."
The concept works like this: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determines a city's "Fair Market Rent" -- basically, the average rent of all houses and apartments in the vicinity. Families with low incomes, usually less than $21,000 for a four-member household, apply for a Section 8 voucher from the local housing authority. Once the family gets a voucher, it finds a property below or slightly above the Fair Market Rent and a landlord willing to accept the voucher. The local housing authority then inspects the property, the tenant moves in and pays up to 40 percent of his or her income, and the authority uses federal tax money to pay the landlord the difference.
The theory is to evenly and unobtrusively spread poor families throughout middle-class neighborhoods.
The Section 8 voucher program grew modestly across the nation in the 1980s and early 1990s. Then it became all the rage. Starting in 1993, housing authorities began winning multimillion-dollar federal grants to tear down dilapidated public housing complexes -- traditional high-rises and barracks-style ghettos -- and replace them with safer and prettier "mixed-income" communities. To make up for the 23,000 units lost nationwide, housing authorities had to ask HUD for more vouchers.
Nationally, there are 1.6 million Section 8 vouchers to 1.3 million public housing units, according to HUD. In Atlanta, vouchers now outnumber traditional public housing units by 1,000.
Renee Glover, who was named the Atlanta Housing Authority's executive director in 1994, orchestrated the transition to a voucher dominant city. She says she took one look at the agency and realized something had to give.
"I was not excited at all about presiding over a failed set of strategies," Glover says. "Families had been institutionalized for generations. Daughters were aspiring to their own public housing units. In very few circumstances were people moving out and getting on with their lives. It was the closest thing to chaos that I have ever seen."
She's done a dazzling job of converting eight old public housing communities into veritable laps of luxury -- although to the possible chagrin of at least 2,300 displaced families who were promised a place in the new communities but never returned. Most of those families were given vouchers. (That mass displacement was the subject of a CL cover story in May).
Glover says she'd like to replace more of Atlanta's 42 public housing complexes with mixed-income communities, which, if based on the six current models, will have YMCAs, magnet schools, computer labs and, perhaps, a golf course or shopping.
The public housing families who don't get a space in the new complexes will get Section 8, Glover says. And by then, she hopes, Section 8 properties won't be clustered in the 20 poorest census tracts of the city's 100, as they are now. By then, Glover wants to see her master plan realized: one where Section 8 renters will reside in sought-after apartments from tony Buckhead and Sandy Springs to trendy Midtown and East Atlanta.
Now, unfortunately, that's not the case. Not in Atlanta, and not anywhere else Section 8 is widely used. Now, Section 8 is something of a mess.
Problems with Section 8 can start before a housing authority client even has a voucher in hand. One problem is how long it takes to get a voucher.
Laura Jones earns a little over $10 per hour at the Georgia Citizen's Coalition on Hunger, where she helps poor families get housed, clothed and fed. "Those poorer than myself," she jokes.
Jones says she doesn't earn enough to pay rent at a place for her and her 5-year-old daughter. She applied for a voucher in August. In April, she got her response.
"I was so excited," she says. "Then I opened it up and saw the number."
The letter states that the authority conducted a "random lottery by computer" to determine in what order the people who pre-applied can come in for an interview.
Jones' letter states, "Based on the number randomly assigned to your pre-application, your position on the waiting list is: 23,407."
In all, according to the letter, 24,168 families are on the list.
"I've been crushed from that," Jones says. "Is it realistic for me to get an interview in the next year? Is it realistic for me to even hope to get interviewed?"
Probably not, according to the letter: "The waiting may be extensive, perhaps, even years. Unfortunately, in the interim, we cannot offer emergency services. Within these constraints, AHA is committed to assisting our families as quickly and professionally as possible."
Part of the reason for the Section 8 bottleneck is the increasing need for affordable housing in Atlanta, where the real estate market is gentrifying faster than you can say "1920s Craftsman bungalow." The Millennial Housing Commission, a think tank appointed by Congress, identifies Atlanta as one of seven cities where even moderate-income families cannot afford newly constructed apartments. The commission's May report points out: "Vouchers alone will not be enough in housing markets where the supply is inadequate."
The commission estimates that even if 250,000 affordable units were built in America each year, it would take "more than 20 years to close the gap" between those who can afford rent and those who can't.
In seven years, the Atlanta Housing Authority was awarded 4,900 vouchers from HUD -- nearly doubling the number of Section 8 properties in the city. But that hasn't exactly closed the gap. There are now more people waiting for vouchers than ever before. Gentrification is partly to blame. So is the mass demolition of traditional public housing.
The housing authority could have seen the predicament coming. Atlanta -- along with Chicago and Boston -- leads the nation's public housing pack in the rush to rebuild public housing complexes as mixed-income. Since demolition began in 1994, Atlanta lost 4,500 public housing apartments.
The vouchers HUD awarded to replace those apartments could only be used to rent other affordable homes (for example, a two-bedroom under $875). Thus they've eaten away at the city's short supply of cheap housing.
As a result of the growth of Section 8, poor families' lives aren't always improved. Instead, families are often left bouncing between two unpleasant options: letting the voucher expire for lack of a decent apartment or taking a chance on the only housing available, the scum of the city's housing crop.
Carla Harpon says her name sat on the Section 8 waiting list for almost two years. When she finally got her voucher late last year, it stated, as all vouchers do, that she had 120 days to find a rental for her and her teenage son. The voucher also capped her rent at $875.
"It was hard for me to find something, because every decent two-bedroom I found was $875 on up," she says. "It really takes more than 120 days. I didn't slack off. At first, I started looking in Atlanta. Every place that I looked at was worse than where I was staying."
Harpon says she was finally able to talk a Cobb County landlord down from the $900 asking price. But when it came time to sign the paperwork, she says, the landlord had gone out of town.
"I told AHA I'd found somewhere and my voucher was about to expire," she says. "They said if you don't have it in by today, it's too late. I asked for an extension. They said I couldn't have one."
Harpon says her voucher expired the following day, and the Cobb landlord rented to someone else. Then, her name was erased from the housing authority's files.
In its most recent annual report to HUD, the housing authority reported that 84 percent of families who received vouchers found a place to use them. That's a bit shy of HUD's 95 percent preference, and the feds have urged the Atlanta Housing Authority to attract more landlords.
That's about HUD's only qualm with the housing authority, though.
HUD barely scrutinizes the condition of Section 8 properties. For example, the housing authority sends HUD the answers to a four-page questionnaire every year, and that's what HUD uses to determine how the Section 8 program is doing. The questionnaire asks if "each newly leased unit passed ... inspection before the beginning date of the ... contract." It also asks if the authority "inspects each unit under contract at least annually." The authority need only check a box: "yes" or "no." The Atlanta authority checked "Yes" for both.
The housing authority was not able to provide CL with copies of inspections conducted at four addresses. Spokesman White cited record-keeping snafus. The experiences of the tenants, however, suggest that inspections are cursory at best.
Kathyren Hall has been renting a three-bedroom house on the westside since January. The house passed the housing authority's muster earlier this year but has since been cited for city code violations. And the city's guidelines are supposedly more lax than the housing authority's.
The peach home with white trim sits neatly besides other seemingly well-kept bungalows. Hall says she found the house a few weeks before her voucher was to expire, and the landlord was willing to rent to her and her two children.
"When I saw it, I said, 'Man, he's going to fix it up and it's going to be great,'" Hall says. "But he never did."
After she moved in, she says she couldn't pour enough lime down the non-working vents in the rambling old home to keep the mice and roaches out. Nor could she patch every hole that opened the house to the crawlspace underneath. Hall's children, Ashley and Brandon, both straight-A students according to their report cards, have to shake their backpacks in a morning ritual to rid them of roaches.
And the housing authority, which pays $850 of the $950 rent, kept the checks coming.
Hall says she pleaded with the housing authority.
"I kept saying this house is not livable," she recalls. "You've got to get me out of here." But she says the housing authority told her moving out would be a breach of contract.
On the surface, the apartment where Felencia Love lived on Troy Street is spotless, down to the metal burner covers on the sparkling white stove. What you can't see are the bacteria.
A renovation job, conducted sometime after the property was condemned by the city in 1993, allows water to rain through both an unsealed back door and kitchen window. From outside the apartment, it's clear that the window was replaced but never finished; around it, there are wide gaps, through which you can reach inside. Love, seven months pregnant, stuffs old sheets in the door to keep the water from coming in, but still the floorboards have buckled. And there's black mold growing behind the kitchen sink, where she can't reach to clean.
There's also a malfunctioning hot water heater that Love says hasn't worked for the whole six months she's lived there; she got used to boiling water to bathe her two children and taking cold showers.
It's an odd contrast to the streamers and white picket fence outside the four-unit building, and it's amazing to think the housing authority inspected the property, passed it and approved the $750 rent.
Unlike Hall, Love was able to get the authority to re-inspect. She says that after the inspection, the inspector told her the apartment should never have passed just a few months before.
Upon second inspection, the authority failed the property and quit paying rent. Love was able to move out last month.
The ticket to improving the city's stock of Section 8 housing lies in attracting the right landlords, and lots of them. The housing authority has taken steps to do so. It's introduced a website where savvy, Section 8-willing landlords can post available rentals. But the website hasn't exactly caught on with landlords in every neighborhood.
CL took an inventory last month of the number of properties listed in various metro zip codes. In 14 zip codes on the westside (from West End to Collier Avenue and Howell Mill Road) and the southside (below Ponce de Leon Avenue), landlords posted 499 properties.
In 23 zip codes in more upscale Midtown, north Decatur and the northside, landlords posted a total 16 properties.
Of course, a voucher holder can choose any property, not just one on the website. But landlords not used to signing on the government's dotted line can be turned off by the paperwork. Why rent to a poor family when you can get a bigger check from wealthier tenant? And why enter the government's black hole of bureaucracy if you don't have to?
Samantha Lawson lives in Capitol Homes, the latest public housing complex slated for demolition. Lawson, who has two children and a part-time job, got a voucher and quickly found a three-bedroom rental house.
The landlord, Kurt Ward, told her he was willing to come down on the price because he believed Lawson would be a good tenant. And she loved his house.
But the authority decided Lawson couldn't live in Ward's rental. Lawson's voucher stated she could only move into a place with rent below $875. Ward was willing to take less than that. Lawson wanted a three-bedroom for herself, her 16-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. Ward's house had three bedrooms.
Yet for reasons the housing authority can't explain, it would only allow Lawson to rent a two-bedroom, period.
Ward describes the way the housing authority handled the month-long ordeal as "very, very unprofessional."
"In the end, it's a travesty really. She's done everything she was supposed to do, staying on top of everybody else," he says of Lawson. "And she's the one who's supposed to be in a difficult situation."
Atlanta, with its gentrification and lengthy waiting list and slipshod inspections, isn't alone in Section 8 woes. Los Angeles is nearing a crisis. Thousands of landlords are canceling contracts in lieu of higher-paying tenants; a mere 41 percent of voucher holders find rentals. In Indianapolis, housing authority inspectors are facing fraud charges after allegedly steering tenants to properties that paid the inspectors. And two chairmen of the Pompano Beach authority face fraud and negligence charges for the authority's inadequate inspections, misuse of funds and poor record keeping.
Ultimately, it is Congress that must ask if Section 8 is inherently flawed. Can individual housing authorities possibly keep up with thousands of private market landlords? Is it feasible to conduct enough inspections to ensure not just aesthetics but safety? Is Section 8 doomed to the domain of landlords in depressed neighborhoods with properties so downtrodden no one else will rent them?
In the end, is the program merely lining the pockets of slumlords?
And is the watchdog agency HUD, which the U.S. General Accounting Office describes as suffering "staff reductions, a lack of experienced staff, and insufficient resources [that] hinder effective monitoring," equipped to oversee the gargantuan Section 8 program?
The 22-member Millennial Housing Commission, which includes Atlanta's Glover, is responsible for coming up with legislative solutions to public housing problems. The commission found in its May report that in some cities, Section 8 "administration and regulatory complexity create an effective disincentive for private owners."
In plain English, Section 8 is a hassle for landlords.
The commission responded by urging Congress to raise the Fair Market Rent -- and to "experiment with giving [housing authorities] greater flexibility in applying the Housing Quality Standards to attract owners to the program." Put a different way, the commission suggested that less rigorous inspections will draw more properties into the program.
It is ironic that the commission is advocating less stringent inspections of Section 8 properties. If it's successful in convincing Congress this is a good idea, legislators could open the door to more catastrophes like the one at Moreland Woods, where current guidelines did not inspect enough.
Glover has a different plan for Section 8.
"I think that it's a very important program," she says. "I think it does in fact create potentials and opportunities for families. It's absolutely critical that we do everything we can possibly do to help this program become wonderfully successful, not just marginally successful."
With the real estate market softening, she expects to lure more Section 8 landlords -- she already has contacted those who run more upscale developments -- and to cut out ones who own the worst properties. She plans to aggressively recruit more inspectors -- there are currently six who handle all 10,500 annual inspections. She plans to improve the inspections themselves with "additional checks and balances." And she says the authority will come up with a new set of standards -- above and beyond HUD's -- to make sure Section 8 attracts the best properties.
"We have to ask how many layers of protection are needed in order to achieve the outcome that we're all seeking to achieve," Glover says, "which I think is providing the best housing available in healthy neighborhoods."
On June 26, residents of Moreland Woods packed the stuffy rec center at Covenant Ministries south of Grant Park. The church teemed with sweaty bodies and hot tempers. Attorney Charlie Peebles tried to hold court over the crowd, telling them he's worked out the first part of their settlement with the apartment complex's lawyers.
Peebles, who began taking mold cases in 1999 and typically represents homeowners suing shoddy builders, calls Moreland Woods the most pervasive mold problem he's seen. Fifty apartments have toxic mold and 15 have sickening bacteria levels, according to test results from Aerobiology Laboratories in Virginia.
Peebles is passionate about his work, jokingly referring to himself as "bad cop" when it comes to bullying those who bully the poor. He and his assistant know most Moreland Wood residents by face, name and what they were wearing last they saw them. And what symptoms they have.
Peebles told the crowd about the deal he arranged with Moreland Woods' attorneys: Each family soon will be able to pick up a $4,000 check from the company that owns Moreland Woods. That money has nothing to do with compensation for their sicknesses.
"What that compensates," Peebles says, "is the furniture and other things you leave behind."
To get the checks, the families must give up the majority of their possessions -- including clothes, mattresses, televisions and stereos -- because those things are contaminated with bacteria and may continue to make them sick, according to Peebles.
He told the crowd that once he finishes documenting their illnesses, he'll start negotiating the rest of the deal with Moreland Woods attorneys. "When we're ready to talk about it, they're willing to talk about settlement," he said.
Robyn Ice, an attorney representing Moreland Woods, says the complex owners are "attempting to implement" a plan to deal with the mold problems at the apartment house.
"The owner, in entering the settlement, was primarily concerned ... that the tenants who accepted the settlement would have an opportunity to move to other apartments and get a fresh start."
Meanwhile, Peebles hasn't decided whether he'll also sue the housing authority. "Right now, I need their help getting everyone relocated. I don't want to get into any adverse posturing."
Housing authority officials announced a plan in May to quickly terminate its contract with Moreland Woods and to relocate the families who lived there. In the same breath, they deflected any responsibility for what happened. The authority stated in a press release: "AHA holds the owner wholly responsible for the conditions of the property."
Never mind that the authority was supposed to annually inspect Moreland Woods for substandard conditions.
Moreland Woods residents say they repeatedly complained about the mold. But the housing authority couldn't provide the complaints, just as it couldn't provide the inspection reports.
Authority spokesman White told CL that the agency received 880 complaints from all Section 8 landlords and tenants since March 2000. But when CL asked for the complaints, the authority turned over just 234.
As long ago as 1998, however, tenants at Moreland Woods were concerned about mold -- evidenced not in any housing authority document, but in city records. A notice of non-compliance for apartment 59B states: "Mildew on walls. Remedial action: Remove mildew from walls and apply protective coating."
A city inspector who worked in the Moreland Woods part of town says it's common knowledge that "mold and mildew ... has historically been a problem in that complex."
Despite denying culpability in the Moreland Woods fiasco, the authority is readying for its audit of all Section 8 properties.
"If there's another Moreland Woods scenario out there brewing -- and I don't know if there is or not, but I hope there isn't -- we certainly will know after the [audit]," Glover says. "Then we'll be able to move very quickly to continue to make those improvements."
Intern Ari Paul contributed to this story.
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