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Broken homes 

Public housing shortages and lax oversight by the Atlanta Housing Authority are placing hundreds of Atlantans in ratty, possibly unhealthy apartments -- all at taxpayers' expense.

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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.

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