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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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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.

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