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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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."

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