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With fewer apartments available, more poor families have ended up in waiting-list purgatory. According to Glover, 8,500 poor families are waiting to get apartments at AHA complexes -- almost as many families as there are units in the whole system. The Villages of East Lake's waiting list was at last count a staggering 1,114 names long.
When the Georgia General Assembly gave local governments the power to create housing authorities, it required that the authorities pursue a clear mission: to provide housing "to persons of low income at rentals they can afford."
Is the AHA sticking to that mission when it reduces the number of dwellings available to poor persons and stringently enforces rules that exclude many of them?
CL asked Glover: "What responsibility does the AHA have to families who lived at complexes that were demolished and who have not been able to return to the mixed-income communities?"
She responded by framing the question in bureaucratic parlance: "I am not aware of any qualified family that has been denied return to a site after redevelopment."
As early as 1998, HUD officials were becoming aware that mixed-income communities may not have been working as planned. An audit that year by HUD's inspector general criticized how the promise of mixed-income devolved into an exercise in exclusion.
The report focused in part on Atlanta. It described how the Techwood site had one of the fewest number of original residents return than any HOPE VI project in the country. Only 12 percent of Techwood families moved back to Centennial Place -- compared to 62 percent in a New Orleans HOPE VI site and 74 percent in a San Francisco one. (Only sites in San Antonio and Charlotte fared worse than Atlanta's.)
"Some housing authorities, such as Atlanta and Charlotte, have accomplished impressive physical revitalizations at their HOPE VI sites," the inspector general, Mike Beard, concluded. "However, improvements to the lives of the residents who lived there are much less obvious."
As HUD's internal watchdog, Beard focused on the federal agency rather than the local housing authorities. HUD had allowed HOPE VI to drift off course, he said, by failing to watch the authorities closely enough; the authorities, he concluded, were able to spend millions of federal tax dollars to reach an end HUD never had intended.
HUD requires that its staff inspect HOPE VI sites at least once a year -- but in 1998 (the only year figures were available), HUD never visited seven of the 13 sites in Beard's audit. Centennial Place was among those not visited.
"Some of the problems found during the audit of HOPE VI sites," Beard wrote, "might have been avoided or resolved had HUD adequately monitored HOPE VI activities."
The report landed about as loudly as a feather. It was ignored by almost all media, including the AJC. Two years passed before HUD started seeking answers. In 2000, it set up a contract with the Urban Institute, a research group, to study the displacement of public-housing families in the mixed-income frenzy.
Researcher Susan Popkin, who is surveying selected HOPE VI sites (none in Atlanta), can't discuss her findings until HUD reviews and releases them.
But the results of the first of her two reports, due out in the next few months, still won't reveal much about the destinations of most of the families -- those who wound up with vouchers in lieu of a new apartment, or on a relative's couch, or in a shelter -- "because," she explains, "it's a study of people who we could find, which means that they mostly were [still] in assisted housing."
Popkin points to the fact that nearly a decade has lapsed since HOPE VI was conceived, making it extraordinarily difficult to locate people who may have moved several times since then.
Years of lessons that could have been gleaned from Techwood, Carver and East Lake have been lost. "So," Popkin says, "we know very little about the people who've left, or why."
We may never know the full costs and benefits of public housing's new brand of social experimentation.
University researchers and advocates for the poor have shared the same frustration. For years, they've tried to find out what happened to families who lived at mixed-income sites. But no hard data seemed to exist.
In 1999, Patrick Burke, then a Georgia Tech research associate, tracked the whereabouts of public housing families displaced from East Lake Meadows. Burke says he had trouble collecting relevant documents from the AHA. "We never really had lots of success getting the data," Burke says. "I'm not so sure it was them just being uncooperative. I think it was technology issues for them at the time."
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