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Public housing on the chopping block 

As the Atlanta Housing Authority moves to demolish another wave of housing projects, what does that mean for the city's poor?

It's been five years since Sandra and Ray Sellers stepped out of their tattered apartment in an inner-city project — and into the brave new world of Atlanta public housing.

Their first stop was a house in Decatur, paid for with a federally subsidized voucher, where they watched the walls crumble and the ceiling fall in. From there, they used the voucher to move across town, to a gated community near the last stop on MARTA's western line. It's the nicest place they've lived – though they had to send their rebellious teenage son to live with a family friend, because they say their new neighborhood "is still drug-infested."

The Sellers had once been hopeful that they'd return to the site where their old apartment once stood, in Capitol Homes. They'd lived there for 15 years, until the housing project was torn down in 2002 to make way for a mixed-income community called Capitol Gateway. The Atlanta Housing Authority promised that many residents would be able to move back into the new development, on Memorial Drive between Grant Park and downtown.

But even then, the Sellers were skeptical about their odds of re-entry. "My own personal belief is that they wouldn't let us back," Sandra Sellers said at the time. "They're looking for people who can pay top dollar."

The Sellers were among six displaced public-housing families interviewed by CL in 2002, when Capitol Homes was the city's ninth housing project to have been scheduled for demolition. Two more were around the corner. At that point, the numbers of original residents trickling back to the first of the redeveloped communities were low, hovering around 10 percent.

Today, of the approximately 5,000 families who ultimately were displaced in the public-housing demolitions, only 332 live in the new mixed-income communities that went up in their place.

One of the reasons why so few residents returned was the housing authority's strict terms. The Sellers, for example, say they were turned down because they'd been late paying their utilities at the house in Decatur. Families also can be barred from re-entry due to a drug conviction (past or present), unemployment (unless you're disabled, which the Sellers are) and poor credit history – some of the most common misfortunes that plague the poor.

Now, on the eve of the city's second major wave of public-housing demolitions – a mass razing of 12 more projects that will reduce the number of public-housing units from a former high of 14,800 to an unprecedented low of 4,800 – the fate of families such as the Sellers could be a harbinger for the thousands that will follow.

Surprisingly, the Sellers' situation mirrors that of a majority of public-housing families who used a voucher in the wake of displacement: The home they've found away from the projects is superior to the one they were forced to leave.

At the Peaks at Martin Luther King, many of the Sellers' neighbors pay full rent. The grounds are well-manicured. There's a pool. The train is a five-minute walk. The Sellers even have their own washer and dryer.

"I don't look to move no time soon," Sandra Sellers says.

More than a decade ago, the Atlanta Housing Authority took a dramatic turn in philosophy: It decided to start razing its housing projects and scatter the residents throughout the city using housing vouchers to help them pay their rent.

Starting in the early '90s, the AHA began to amass more than $200 million in federal grants, mostly through the now-discontinued HOPE VI program. The grants were used to tear down blighted projects and partner with private developers to build properties where residents paying full rent live alongside government-assisted tenants. To date, Atlanta lags behind only Chicago in the amount of HOPE VI grant money received and the number of public-housing units razed.

For the AHA's new public-housing vision to work, it needs residents who share the Sellers' experience. But distrust among residents – including a formal complaint that the agency is pushing low-income blacks out of the city in violation of the Fair Housing Act – still stands in the way.

"It's an agenda to gentrify the city," says Terence Courtney, who works with low-income families through the nonprofit Atlanta Jobs with Justice. "The housing authority has done whatever it could to create a justification for mixed-income communities that aren't really mixed-income. They just keep a few token folks."

In the first decade after the housing authority announced its intention to tear down the first of what will be 23 housing projects by 2010, there was scant evidence to show what happened to the displaced residents. Did their lives get better or worse? The answer to that question would help determine whether spending millions of federal dollars in the name of breaking up concentrations of poverty and inching low-income families toward self-sufficiency actually worked.

The more obvious upshot of the demolitions has been unprecedented economic growth in the city's urban core. The Atlanta Housing Authority makes no bones about having shifted its priorities from serving the poorest of the poor – the traditional role public-housing authorities have played – to improving communities. Thus, in some ways, the housing authority now performs less like a social-services agency and more like an economic-development one.

The shift in philosophy echoes back to Washington, where federal housing policy has backed away from serving the lowest of low-income families and moved more toward leveraging federal funds with private dollars. Not everyone is a fan of that model.

"The results ... were not met with unanimous approval," according to a 2005 Brookings Institution study that looked at HOPE VI projects across the country. "In particular, questions arose over the extent to which the original public housing families had benefited. ... Evidence was limited and inconclusive [as to] whether their life situations had improved."

Or, as Courtney puts it, "Private corporate forces want to take control of the city's assets to benefit themselves, rather than the people who need them."

In the past two years, however, there have been a handful of other studies – including one focused solely on Atlanta public-housing residents – that analyzed what happened to the displaced families. The findings suggest that families in Atlanta fared surprisingly well.

When a resident was relocated to demolish public housing and rebuild a market-ready development with a reserve of low-income units, the resident was given two options: move to another public-housing community or accept a voucher for subsidized rent, called Section 8, which can be used at any eligible property in metro Atlanta.

Critics argue that the use of Section 8 vouchers is troubling. If residents who rely on vouchers can't find a willing landlord, for instance – or if they're convicted of certain crimes (including any drug conviction) or fall too far behind on rent or utilities – they will lose housing-authority assistance. And once lost, it's nearly impossible to get back.

The vouchers also offer an opportunity for slumlords to be guaranteed a steady, federally funded rent check by coaxing Section 8 voucher holders into substandard properties. Those who hold vouchers pay only 30 percent of their income for rent, which seldom covers even a third of what they owe; the government picks up the rest. And though annual property inspections by AHA are supposed to weed out the worst Section 8 rentals, that hasn't always happened.

In an attempt to figure out how displaced residents with vouchers were faring, Danny Boston, a professor of economics at Georgia Tech, set out in 2001 to track 1,235 families who had lived in three demolished housing projects: Clark Howell Homes near downtown, John Egan Homes on the Westside and East Lake Meadows just beyond East Atlanta. Boston compared the fates of those families with the fates of another 1,483 living in traditional housing projects.

And he found that the demolition of public housing actually improved the lives of residents who once lived there.

While some of the displaced families he tracked did wind up losing public-housing assistance, they lost it at the same rate – roughly 50 percent – as families who remained in housing projects. What's more, those who moved away from the projects with the help of vouchers were more likely to find a job (17 percent were employed before they moved, versus 45 percent six years after), to earn higher incomes (median salaries nearly doubled, to $14,000), and to live in at least a slightly better neighborhood (as measured by poverty and employment rates), according to the study, published two years ago in the Journal of the American Planning Association.

Boston also cites recent research showing that families who used vouchers saw improvements in other significant areas: health, happiness and safety. In Chicago, for instance, residents who left public housing with the help of a voucher experienced lower rates of obesity and depression.

"There are psychological and physiological changes taking place as a result of being relocated," Boston says. "Most of the families who had vouchers didn't want to come back."

Critics of the AHA's demolition plans say the new public-housing model isn't as promising as it might seem. To them, the use of so many vouchers puts public housing in a precarious balancing act.

Larry Keating, an emeritus professor of city planning, also at Georgia Tech, has published several studies on the early effects of HOPE VI in Atlanta. He says replacing hard public-housing units with vouchers endangers the future of government-assisted housing – at a time when rising property values, which can be attributed in part to the revitalization of old housing projects, have made it more difficult to secure housing for the poor.

By some estimates, the city is suffering a shortage of 81,000 affordable housing units (those with rents less than $600). What's more, the Atlanta Housing Authority's waiting list for a Section 8 voucher has been closed since 2001 – meaning that the newly poor, or those new to Atlanta, have almost zero chance of getting one. Over the past five years the list has only decreased from 24,000 names to 22,000. (Displaced housing residents get to bypass the list.)

And while the neighborhoods in which vouchers are being used are often a step up from the neighborhoods the families left, the improvement is not always vast. Boston's study found that the mean poverty rate in neighborhoods where vouchers were used was still 28 percent, and the employment rate was only 38 percent.

Nor are vouchers working to spread low-income families across the city. Not even close.

Nearly 8,000 of the 9,600 vouchers being used in the city are located in just 10 of the city's 100-plus ZIP codes. Those 10 ZIP codes are clustered in neighborhoods in south and west Atlanta, where there are immense pockets of poverty. Not surprisingly, there are no vouchers being used in upscale neighborhoods such as Buckhead, Druid Hills and Ansley Park.

Some housing-authority critics, including state Rep. and Clark Atlanta University professor Bob Holmes, fear Atlanta's housing crunch is pushing voucher holders into the suburbs.

"Several thousand low-income African Americans have been relocating outside the city as a result of the Atlanta Housing Authority's HOPE VI revitalization," Holmes wrote in the preface to 2005's Status of Black Atlanta.

Yet the housing authority provided CL with statistics showing that only 12 percent of the vouchers it oversees are being used outside the city of Atlanta. But those stats don't take into account that when a voucher holder moves to another jurisdiction, the voucher sometimes transfers to that jurisdiction's housing authority. AHA spokesman White couldn't say how often those transfers might occur.

In addition to Keating's belief that vouchers are taxing the city's supply of affordable housing, he also is skeptical of the decision to swap standing housing units with vouchers, which he believes are more susceptible to federal funding cuts.

"Since we got started with this [public-housing] program in the '30s, we had accumulated almost 15,000 units," Keating says. "Those are real assets that can provide housing for lots of people for a long time. It's just tragic to throw that away."

Both Boston and White say there's another way of looking at the equation.

For years, the feds have been cutting funding for traditional public-housing units, leaving crumbling and sometimes abandoned apartments in their wake. Rather than perpetuate that blight, the housing authority replaced those communities with ones that have drastically altered urban life.

Take Centennial Place, the former site of Techwood and Clark Howell Homes. Violent crime in that neighborhood – which Boston says once measured 37 times the national average – has been slashed to below-average rates. Boston points out that the revitalization cleared the way for neighboring attractions such as the Georgia Aquarium and the new World of Coke. And according to White, the first-ever public-housing child from the neighborhood is in this year's freshman class at the university a few blocks north: Georgia Tech.

"People can sit there and criticize what might happen, but they need to look at what is happening," White says. "It's not even a philosophical disagreement. Congress could just as easily stop funding the hard units, and we would be right back to where we were. So you tell me: Which is the better approach?"

Unlike the residents of the 11 public-housing projects to have been torn down since 1994, those in the 12 projects currently on the chopping block will have one fewer option for relocation: They aren't being given the opportunity to move back into the revitalized communities.

That's because neither plans nor funding for new construction at those sites exists.

Instead, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is allowing the demolitions to go forward with the confidence that the Atlanta Housing Authority will be able to shop the empty lots to developers – and eventually partner to build communities that contain some low-income housing. In the past, the new developments set aside 40 percent of units for public housing, though not exclusively for original residents.

That's one of the things that really riles Shirley Hightower. She's losing the community where she has spent the past 14 years so the land can be developed by the best bidder.

Hightower was 18 when her parents moved her and her 11 siblings to Bowen Homes, off the old Bankhead Highway on the western edge of the city. At the time, the project was only six years old – and Hightower was eager to get out. She married soon after moving in, and eventually bought a house in Decatur with her husband.

Nearly 20 years later, in the early '90s, Hightower fell on hard times, and she and her five children moved back to Bowen. Since then, she has become president of the Bowen Homes tenant association. She has worked to stave off evictions, which she says spiked after the housing authority adopted a voluntary federal initiative requiring all able-bodied residents to either hold a job or be enrolled in school or job training if they're under the age of 62. The rule applies to those with vouchers, too.

The federal Moving-to-Work program (or CATALYST, as it's called in Atlanta) has proved challenging, particularly for single mothers with young children. Hightower says it's easier to live in a housing project than to hold a voucher under the CATALYST program. That's because in the projects, there's a strong network of friends and family who can help watch each other's children. The demolition of the projects will eradicate that social network.

"Where will our people go and where will they be when all this is over and done with?" Hightower asks. "How many of our children and our parents are going to be homeless? There's not enough affordable housing in Atlanta for them."

Last month, Hightower and Diane Wright, president of the Hollywood Courts tenant association, enlisted the help of Emory University law professor Lindsay Jones. Together, they sent a complaint to HUD alleging that the AHA's practice of demolishing public housing and replacing it with mixed-income communities amounts to discrimination against black residents, in violation of the Fair Housing Act.

"The intentional elimination of useful public housing projects occupied almost exclusively by African American families would be a double insult to the civil rights of African Americans," the letter states. "The Atlanta Housing Authority has engaged in the de facto demolition of its remaining stock of public housing projects ... [while] denying the affected tenants, who are almost exclusively African American, the opportunity to meaningfully assert and protect their rights to equal opportunity in housing."

The letter asks HUD to place a moratorium on the housing authority's demolition plans.

Jones says he's not yet received a response. Nor has he received records he requested on Wright's and Hightower's behalf from the housing authority in July. He says he was trying to obtain documents that would give an indication of the health of the Section 8 program in Atlanta.

"The lack of transparency," Jones says, "is likely to cultivate an environment of fear and distrust between the residents and the AHA."

Yet AHA spokesman White says he believes public-housing residents have newfound trust for the housing authority.

He offers as proof a recent survey of residents living in all 12 projects scheduled for demolition. When asked if they would like "the opportunity to receive a Housing Choice voucher," an average 96 percent of those who responded said yes. White says that's evidence the families want to leave the projects, and that they trust the housing authority will treat them fairly.

"I think this is actually a reflection of the sea change that has occurred," he says.

Other evidence that families are faring well can be found in Boston's research. But like some of the housing authority's claims, Boston's findings also have been questioned.

In a published response to Boston's study, University of Minnesota professor Ed Goetz challenges the merits of the research. He describes the AHA's revitalization efforts, as well as the efforts of other housing authorities across the nation, as "the highly intrusive and expensive process of forcible relocation." And he calls the improvements in the lives of former residents "modest."

Revitalization has been most successful, Goetz writes, in "reclaiming particular neighborhoods, reducing criminal activity in those areas, and significantly upgrading the physical environment." He also describes the redevelopments as having "spawned or facilitated gentrification, or served other interests of local governments" – including Atlanta's desire to clean up downtown in anticipation of the 1996 Olympics.

"What has not yet been demonstrated," Goetz states, "even by Professor Boston's study, is that the original households experience their share of benefits in the process."

Boston stands by the strength of his numbers that show improvements in the lives of families displaced from public housing. But he agrees that the impact of revitalization "is a blessing and a curse."

"As the community is improved, the property values increase," Boston says, "and it becomes much more difficult for low-income residents to maintain ownership and control."

The phenomenon can be summed up in a single word: gentrification. And Boston and others believe there are ways to offset it.

To some -- including Keating at Georgia Tech -- the only solution to tearing down public housing is to replace every unit that's destroyed with another public-housing unit. Vouchers, he says, shouldn't count.

"You don't have to build it new," Keating suggests. "Go buy some properties – they're out there – and fix them up."

The housing authority actually is proposing something similar to that. While the agency doesn't intend to buy properties, it is working on obtaining long-term leases on 5,000 units of "workforce" housing throughout the city. The apartments would be available for minimum-wage earners, all the way up to families of four who earn less than $40,000.

White points out that since public-housing residents are now required to work, the new units are comparable to those lost to in the demolitions.

The addition of the 5,000 units would bring the city's total number of public-housing units, after the upcoming demolitions, to nearly 10,000. That's about 1,600 shy of the number of inhabitable units that existed before the first wave of demolitions.

Boston says the city should take this model a step further and offer all developers incentives to set aside a certain percentage of units for low-income families. The city saw a huge surge in tax revenue as a result of the gentrification that stemmed from the housing authority's new communities. "It's literally hundreds of millions of dollars," Boston says. "That, I argue, is sufficient enough to address the people who are being adversely affected by revitalization."

Earlier this year, legislation to create those kind of incentives was introduced before Atlanta City Council. But Andy Schneggenburger, executive director of the nonprofit Atlanta Housing Association of Neighborhood-based Developers, says the incentives aren't persuasive enough.

AHAND looked at hundreds of other cities and counties that passed similar legislation, and found that voluntary ordinances "typically aren't successful at all," Schneggenburger says.

"They just don't produce the kind of numbers you need," he continues. "You can't afford to have just a slight increase. You need major production."

He's now advocating that a mandatory 10 percent of new development be set aside for low-income units – with benefits to developers to help offset the cost.

One thing is for certain: Something has to happen to stave the loss of affordable housing in Atlanta, and soon.

"Obviously, everybody wants to live in a better neighborhood," Boston says. "But we've got to do that in a way that everybody can win. And I think everybody can win, if we address specifically those who are likely to lose."

For those likely to lose – particularly the residents of Atlanta's ill-fated public housing – action will have to come fast. Or it will come too late.

"What happens when the people all come together and realize the trick that was played on them?" Hightower asks. "Why aren't people concerned? Why can't they see what's going on?"

TUNE IN: Listen to the writer speak on a televised affordable-housing panel hosted by Fulton County Commissioner Emma Darnell. The discussion will be aired on Fulton Government Television (FGTV) on Wed., Sept. 19, through Sun., Sept. 23, at 2 p.m., 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. 

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