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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.
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