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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.
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