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Friday, November 30, 2007

Soapbox: Preserve the public-housing safety net

By Matthew Cardinale

Atlanta Housing Authority's plan to destroy all remaining Atlanta public-housing communities in the city is a massive atrocity that will tragically displace families, destroy communities, decrease Atlanta's affordable housing supply and eliminate a precious safety net we're going to continue needing for some time.

Make no mistake, developers are salivating over this land, and that's what this is all about. AHA's role is to confuse, distract and deceive the people of Atlanta, especially the residents, that somehow tearing down public housing is the best thing, even the only thing, possible.

Most Atlanta residents don't realize that when 5,500 public-housing units are removed from a city's housing stock, those people are either pushed into the low-income rental market – either here or in the suburbs – or into homeless shelters.

That means those of us who are already struggling with housing-cost burden – i.e., monthly fear of coming up short on rent -- due to the critical lack of affordable housing in Atlanta will now have around 5,500 fewer units to compete for.

Yes, you may say, but the new "mixed-income, mixed-use developments" will surely contain affordable housing, won't they? AHA implies this, but its definition of "affordable" comes from a parallel universe.

To most people, affordable means what's actually affordable to working people in terms of how much they earn and what their other costs of living are.

Instead, AHA's Renee Glover calculates housing policy based on the Area Median Income (AMI). For a family in 2000, the Atlanta AMI was over $55,000.

AHA claims public housing would be replaced with upscale retail – yes, upscale retail – plus houses "affordable" at 80 percent to 110 percent AMI, and apartments up to 80 percent AMI.

AHA has stated that it will destroy all Atlanta public housing remaining in Atlanta by 2010 and give the displaced residents vouchers.

But the vouchers are a golden ticket to nowhere for many. Why? Let me count the ways.

First, there's no guarantee landlords will accept the vouchers.

Second, NIMBYism will ensure that vouchers tend not to be issued in the most exclusive neighborhoods.

Third, given the limited value of the vouchers, much of what will be available on the market will be with treacherous landlords in bad neighborhoods.

Fourth, the funding for vouchers has to be approved by Congress every year! They're not as solid as brick and mortar buildings. Between 2004 and 2006, the Republican-led Congress defunded 150,000 vouchers, and the current U.S. House bill would defund 55,000 vouchers.

What AHA proposes is the difference between a safety net and a spiderweb.

Fifth, over time, even those with good landlords may lose their vouchers. Lease-up rates are high in the first year, and then we tend to see massive drop-off rates in years two, three and four.

One AHA whistle-blower, Christopher Anderson, told me he left the agency after growing weary of terminating dozens of vouchers per month for a list of about 30 possible reasons. He says AHA had a culture of terminating as many vouchers as possible.

The AHA rules are so strict, if someone doesn't pay their utility bills, they can lose their voucher. Anderson says this was the most common reason for terminations. Another AHA whistle-blower, Anthony Bostic, told me he was fired after uncovering that the agency had systematically underpaid families in the HUD-required utility


Sixth, another dirty secret: AHA is steering residents into "site-based" vouchers where people aren't allowed to move again.

Seventh, burdensome and paperwork-intensive recertification forms will surely lead to many closed cases. I could go on.

Look, if good-paying jobs and affordable housing were plentiful, I might say the voucher program was an OK replacement for public-housing communities. But we're not there yet. There's a significant homeless population and shortage of shelters. Even if some of these residents were ready to move on, I guarantee there are more families ready to take that spot.

Despite the fact that HUD regulations require AHA to consult with the Resident Advisory Board during any demolition application process, RAB meeting minutes show AHA's Barney Simms said they did not have to consult, only tell them their plans.

Several aspects of AHA's PR campaign have been deceptive.

AHA says it doesn't have the funds to repair public housing, only to tear it down. This is not true. Of all housing authorities, Atlanta has a "Move to Work" — or special deregulation agreement — with HUD that gives it flexibility over how to spend funds. It could spend it on demolitions or repairs if it chose.

AHA told CL's Mara Shalhoup 96 percent of public-housing residents want to move because they said yes when asked if they want the opportunity to receive a housing choice voucher. Now, if you had AHA come up to you with a clipboard and ask if you want an opportunity – and they're already telling you public housing is being destroyed – what are you supposed to say, no? What kind of housing choice is this?

Moreover, AHA has been secretive, refusing to release documents I've requested or answer most of my questions.

I urge people to find out much more about this. I realize so many of us are struggling as it is in the free-market wonderland. It's important to see that AHA's plan represents the ideological embracement of a system that oppresses working families.

Matthew Cardinale is the news editor of Atlanta Progressive News, a

primarily online news service.

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