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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.

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