Housing for whom?
Atlanta public housing — out with the poor, in with the middle-class
Renee Glover stepped to the podium on Monday night and assured the crowd of 400 poor families that "our mission is to provide quality affordable housing for the betterment of the community."
Glover, executive director of the Atlanta Housing Authority, has a community-bettering track record that can be described as progressive or exclusionary, depending on how you define "community."
If a community is the group of people willing to move into a neighborhood, pay rent and stay out of trouble, the Housing Authority does a fine job.
If a community is the group of people who originally lived in a neighborhood, who couldn't find work and who have been arrested at some point in their lives, the Housing Authority does a fine job of moving them elsewhere.
Glover's work with the Housing Authority has earned her national acclaim, although she's not entirely popular with Atlanta's most destitute residents. Glover has overseen the demolition of four of the city's decrepit ghettos — a total of 4,500 units — and has replaced them with a small empire of Post-style apartments. The new communities mix original public housing tenants with incoming renters who pay full market rates. The neighborhoods are designed around sculpted pools, clubhouses, tennis courts — even a golf course. Crime is way down. Waiting lists are crammed.
After Glover left the podium at Monday's meeting, audience members looked at pie graphs and financial charts and wordy definitions that flashed on a mounted video screen. They listened as 14 different Housing Authority speakers spouted out phrases like "economically viable" and "self-sustaining" and "deconcentration goals."
The meeting was called to inform them of the Housing Authority's plan for the coming years. The most interesting information buried in the two-and-a-half-hour presentation was a list of numbers read by Housing Authority C.E.O. Lynn D. Cassell. Where once there were more than 4,500 units spanning seven complexes, there will be 3,982 new units — 1,732 of which will be set aside for those on public assistance.
A strict screening process will prevent certain former residents from returning to the Housing Authority's mixed-income utopias. For instance, John Jordan, because he was convicted of a drug charge 10 years ago, does not qualify for re-entry.
"A lot of us moved out that wasn't able to move back in," Jordan told the Housing Authority as the meeting drew to a close.
Like everyone who is excluded from the new developments, Jordan got a voucher for cheap rent that can be used across Atlanta. Most vouchers are set aside for people who make less than $18,900 and "who are involuntarily displaced due to government action, including AHA's revitalization, modernization and rehabilitation programs."
The few lingering audience members spoke into the microphone about their problems with public housing, and the meeting ended.
Flash back six days.
On March 13, a federal group called the Millennial Housing Commis-sion visited Atlanta. The 22 members, including Atlanta's own Glover, will tour four more cities and then recommend to Congress ways for improving public housing nationwide.
The Housing Authority rented a tour bus to shuttle the group to Atlanta's two most renowned renovations: Centennial Place (formerly Techwood and Clark Howell homes) and Villages at East Lake (formerly East Lake Meadows).
"This is so different from public housing in D.C.," one commission member gushed after taking a peek at the pool in Centennial Place. "It's amazing."
Before it was Centennial, the community had 1,081 units, all for public housing tenants. Today, there are 900 units. Most units rent for between $830 and $1,500. Three hundred units are set aside for public housing families, who pay 30 percent of their income for rent.
The commission, as it rode through the golf courses that flank Villages at East Lake community, congratulated Glover on her success. The reformation was not welcome by everyone who lived in the former housing project, Glover pointed out to the commission. "This was very hard in terms of the transition, all the distrust," she said.
There were originally 650 public housing units in East Lake. The new community was rebuilt with 542 units. Half of them are reserved for public housing families (but not necessarily for original East Lake residents).
A commission member asked Janie Stratigus, guide for the East Lake portion of the tour, how many of East Lake's original families remained in the community.
Stratigus, barely decipherable over the roar of the bus engine and air conditioning, called out the answer.