Good news for those who feared the worst

Public housing in gentrifying neighborhood might maintain integrity

On Feb. 25, the 120 or so families who live in one section of the massive McDaniel Glenn housing project were called to a meeting. Those who showed up — as well as the community activists on hand to protect them — didn't like what they heard.

Sure, it was high time to spruce up the 20-year-old buildings sitting in the middle of gentrifying Mechanicsville. That's what the Atlanta Housing Authority called the meeting to promise. "That neighborhood is going through a recovery on its own," Housing Authority spokesman Rick White says of Mechanicsville, which is sandwiched between Turner Field and West End. "So we wanted to make sure our property is up to neighborhood standards."

But what's this about residents having to temporarily move to one of a dozen or so communities, many of the locales far from residents' jobs, not to mention MARTA? And why should McDaniel Glenn residents have to be screened — passing background checks and criminal history probes — to move back in once the renovations are complete?

"I feel like if we're already here, and we are the ones who've not given any problems, we ought to automatically come on back," says Shannon Barkley, who has lived with her three children in McDaniel Glenn for nine years. Looking over a list of possible places to move, a list she says the Housing Authority gave her and other residents at the meeting, Barkley says only one project is remotely close to her job as a janitor at a Marietta Street technology firm.

And none can replicate her sense of home. "I like my neighbors," she says. "We have a unity. We look out for each other's children. We're like a big family."

The scenario has been a common one in Atlanta public housing, where the Housing Authority has set a track record for "temporarily" relocating people, making their apartments beautiful and then re-admitting about one in 10 of them. The Housing Authority claims that those who fail to return preferred to stay in the place where they'd relocated; some former residents, however, claim they were barred from re-entry due to a past drug conviction — however old and however minor — or poor credit history. (The displacement of 2,300 public housing residents was the subject of a 2002 CL story.)

But McDaniel Glenn is different from the other renovated sites. Those were demolished and rebuilt as "mixed-income" — meaning a certain number of apartments had to be reserved for middle-class tenants who pay full rent. It's a strategy that's worked to turn depressed neighborhoods around, perhaps at the expense of bettering the lives of the people who once lived there.

What's different about McDaniel Glenn is that it's scheduled only for minor repairs, to be paid by a $1.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That's a spring cleaning compared to the massive reconstruction at eight mixed-income sites, whose HUD grants averaged $35 million each. The McDaniel Glenn apartments aren't even going to be demolished. And they aren't turning into mixed-income.

On March 6, residents met outside the presence of Housing Authority officials and decided to rally to stay on site, moving from apartment to apartment to make room for the renovators. Later that day, when asked why residents will have to move, Housing Authority spokesman White gave CL an altogether different response from the one given to residents on Feb. 25. White — after asking, "Were you at today's meeting?" — had good news.

"I don't think anybody has to leave," he says. "I think they just have to get out of their apartment while the work is done. In fact I know that that's the case."

And, he says, they'll be out of their apartments for no more than 60 days.

He adds that the residents "don't even have to leave the neighborhood." Their wish to stay on site, a sentiment they hadn't yet voiced to the Housing Authority at the time CL called, will thus be granted.

White even says McDaniel Glenn residents won't be screened to come back.

"Admittedly," he says, "we did not do a very good job in the first meeting with the residents in effectively communicating what the plans were."

a href="mailto:mara.shalhoup@creativeloafing.com">mara.shalhoup@creativeloafing.com