Grady Homes residents must make way for the city’s latest revitalization

On the evening of April 22, close to 200 people gathered inside a red brick building in the heart of the Grady Homes public housing project in downtown Atlanta. The crowd, a mix of men and women, the very young and very, very old, came to hear how the city of Atlanta plans to help them find a new place to live.

Grady Homes, one of the last intown housing projects not yet redeveloped as “mixed income,” is scheduled to be demolished within a year. That’s old news to the residents; they’d been expecting it, even before the formal announcement came last November.

What was new that night was that Atlanta Housing Authority officials were telling residents they’d be involved in the redevelopment and would have access to plenty of other public housing while the demolition and reconstruction takes place.

That’s what the residents were told, but that doesn’t mean they believed it.

The housing authority’s executive director, Renee Glover, has won accolades around the nation for turning public housing projects into mixed-income developments that look like they belong in Buckhead. To do this, Glover has partnered with some of Atlanta’s biggest development companies, which has raised questions about whether the authority is in the business of sheltering the poor, or helping to push them out of gentrifying parts of Atlanta.

Those concerns aren’t without merit.

When the housing authority transformed Techwood/Clark Howell Homes into Centennial Place, the number of public housing units dropped from 1,081 to 300. When Carver Homes was rebuilt as the Villages at Carver, 700 units for public housing residents disappeared. East Lake Meadows, once made of 650 public housing units, is now home to just 60 of the original families who lived there before it was revitalized.

The 1,114 residents of Grady Homes, built in 1942, are next up to be displaced.

At the meeting, Chuck Young, the housing authority’s senior project manager, told residents they’d be asked to help architects design what the new buildings will look like. He said they’d be asked for their input on where trees will be planted and how wide the sidewalks will be.

He didn’t mention that, by the housing authority’s numbers, few of them will see those sidewalks, trees or homes.

Hope Boldon, vice president at IMS Human Services Management, a company that has subcontracted to help Grady families relocate, then explained that her staff will help residents budget money and will work as liaisons to their children’s school counselors. She said her group can help residents find a home — one with a lawn, dog, fence, the whole bit. She said anytime anyone needed medical help, she and her staff would be there. When one of their children graduated from college, they’d be there.

“We are there to support every single member of your family,” Boldon said. “You will know that there is someone in your corner.”

Then she asked her staff, the people who’ll be doing all these things for the 1,114 Grady Homes residents, to stand. Five people rose in the front of the room. Five people. Residents giggled, rolled their eyes, and stared at the floor shaking their heads.

A few Grady families will be allowed to come back to Grady Homes, once it’s torn down and rebuilt as a Post Properties-style new urbanism development. But at no time during the meeting did any of the housing authority officials tell the crowd how many of them would be allowed to come back. That’s partly because they don’t know.

Housing authority spokeswoman Ann Wiener says the redevelopment plans are in flux and no one knows the final number of apartments that will be reserved as public housing. Documents that the Atlanta Housing Authority sent to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in December, however, say the new development will have 615 apartments, with 222 reserved for public housing residents.

Grady currently has 495 apartments, all of them public housing units.

The simple reality is that the Atlanta Housing Authority has partnered with a team of developers to build a shiny new smart growth development on 27 acres of prime real estate that Grady Homes now occupies — and in which 1,000-plus low-income residents just won’t fit.

Wiener says there are 2,200 homes in Atlanta where Grady residents can live while the new development is being built — and can continue to live if there’s no room once the development is finished. She also says that the housing authority has applied to HUD for enough federal rent vouchers to allow all of the low-income families who live in Grady to move into rentals across metro Atlanta and pay only a portion of the advertised rent.

But changes recently proposed by the Bush administration could mean that fewer people who qualify as “extremely poor” — earning less than $19,000, as many Grady residents do — will get vouchers. Plus, the new rules state that vouchers will not cover as much of the rent as they do now — three-fifths. And under Bush’s proposal, the federal quality standards that are supposed to prevent vouchers from being used to subsidize roach-infested slums would be just about done away with.

Between Bush’s changes and the housing authority’s obsession with revitalization, the future doesn’t look good for the folks living in Grady. And they know it.

After the meeting, the housing authority officials pack up their briefcases and leave. Six or so residents mingle in the courtyard in front of the community center. In the park that’s the anchor of Grady Homes, children play on what looks like a brand new playground, and teenagers shoot hoops on the basketball courts.

Delores White, president of the Grady Homes Resident Association, sits on a bench talking about the housing authority’s plans with her neighbors. She and the rest of the elderly women are skeptical. They watched crews demolish Capitol Homes, a nearby housing project with 694 apartments. Many of their friends lived there.

“We don’t want this place torn down. We want to stay here,” White says. “This is our home. But they’re just going to throw us out like trash.”

Agnes Girtman, one of White’s good friends who’s lived at Grady Homes since 1973, pipes up, “I have to walk to Grady [Hospital] every week, and you know MARTA just cut a lot of its bus services. So [the housing authority] might put me someplace out there where there’s not any bus service. What would I do then?”