Life after the projects

GSU study suggests Atlanta Housing Authority demolition only shifted pockets of poverty

A washer and dryer. A screen on every window and new plush carpeting. A back porch with sunshine and plants to take care of. These are among the “modest, but positive” improvements in living conditions reported to Georgia State University researchers by displaced residents of Atlanta’s defunct housing projects.

The Atlanta Housing Authority’s almost wholesale demolition of the city’s dedicated public housing facilities — completed in 2010 — has been equal parts revolutionary and controversial. By the mid-’90s, Atlanta’s projects had become pockets of poverty, drug sales and crime that local leaders feared would be a stumbling block to the city’s economic advancement. But the projects’ elimination generated concern from their residents and some public policy experts that the city’s indigent would be left without adequate housing options. Not everyone would qualify for vouchers for low-cost housing, and those who did weren’t always able to find property owners willing to rent to them. But the AHA was adamant that the elimination of the projects would nudge its clients toward better lives.

When the second and final round of demolitions was announced in early 2007, a group of researchers at GSU’s sociology department, headed by Associate Professor Deirdre Oakley, formed the Urban Health Initiative to study how and if living conditions improved for the AHA residents being forced to relocate.

Interviews with more than 300 residents prior to their relocation and between six months to a year afterward produce a picture that’s far from conclusive. While Oakley says she and her team were “pleasantly surprised” by their subjects’ high level of satisfaction with their new homes, the study released Aug. 10 suggests that, at least statistically, the communities in which those homes are located are only marginally better than the old AHA projects: They still have high rates of violent crime, are overwhelmingly poor and are racially segregated. Instead of doing away with pockets of poverty, GSU’s study indicates that the elimination of the housing projects simply caused most of those pockets to reform elsewhere.

The report concludes, “if the purpose of deconcentrating poverty is to allow people in very poor neighborhoods to move to lower poverty places with greater access to opportunities for upward mobility, then it is not clear from our findings whether that goal has been accomplished.”

According to AHA Executive Director Renee Glover, the purpose of Hope VI — the federal program that set out to replace the projects with mixed-income communities, often through partnerships with private developers — was two-fold: building real estate and building families.

“At the end of the day, all of these programs have the intentionality of improving the quality of life of families,” Glover says. “We all know that the quality of the living environment is so important ... we’ve been very focused on deconcentrating poverty.”

Relocation patterns among residents who participated in the GSU study — who came from Bankhead Courts, Bowen Homes, Herndon Homes Hollywood Courts and the senior high-rises Palmer House and Roosevelt House — showed that most of them didn’t move far. On average, the subjects relocated within three miles of their former homes, and tended to cluster in census tracts that are poorer than the city-wide average. Of 660 census tracts in the metro area, the study subjects moved to only 88 of them, 68 of which lie within Atlanta.

Still, more than half of the study participants said they were happy with their new home. One AHA resident quoted in the report was effusive: “I love it. It’s spacious, convenient and quiet ... the neighborhood is near transit and it is walking distance to a shopping area.” Another said, “I really like my place ... I lost weight because there’s a swimming pool I used all summer.” And apart from senior residents, many of whom said they felt safer in their high-rises, families indicated they were less fearful of becoming victims of crime.

Deputy Police Chief Renee Propes, who patrolled the projects in the late ’80s and early ’90s as an original member of the APD’s Red Dog Unit, describes the projects and the mixed-income communities that have replaced them as “two different worlds.” She recalls an era when a police cruiser would drive into the projects and get “rocked out,” meaning people literally threw rocks at the officers’ cars until they left. Of the new developments, East Lake in particular, Propes says: “What a difference. To ride through there today and see the transformation. Back then the folks were living in horrible conditions.”

But living conditions at the new communities built on the sites of the old projects are hardly indicative of living conditions for the former residents. As of 2006, before the second round of demolitions, only 332 of the approximately 5,000 families that had been displaced lived in the new developments.

In terms of where they’ve ended up, Oakley believes that former public housing residents have actually been beneficiaries of the poor economy. In a soft rental market, landlords are more willing to rent to voucher-holders and, in fact, 70 percent of the study’s subjects reported they were living in a place that had been their first choice. The lingering concern is that as the economy improves — or, perhaps, if the economy improves — the former project residents will be pushed out of their new homes in favor of traditional renters.

The AHA’s Glover says she is pleased, in general, with the results of the GSU study, but points to other, longer-term quality-of-life research studies on former residents of Atlanta’s housing projects, which indicate outcomes have tended to gradually improve as time passes. Anecdotally, she points to 49 recent high school graduates, all former public housing residents who were part of Centennial Place Elementary’s inaugural class, and all of whom have been accepted to good schools: Spelman, Morehouse, Howard, Brandeis, the University of Georgia, the University of Michigan. Says Glover: “We’re seeing success. The thing that truly warms my heart is we have a whole generation of young people who will never have to live in the concentrated poverty of public housing projects.”

For the more recently relocated, however, poverty remains a reality.

“These people are still poor,” Oakley says. “Their income didn’t change. They still have jobs like working as a janitor at the airport bringing in $280 a week. They’re living in poverty — just not in public housing.”