Cover Story: Locked out
How one of the country's most lauded housing agencies rebuilt the homes of the poor to better serve the middle class
Stevie Rogers moved out of Carver Homes four years ago, expecting she'd be back one day. She settled into a cinderblock house with a dirt yard and kept tabs as the public housing project fell to the wrecking ball. She waited while construction crews cleared the 100 acres of rubble in the southern shadow of downtown. She watched them build rows of terraced apartments, a sprawling playground and a community clubhouse.
And she told herself that the new complex, renamed the Villages at Carver, would be perfect for her and her three children.
But the Atlanta Housing Authority's promise that there would be room for all the original Carver families turned out to be hollow. The AHA has denied application after application to live in the new complex. In March, Rogers was turned down because 19 years ago she'd been arrested for possession of marijuana.
"It was all right for me to raise my kids over there in Carver Homes when it was a hellhole," she says. "Now that they've remodeled and did everything, we ain't good enough to come back."
The authority's remedy for the dilapidated state of public housing — tear down the tenements, construct gleaming new buildings in their place and encourage the poor and the middle class to move back — looks on the surface like a success. Politicians and the press marvel at neighborhoods transformed from pitiable to posh. But this is no fairy tale.
Fewer public housing apartments are being rebuilt than are being torn down, meaning fewer low-income families get the shelter they need. Background checks to get into the new mixed-income communities are stricter than those at swanky Buckhead high-rises. And the list of families waiting for room in public housing now runs longer than the number of actual public-housing tenants.
All of which raises searing but seldom-asked questions: How, for example, can the redevelopments be deemed successes when only a tenth of the original residents ever return? And why is a taxpayer-funded agency winning so much praise for excluding the very people it was created to serve?
"Anybody who finds it difficult to get in," says AHA spokesman Rick White, "we probably don't want to have as a tenant anyway."
Apart from that pat answer, insight into the inner workings of the housing authority is hard to come by. University researchers and advocates for the poor have run into roadblocks when looking for data from the agency. A Creative Loafing request for basic statistics was met with a price tag of more than $24,000. And AHA Executive Director Renee Glover would respond only in writing to CL inquiries.
She maintains that no matter how you look at mixed-income communities, it's a win-win situation. "I believe that what has been accomplished at AHA benefits all Atlantans," she wrote, "low-income or not."
Built in the 1930s for Depression-era families, Atlanta's Techwood Homes was the federal government's first public housing complex. Its founding principle was simple: Provide affordable housing to families who need it. As Franklin D. Roosevelt prophesied at Techwood's inauguration, "Within a very short time, people who never before could get a decent roof over their heads will live here in reasonable comfort and healthful, worthwhile surroundings."
For decades, the Atlanta Housing Authority pretty much met those standards. But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as inner cities began to bow under the crack epidemic, the housing authority became overwhelmed. Places like Techwood grew into untended enclaves of crime and addiction.
Nationwide, the picture wasn't much prettier. In 1992, a congressional commission recommended that 86,000 uninhabitable public housing units be torn down. It was up to the Congress to figure out what to build in their place — and what to do with the people who lived there.
Through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and local housing authorities, Congress offered tenants a deal: We'll help you find a new place to live and pay your moving costs. We'll tear down your substandard homes and build better ones. And we'll welcome you to an urban nirvana, clean and safe and professionally landscaped.
The deal had a catch, though. A certain number of the new apartments would have to be reserved for middle-class families. Making the communities mixed-income would ensure that the poor weren't isolated in pockets of poverty. And the well-to-do would help foot the construction bill, as well as help revitalize inner-city neighborhoods.
The program was christened Home Ownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere (nicknamed HOPE VI because it was the sixth attempt to reform public housing). HUD officials described it in grand phrases, like "the laboratory for the reinvention of public housing." The Atlanta Housing Authority would come to fancy itself the lead scientist.
Techwood became a guinea pig for the mixed-income experiment. There, in the shadows of Georgia Tech and Coke headquarters, junked cars lined cracked pavement. Buildings patched with plywood sheltered crack whores and armed drug dealers. Police homicide and narcotic squads were repeat visitors.
Demolition of the 1,000 apartments began in 1995. Over the next five years, thanks to $42.5 million in HOPE VI grants and an infusion of capital from private developers, Techwood Homes vanished.
Today, at the newly named Centennial Place, gabled apartments, a math magnet school, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, computer labs and a YMCA stretch across 16 city blocks. SUV-driving yuppies live next door to welfare mothers. Murder is an anachronism. Occupancy is near 100 percent.
Glover, who took over the agency the year before Techwood's transformation began, was dubbed public housing's savior.
After Techwood's first phase of apartments opened in 1996, Glover managed to lift the authority off HUD's list of troubled agencies. A former corporate attorney and senior aide in the Bill Campbell mayoral campaign, she coaxed another $144 million from HUD for four more public HOPE VI redevelopments. She also hunted down separate funds to rebuild another four complexes as mixed-income communities. And she won the favor of private investors, developers and the city, who more than matched HUD's contribution to the brave new world of mixed-income housing.
"It became clear to me early on ... that the organization was much more troubled than anyone had imagined, including me," Glover says in her written statement to CL. "Given the condition of this agency in 1994, the turnaround has been dramatic, although I am not yet satisfied that [the housing authority] has achieved the level of excellence I envision."
The press, however, appeared convinced from the start. In 1997, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorialist tsk-tsked the City Council's audacity to question Glover's $175,000 annual salary. (The highest-ranked HUD official was making $148,000 at the time.) "A raise for Glover?" the AJC asked. "Absolutely. We wouldn't want her to leave."
Two years later, The Atlanta Business Chronicle named Glover one of the 100 most influential Atlantans, citing Techwood and subsequent transformations. And the AJC wrote, "When Atlantans are searching for capable leaders in the future, they'd be wise to keep Glover in mind."
In eight years with Glover at the helm, the Atlanta Housing Authority has become a partner in the reformation of the city's most downtrodden neighborhoods. It helped stoke the resurgence around Centennial Olympic Park, along the tree-lined streets of East Lake and in the loft district of Castleberry Hill. Anchored by Glover's mixed-income developments, the surrounding neighborhoods have seen crime rates plummet by as much as 95 percent and nearby home appraisals (as well as the tax base) skyrocket.
At Centennial Place, the AHA twice in its first year raised the rents it charges middle-class tenants. By the end of 1997, a three-bedroom was going for $1,300. By 1999, 20 percent of Centennial Place's new residents had incomes topping $55,000, according to the AJC.
"I wanted to meet the same standards set by private-sector apartment owners and managers like Post Properties," Glover says. "Today, our revitalized communities are on par with any market-rate apartment complex in metro Atlanta."
Julia Hall can attest to that. Hall once lived in a place named East Lake Meadows, which is east of East Atlanta. Most residents called it "Little Vietnam." In a 1990 gun battle, a 4-year-old girl there died after a stray bullet zipped through her house and killed her as she lay on the couch.
Over her 22-year stay, Hall struggled to protect 13 grandchildren from the death sentence — be it by homicide or crack cocaine — of Atlanta's most dangerous public housing complex.
Now that the housing authority has cleaned up the neighborhood, and an 18-hole golf course circles wood-trimmed "luxury apartments" and "townhouse villas," Hall believes she's earned reparations for years of surviving a war zone. "I feel like we're living in Buckhead Two," she says of the gated community built four years ago on the grave of the bullet-punctured projects. "It's real nice. I love it. I wouldn't trade it for nothing."
Hall, though, was one of the few for whom a trade was possible.
Eva Davis, another longtime resident of East Lake Meadows, is well aware of the narrow tightrope leading back to public housing.
"Ain't nobody been told what a crooked pill they pulled on the residents of East Lake," says Davis, who despite being fully qualified for return had to fight her way in with a lawyer.
The problem is rooted in simple math. In its former life, East Lake Meadows had 660 units. Its replacement, the Villages of East Lake, contains 542 units. Of those units, only 217 are allotted for public housing families. Only 60 families had been East Lake Meadows residents.
At East Lake, and at Techwood before it, the AHA ran into the cold fact that there was never going be enough room for everyone to return. If a community were to be mixed-income, there simply had to be a higher standard for reentry. Certain people had to be barred — the type of people who wouldn't be the right "mix" for mixed income. So after first promising everyone the opportunity to live in the new communities, the AHA eventually let tenants in on the hitch.
There are a handful of reasons why they might not get a return ticket. Some of those reasons are very sound: a murder, rape or child molestation conviction. But in other cases, tenants are banished from public housing when their lives touch on the very hardships that can accompany being poor: failure to keep their apartments clean enough, as evidenced by past AHA inspection reports; poor credit ratings; inability to pay utilities on time; a court conviction in the past five years; or a drug conviction — any drug conviction — regardless of when it occurred.
A letter in Stevie Rogers' folder of AHA documents spells out the authority's logic when it comes to excluding original residents from mixed-income communities. The letter says the agency "will evaluate each applicant to determine whether the applicant would be expected to have a detrimental effect on the other residents or on the development site."
Rogers, during her quest to return to Carver Homes, never thought the fine print was meant for her. To make sure she'd be eligible to return to the Villages at Carver, she got a job working the red-eye shift at a local security company. For four years, she says, she consoled herself by repeating: "Ms. Glover and all, they told me I would be able to come back."
"It was like I was guaranteed the move back once I moved out if I didn't get in any trouble," she says, "and maybe got a job and stayed on track."
Rogers was stunned in March when the AHA turned her away because of her two-decade-old marijuana misdemeanor. In 1983, she says, police came to break up a party at Rogers' neighbors' apartment; while they questioned her, they found a small bag of pot in her pocket. But Rogers says her mistake, for which she paid a $65 fine, hardly warrants punishing her and her children today.
"I wasn't no angel," she says, "but I took care of my kids."
Rogers is far from alone. Last year, the AHA denied approximately 1,000 public housing applicants because of drug use. Under a federal rule known as "One Strike," it also evicted more than 100 tenants based solely on drug arrests, according to statistics the AHA turned over to HUD.
What's particularly crushing about the "One Strike" rule, which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld this year, is that it punishes everyone in a household. If the 16-year-old granddaughter of a public housing tenant is arrested on a misdemeanor drug charge, the whole family gets kicked out — even if the grandmother had no knowledge of the teen's drug use.
Vivian Sloan, who lived 10 years in Carver Homes and raised three children there, waited five years for the new apartments at Villages at Carver to be built. She says she was twice burglarized while sticking it out in a rental, the best she could find with her AHA-issued voucher for reduced rent. She was eager to move into the new, gated community. All along, she was under the impression she would get in.
The offense that's keeping Sloan out of the Villages at Carver isn't drug-related. In February, she got into an argument with her daughter's principal in February; she was charged with terroristic threats.
"I feel like they're playing games," Sloan says. "I feel real hurt about this."
Just how many tenants have been rejected for which reasons is not something of which the AHA has kept track. But the agency does know it built fewer apartments than it tore down (there are now 9,500 units citywide where there once were 14,500). It knows it set aside 40 percent of new apartments for low-income families. And it knows it permitted only 10 percent of the original residents to return to the two completed projects for which figures are available (Centennial Place and Villages of East Lake).
Piecing the overall picture together is more difficult because AHA hasn't released complete documents for each new complex. According to quarterly reports to HUD and other AHA data, a total of 3,300 families have been displaced from five mixed-income communities. So far, only 1,300 middle-class families (that receive no rental assistance) and low-income families (that do receive assistance) have moved into those partly finished redevelopments. Only 215 of those families had lived there to begin with.
With fewer apartments available, more poor families have ended up in waiting-list purgatory. According to Glover, 8,500 poor families are waiting to get apartments at AHA complexes — almost as many families as there are units in the whole system. The Villages of East Lake's waiting list was at last count a staggering 1,114 names long.
When the Georgia General Assembly gave local governments the power to create housing authorities, it required that the authorities pursue a clear mission: to provide housing "to persons of low income at rentals they can afford."
Is the AHA sticking to that mission when it reduces the number of dwellings available to poor persons and stringently enforces rules that exclude many of them?
CL asked Glover: "What responsibility does the AHA have to families who lived at complexes that were demolished and who have not been able to return to the mixed-income communities?"
She responded by framing the question in bureaucratic parlance: "I am not aware of any qualified family that has been denied return to a site after redevelopment."
As early as 1998, HUD officials were becoming aware that mixed-income communities may not have been working as planned. An audit that year by HUD's inspector general criticized how the promise of mixed-income devolved into an exercise in exclusion.
The report focused in part on Atlanta. It described how the Techwood site had one of the fewest number of original residents return than any HOPE VI project in the country. Only 12 percent of Techwood families moved back to Centennial Place — compared to 62 percent in a New Orleans HOPE VI site and 74 percent in a San Francisco one. (Only sites in San Antonio and Charlotte fared worse than Atlanta's.)
"Some housing authorities, such as Atlanta and Charlotte, have accomplished impressive physical revitalizations at their HOPE VI sites," the inspector general, Mike Beard, concluded. "However, improvements to the lives of the residents who lived there are much less obvious."
As HUD's internal watchdog, Beard focused on the federal agency rather than the local housing authorities. HUD had allowed HOPE VI to drift off course, he said, by failing to watch the authorities closely enough; the authorities, he concluded, were able to spend millions of federal tax dollars to reach an end HUD never had intended.
HUD requires that its staff inspect HOPE VI sites at least once a year — but in 1998 (the only year figures were available), HUD never visited seven of the 13 sites in Beard's audit. Centennial Place was among those not visited.
"Some of the problems found during the audit of HOPE VI sites," Beard wrote, "might have been avoided or resolved had HUD adequately monitored HOPE VI activities."
The report landed about as loudly as a feather. It was ignored by almost all media, including the AJC. Two years passed before HUD started seeking answers. In 2000, it set up a contract with the Urban Institute, a research group, to study the displacement of public-housing families in the mixed-income frenzy.
Researcher Susan Popkin, who is surveying selected HOPE VI sites (none in Atlanta), can't discuss her findings until HUD reviews and releases them.
But the results of the first of her two reports, due out in the next few months, still won't reveal much about the destinations of most of the families — those who wound up with vouchers in lieu of a new apartment, or on a relative's couch, or in a shelter — "because," she explains, "it's a study of people who we could find, which means that they mostly were [still] in assisted housing."
Popkin points to the fact that nearly a decade has lapsed since HOPE VI was conceived, making it extraordinarily difficult to locate people who may have moved several times since then.
Years of lessons that could have been gleaned from Techwood, Carver and East Lake have been lost. "So," Popkin says, "we know very little about the people who've left, or why."
We may never know the full costs and benefits of public housing's new brand of social experimentation.
University researchers and advocates for the poor have shared the same frustration. For years, they've tried to find out what happened to families who lived at mixed-income sites. But no hard data seemed to exist.
In 1999, Patrick Burke, then a Georgia Tech research associate, tracked the whereabouts of public housing families displaced from East Lake Meadows. Burke says he had trouble collecting relevant documents from the AHA. "We never really had lots of success getting the data," Burke says. "I'm not so sure it was them just being uncooperative. I think it was technology issues for them at the time."
Some AHA critics suspect such data do exist within the agency.
"There are reasons that they would have not to be candid about the figures," says Dennis Goldstein, an attorney with Atlanta Legal Aid, which has filed a handful of civil cases against the AHA, including one on behalf of Davis and other East Lake residents.
"It's probably next to impossible to get this information out of anybody to figure out what's really happening," says a former state official familiar with AHA policy. "Everybody thinks [families are being unfairly displaced] but nobody's actually done any concrete research to see if it is in fact happening. I suspect that it is."
In Creative Loafing's case, the AHA wasn't exactly eager to share information. When asked if the authority has ever tracked the destinations and living conditions of displaced families, spokesman White at first said: "If what you're truly interested in is where are the people, then that ... actually can be answered pretty easily."
After an initial conversation with CL, however, he said he was "insulted" by a reporter's written request for an interview with Glover. In response, he withdrew his offer to provide requested documents. A query under the state's Open Records Act for those documents and other information was met with a letter that said the information would cost $24,000.
White did agree to present Glover with a list of CL's questions.
Glover stated in her written response that when it comes to the whereabouts of displaced families, the AHA has complied with federal Uniform Relocation Act. The law requires that housing authorities submit a plan to HUD describing where displaced families can choose to go. Nothing in the law requires that housing authorities show where they did go. Or how they're faring.
Glover notes that families that don't make it into mixed-income complexes have another option. They can get a voucher for reduced rent to be used at apartments and houses all over the city.
Voucher holders pay rent of up to 30 percent of their income, and the government pays the landlords the difference. The theory is that the vouchers integrate poor and middle-class residents in much the same way mixed-income communities do.
The reality is a little more complex, though. Rather than empower the poor, the voucher system, like the mixed-income communities, can further isolate them.
Burke, while at Georgia Tech, and a handful of other researchers have tried to piece together what was happening to AHA voucher holders.
"What we were trying to study was, were they in fact better off?" Burke says. "And I think what we found in some instances was, looking at neighborhood characteristics like crime trends and census information on demographics, that in fact, [those who moved] weren't any better off."
One thing the AHA does track is the location of properties where its clients cash their vouchers. The authority provided CL with a list showing the number of vouchers being used in each census tract in the metro area. There are 107 tracts of various sizes in Atlanta. Twenty-three of those tracts contain 8,200 of the authority's total 9,500 vouchers. In other words, 86 percent of the voucher holders live in 21 percent of the tracts — and most of the rest use their vouchers outside the city.
What's more, all of the 23 tracts rank among those with the highest poverty levels in the city, a CL analysis of census data shows. So much for decentralizing poverty — the very premise on which the voucher system hinges.
There's another problem with vouchers: There aren't enough of them. The waiting list for families trying to get vouchers is even more absurdly long than the lists of those trying to enter the mixed-income communities. As of late March, according to Glover, more than 24,000 families were awaiting vouchers.
Once an AHA client does get a voucher, finding a landlord willing to honor it is no guarantee, either. It was harder last year to locate an apartment that took vouchers than it has been in 15 years, according to a study conducted by Massachusetts research firm ABT Associates. The study looked at voucher holders in 48 different housing authorities, including Atlanta. Twenty of 50 Atlanta families couldn't find landlords willing to rent to them.
Families that can't find a rental or who lose their vouchers for various reasons (such as possessing drugs or falling behind in utility payments) are left without housing assistance. The AHA no longer serves them. And their ultimate destinations, like those displaced from the mixed-income sites, remain a mystery.
Without a voucher, Stevie Rogers says her family would end up on the street. The power bill on Rogers' kitchen table says she owes $145 for the past month; the gas is running her $178. Her rent, because of the voucher discount, is only $170. But if she falls too behind on her utilities and any of them get turned off, the voucher could be taken away. Full rent at the house, poorly insulated and badly constructed though it is, tops $1,000.
Rogers' full-time job as night supervisor at a security company pays only $12,000 per year after taxes. But the hours allow her to spend days with her 3-year-old daughter. Her 17-year-old watches her younger daughter and son at night. Rogers arrives home from work after 3 a.m., and she wakes three hours later to drive her teenager to Carver High School. She half-naps through the day.
That's what would have made the Villages at Carver so helpful. Her older daughter could have walked to school, giving the 41-year-old single mother more time to rest. And the utilities in the efficient, well-insulated apartments would have been a fraction of what she pays at her house, off Jonesboro Road in south Atlanta.
"It seems like the harder you try to do the right thing," she says, tears rolling down her cheeks, "the harder the system is on you."
Despite the signals of inherent problems with mixed-income communities, the AHA is marching ahead with two more mixed-income communities. The two projects — on opposite sides of downtown — are the future of the AHA, and the authority wants them bigger and better than anything before.
A block away from the Gold Dome, families have been trickling out of Capitol Homes' 694 apartments. The last of them should be gone this week.
"My own personal belief is that they wouldn't let us back," tenant Sandra Sellers says. "They're looking for people who can pay top dollar."
Sellers and her husband Raymond have lived 15 years in Capitol Homes. Sellers has cerebral palsy and is wheelchair-bound, and Raymond Sellers suffers frequent grand mal epileptic seizures. They will be moving with their two children to Decatur. A landlord there told them he'd take their voucher.
The rental's a long way from Grady Memorial Hospital, which Sellers previously could reach in 10 minutes by wheelchair, and the downtown Kroger, where the family shops for groceries.
"It was convenient to almost everywhere," Sellers says of her home.
Location is partly what Glover is touting as she seeks $140 million from private investors for this project. Those investments will supplement a $35 million HOPE VI grant — courtesy of federal taxpayers. In addition to 1,000 new apartments — 350 of them for public housing residents, the AHA plans for 45,000 square feet set aside for offices and retail space.
"Once complete," the AHA's website states, "Capitol Gateway will doubtlessly be the premier development site for mixed-use in the city of Atlanta."
On the other side of the city, Glover is resurrecting a northwest Atlanta wasteland as a 460-acre complex, to be called "West Highlands."
All 760 of the families who lived in what was once Perry Homes had to move out by the end of 2000, and the last of Perry's buildings were demolished a year ago.
In and around the old Perry site, a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, a library, a charter school and a YMCA will rise. Glover, together with private developer Noel Khalil, wants to put up 700 rentals to replace Perry's 950, and 800 new houses to sell at market rate, according to plans submitted to HUD. Glover estimates the total cost of the new project to total between $300 million and $400 million.
The AHA has won a fraction of that — $25 million — in HOPE VI grants. Glover expects private investors to fund the bulk of the project, but she's also asking the city to come up with $22 million.
"If Atlanta will turn over to AHA a few hundred acres it owns surrounding the former Perry Homes and improve the area's public infrastructure," Glover told the AJC last month, "the potential return in property taxes would be overwhelming."
Sandra and Raymond Sellers and their two children seem like a model family for return to a mixed-income community. Because of their disabilities, neither husband nor wife work; they get $1,000 per month in welfare and social security.
But Sandra Sellers is not optimistic. Because of her family's small income and the limited number of low-income units, she says she doesn't expect to get into the new "Capitol Gateway." And she's worried that even with a voucher, money will be stretched thin.
Sellers claims the rent and utilities at Capitol Homes never topped $400. At the home in Decatur, they must pay $275 in rent, as well as all utilities. Expenses, she fears, could run over $500.
"But they say we got to go," Sellers says. "So I guess we have no choice."??