Thursday, January 24, 2008

Encourage Yourself

Atlanta rethinks housing projects
Tami Chappell - Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
January 21, 2008

Conswayla Gardner, left, with her daughters and Shirley Hightower at Bowen Homes, one of the last projects scheduled for demolition. According to a housing authority plan, they would not be able to return to the new development. Officials are to vote on razing the remaining low-income units for more revitalization. Some express doubts.

ATLANTA -- For more than a decade, a steady stream of housing officials and city planners from across the country have visited Atlanta to view the future of mixed-income housing.They tour sites such as Centennial Place -- where vast public housing blocks were torn down in 1994 to make way for a pioneering $150-million mixed-income community of garden apartments and town homes -- and then they go on to carry out similar projects in cities such as New Orleans and New York.

Despite Atlanta's reputation as a leader in rethinking public housing, City Council members are to vote Tuesday on whether to ask the Atlanta Housing Authority to delay demolition of three of its last remaining public housing projects.Some council members say they worry about where the projects' 3,800 displaced residents will go.

"People who live in these projects have no idea where they will end up," said City Councilwoman Felicia A. Moore, whose district includes the Bankhead Courts, Bowen Homes and Hollywood Courts projects. "Before these buildings are demolished, I want to be comfortable that they will find a home."The City Council's intervention could present an embarrassing setback for the Atlanta Housing Authority, which pioneered the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's HOPE VI program more than a decade ago. The agency has torn down more than 10,000 public housing units and plans to eliminate all of the city's public housing by 2010.

The housing authority has long maintained that warehousing the poor in vast complexes is a failed social experiment. Yet now, with 10 nationally acclaimed mixed-income projects under its belt, the agency faces the prospect of lengthy public forums with worried Atlanta residents, and legal disputes about how much authority the City Council has over the razing of public housing. Though there is little doubt that the sites of Atlanta's former projects have undergone dramatic revitalization -- property values have gone up and crime rates have gone down -- the issue is that few former public-housing residents actually live there. So far, about 17% of Atlanta's former public-housing residents have returned to the mixed-income communities, which are funded primarily by private investors. The vast majority are scattered across the region and use Section 8 housing vouchers to help pay their rent.

For Atlanta housing officials, this is a measure of success: The strategy of the program is to fight the "cycle of poverty" by breaking the concentration of poverty, said spokesman Rick White. Profoundly poor, unemployed public-housing tenants can improve their lives, the theory goes, if they are given the means to live in better neighborhoods.During the first phase of the program, former housing-project residents were given the right to return to the mixed- income communities. The majority of residents chose to take the vouchers, White said."It would have been a failure if everyone had returned," he said. "What we want to do is make sure families can make choices about where they want to live. Government bureaucrats are not telling them where to live. "Those who want to return must meet strict criteria and agree to regular house checks. In 2004, the agency required all able-bodied adults, 18 to 61, to have a job, receive job training or enroll in school. Residents cannot return if they have a history of falling behind on rent, or if they or any relatives on the lease have recent criminal convictions.Residents of the last-remaining projects would not have the right to return, and some council members say they are concerned that former project dwellers would end up shuffled to other poor, racially segregated areas. "We know revitalization is necessary to achieve investment, but redevelopment can't be done totally at the expense of senior citizens and low-income families," said Councilman Ivory Lee Young Jr., who is asking the City Council to set up a task force to study the housing authority's plan.Many worry that voucher holders would end up struggling to pay higher rents and utilities. Failure to pay bills can mean that residents drop out of the Section 8 system, with little chance of returning.The Atlanta Housing Authority closed the Section 8 waiting list several years ago, with more than 20,000 people on it.

Conswayla Gardner, 35, who supports seven children with a $7-an-hour cleaning job and struggles to buy items such as washing powder and toothpaste, said she simply could not afford higher rent or utility bills. She lives at Bowen Homes, a 1960s-era public-housing complex with two-story brick buildings that is among those scheduled to be torn down."I live from paycheck to paycheck, and I'm barely getting by," she said. "Am I going to end up homeless?"Among city planners and economists who track those who left the housing projects, there seems little consensus about the benefits of the program for low-income residents.

A national 2004 study by the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution that monitored HUD's HOPE VI projects concluded that most voucher holders moved to better neighborhoods but that some still lived in poor, racially segregated areas, struggled to pay higher rent and utilities and battled with unreliable landlords. With the population of Atlanta's African Americans declining for the first time since the 1920s, public housing has become a sensitive political issue. Last week, housing authority Chief Executive Renee Lewis Glover sent a note of personal apology to Moore after a spokesman for Glover allegedly told the Atlanta Journal- Constitution that the councilwoman's objection to the demolition was motivated by fears that it would remove from her district voters likely to reelect her.

In August, a resident advisory board filed a civil rights complaint with the HUD, alleging that the Atlanta agency was pushing low-income blacks out of the city in violation of the Fair Housing Act. Shirley Hightower, president of the residents association at Bowen Homes, said the housing authority had not provided residents with opportunities to give input and had refused to comply with requests for public records."Residents stop me in my truck to ask questions, and the saddest thing about it is I don't have any answers," she said. "The housing authority hasn't really told us about anything. They don't care where the residents go. They don't care if we make it or not."

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