ATLANTA – The nation’s bulldozer attack on crime and poverty will soon make Atlanta – home of the first
public housing development – the first major city to eliminate all of its large housing projects.
Cities from Boston to Los Angeles are following its lead. For more than 15 years, housing officials
across the country have been razing the projects where some 1.2 million families live and replacing them
with a mix of higher-rent and subsidized apartments and homes.
Alexandria, La., has taken down at least 247 units. Buffalo, N.Y., has demolished about 1,000 aging
homes. Atlanta expects to finish tearing down the last of its sprawling projects next June.
Advocates for the poor worry that not enough subsidized homes remain, and thousands of families are being
dumped on the street. Less than half of the 92,000 units demolished by cities have been replaced with
traditional public housing.
Most of the displaced residents have received vouchers to put them in privately owned housing. The
Department of Housing and Urban Development acknowledges, however, that it doesn’t know what happened to
thousands of families.
Some longtime residents feel like afterthoughts in an ambitious overhaul that is supposed to help them.
"I don’t think it’s fair," said Jeff Walker, who was forced out May 30 from Atlanta’s Bankhead
Even though drug violence there was once so brazen that mail carriers had police escorts, he said:
"We didn’t ask to be moved."
The housing projects in Atlanta date back to 1936, when the nation’s first public housing community,
Techwood Homes, was built here. President Franklin D. Roosevelt heralded it as "a tribute to useful
work under government supervision" and the first step in building a safety net for the working poor
during the Depression.
Decades of cultural and policy shifts transformed that safety net into a permanent home for generations
of families surrounded by disproportionately high crime.
When a 1992 report deemed roughly 86,000 public housing units "severely distressed," federal
officials knew it was time for sweeping action, according to former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros.
"There was no kind of forward-looking plan, and no commitment to dramatic change," said
Cisneros, who in the early ’90s helped craft what is known as the Hope VI program.
Hope VI would eventually provide $6.2 billion in federal grants for demolition, revitalization and
planning. It also reversed long-standing HUD policy by letting housing authorities replace demolished
units with Section 8 vouchers – coupons low-income families can use to cover rent with private landlords
That meant the nation’s more than 3,300 housing authorities could tear down blighted public housing and
rebuild smaller, more easily managed neighborhoods while the vouchers would prevent anyone from being
At least in theory.
In 1996, toward the end of Atlanta’s makeover as host of the Olympics, the city pioneered the creation of
mixed-income developments – former public housing communities demolished and rebuilt to include
market-rate houses and apartments alongside a whittled-down number of public housing units. Mixing
higher-income families with lower-income ones spurs the latter into self-improvement, housing officials
say, while deconcentrating poverty.
"Something dramatic needed to occur," said Atlanta Housing Authority CEO Renee Glover, who took
over in the ’90s, when Atlanta had a higher percentage of its population living in public housing
projects than any other U.S. city.
She’s used some $220 million in Hope VI and other development funds to help transform 14 developments in
one of the nation’s most ambitious public housing revampings.
Successes include the Villages of East Lake, a community of tidy duplexes and flower-lined porches built
on the ruins of a public housing complex so violent that locals called it “Little Vietnam.”
But such transformations are not to be enjoyed by everyone. The number of units in the complex was cut in
half, and a 2007 Georgia Institute of Technology study found that just one-third of the original
residents managed to resettle into the new mixed-income community.
Nationwide, HUD estimates Hope VI will eventually demolish 95,998 public housing units. A little more
than half of those will be replaced with traditional public housing. HUD is also building more than
50,000 other units in mixed-income communities, which will range from semi-subsidized apartments with
higher income requirements to market-rate houses.
So far, 17,911 displaced families have returned to revitalized communities. HUD expects a total of 22,510
families to return, a fraction of those displaced.
HUD records show the whereabouts of 12,595 families, many of whom faced eviction for lease violations,
“We don’t know whether or not those people who have been displaced are getting Section 8 vouchers to go
someplace else, and whether someplace else is available,” said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. Originally a
supporter of public housing reform, she’s come to question the program that’s demolished thousands of
units in Los Angeles and San Diego.
Waters has requested a demolition moratorium and 20,000 additional Section 8 vouchers to support
displaced families, an option that comes with its own problems. Critics have long attacked Section 8 as
a poorly run program that supports landlords for providing barely inhabitable housing.
Atlanta’s leaders have set up safeguards to ease the transition, including incentives to encourage more
private renters to accept Section 8 vouchers and counseling for families facing sudden change.
Glover believes pushing chronic public housing residents out is the only answer to breaking the cycle of
poverty, and she’s led many of the nation’s housing authority leaders to the same conclusion.
Huntsville, Ala., Housing Authority CEO Michael Lundy has experienced it personally. As a child, Lundy
lived in public housing until his family saved enough money to move out. Soon, his neighbors were
teachers, musicians and entrepreneurs.
Lundy said he began considering college after he “all of a sudden realized that you know what, I can do
all of those things.”
His agency is looking to replace some of its 1,700 public housing units with mixed-income developments,
and promoting self-sufficiency.
“Public housing should just be a temporary place to stay,” Lundy said. “Not a way of life.”