Atlanta Close to Tearing Down Last Housing Project

Dionne Walker, AP, July 27, 2009

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.

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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.

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“There was no kind of forward-looking plan, and no commitment to dramatic change,” said [Henry] 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 off site.

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 left homeless.

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.

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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.

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