By Renee Lewis Glover
One of the greatest challenges facing large American cities is affordable housing: How do you encourage prosperity in a city, often called gentrification, while still maintaining a sufficient base of affordable housing?
For Atlanta, a historic milestone has been achieved in overcoming some aspects of this conundrum. Many Atlantans have noticed the impact of this achievement – lower crime rates, healthy neighborhoods and substantially better outcomes for low-income families. Somewhat less apparent, students who a few years ago would have struggled in school are now achieving success in school and thereafter. And, almost invisible to the casual observer has been the increased availability of quality affordable homes to tens of thousands of our neighbors – families who in the past would have been consigned to the most blighted housing in the city.
The root of these changes is the strategic change in direction in the Atlanta Housing Authority's mission to close the affordability gap for housing for low-income families. At the end of December 2009, the last families moved out of the distressed and crime-ridden public housing projects and demolition is underway. That's a remarkable and historic event for a city that in past decades had the highest percentage of its residents living in "the projects," and for the city that during the New Deal era built the nation's first public housing.
There is nothing counterintuitive about saying that by tearing down the projects, the availability and quality of affordable housing has actually benefitted. It's been part of a plan and evolving process that many call the "Atlanta Model," and that model is being adopted and adapted by many large cities across the nation.
In the mid-1990s, Atlanta faced a multifaceted crisis. Most obvious, the city was slated to host the Olympic Games in 1996. That was great news, but on view for the world would be the awful blight of housing projects such as Techwood/Clark Howell Homes, with its hard-to-miss location directly adjacent to the Olympic Village. But far more important in the long term was the issue of what should replace public housing – more of the same or something new. The question the city faced was what kind of affordable housing should we build? Was it a good idea to put another coat of paint on distressed public housing projects? Or were their other alternatives?
The key to the answer was not the condition of the buildings – although it was clearly evident that no amount of money and work could transform the projects into decent housing. Rather, what I faced when I became CEO of the Atlanta Housing Authority in 1994 were two much more profound questions: Do we understand that everyone has unlimited human potential, and do we as a society value it?
It was clear that the greatest victims of public housing projects were the children: the next generation to be snared in the cycle of poverty. As many, many scholars have attested, when schools are packed with poor children (regardless of the child's race), unrelenting failure is the outcome. That was exactly the condition at the elementary schools that were embedded in housing projects, and the failure that started there impacted the middle and high schools up the education pipeline.
Added to that is the destructive impact on education. Dating back to the 1960s, education experts have concluded that "the most powerful predictors of educational success or failure are family income and parents' educational attainment," according to David Rusk, a leading urban issues researcher. Rusk's studies in cities across the nation have repeatedly shown the same race-neutral trend: a healthy income mix of students produces the best outcomes for all students.
Beyond schooling, the very premise of what public housing had become is one that is bound to destroy families. When expectations and standards are low – and currently they are – the ultimate victims of well-intentioned but misplaced social policies are the children. Go into any large housing project in any major American city and what you see are overwhelmingly single women and children largely cut loose from the socializing influence of strong families.
Housing projects were ground zero for soaring crime rates in cities. It's not that the residents are more likely to be criminals than any group of citizens. Indeed, they are the first victims of crime. Research shows overwhelmingly concentrated poverty begets crime, disinvestment and social malaise. The concentrated poverty of Atlanta's projects provided an unintended yet perfect environment for society's predators. Violent gangs claimed the turf, drug pushers prowled the perimeter, pimps snatched away children with promises of easy money.
It would be foolish to suggest that Atlanta's public housing didn't serve a purpose at one time. When the projects were first built right after the Great Depression, and Atlanta led the nation, they were remarkably effective stepping stones for low-income families into the American Dream. But with the steady erosion of expectations and standards, and with changes in social conditions over the decades, the transitional housing envisioned for low-income working families became permanent enclaves of perpetual poverty.
As we have found in repeated surveys, when asked if they want to leave the housing projects, more than 90 percent of the residents replied with a resounding "yes."
Mixed-income is a model that works in Atlanta and many other cities. We have independent proof of successful outcomes from the work of the last decade and a half. Equally important, we have the extraordinarily positive response from the former residents of public housing to the new model.
In Atlanta, the housing authority serves thousands more people today than it did before it razed all of its projects (other than 11 senior buildings and two small family properties). And all of the families receiving housing assistance live in better physical and social conditions than those found in the now-demolished public housing projects. In part, that is made possible because private investment now leverages the federal funds allocated to the authority. Thus, instead of being barely able to keep up with critical repairs to the decrepit projects, the infusion of private investment has made possible the creation of livable, affordable and quality neighborhoods.
Also, with greater deregulation provided by the federal government, the authority provides long-term counseling and coaching to families as they move into mainstream neighborhoods, resulting in an easier and more realistic transition to the mainstream for affected families. That same flexibility has allowed the authority to attract landlords from throughout the city and not just the poorer areas, facilitating real choices for housing and amenities for people leaving the projects.
Another ingredient to a successful housing program is high expectations. When you have low or no expectations, you'll get human failure. If you set your sights high, you'll get success. In Atlanta, we have a work requirement for all non-elderly, non-disabled adults receiving housing assistance. The result? The employment rate among our client families is indistinguishable from the mainstream population.
In summary, there are four things that happened as Atlanta changed its business model and embarked on a mixed-income model for affordable housing:
1. The city eliminated the cancers that destroyed lives and destroyed the fabric of the community. A significant percent of the city's population once written off now finds the doors opened to much better, more successful lives.
2. Children no longer are trapped in those environments where their future potential was strangled.
3. There has been a significant and enduring reduction in crime throughout the city.
4. Neighborhoods throughout the city that were abandoned are now thriving.
That's a success story about which all of us can be proud.