Monday, January 17, 2011

When is "Community" Not "Community"?

First of a three-part series

The word "community" is inevitably used – and frequently misused – in discussions about government owned and managed public housing. What is "community"? How do you build "community"? When is "community" not "community"?

Those questions touch on much of the work we do at the Atlanta Housing Authority. What I'll address in this article is our philosophy of "building community." And, in two subsequent articles I'll deal with subjects that directly impact "community" – people who fall into a category housing specialists call the "hard to house," and finally Atlanta's homeless population. In these three articles, my goal is two-fold: to explain what we are doing in Atlanta, and to dispel some myths associated with our work.

When we began demolishing Atlanta's obsolete housing projects in 1994, we heard from self-appointed advocates for the residents that we were destroying communities. That sort of phrasing is a conversation-stopper. Who in the world would want to destroy communities? Certainly, not me.

That's the wrong question, of course. It doesn't stand up to reason when you define "community." The so-called community in housing projects was the offshoot of failed public policies. From transitional housing for people looking to rebuild their lives, public housing projects devolved into housing of last resort, inescapable prisons of concentrated poverty. The ills that accompany such poisonous levels of poverty and devastatingly low expectations undermined any civility and any real community in the projects. Community is not achievable when your life and your children's lives are in danger on a daily basis. You cannot retain a sense of hopefulness when you know your child is attending schools at the bottom of achievement rankings. You cannot maintain respect when the expectations are so low that virtually any behavior is tolerated. You cannot have community when there are no quality grocery stores and retailers within a reasonable distance. You cannot build community when the strain and stress of the living conditions in the projects means a disproportionately large number of the residents will have more illnesses, more mental problems and earlier deaths than the larger population.

So, what we began in 1994 and continue today – the replacement of the toxic environments of the housing projects with a new model – was definitely not destroying what advocates romantically call "community." It cannot be disputed that strong, long-standing social and familial bonds existed in these "war" zones, but not once in the last 16 years, has a former resident of a former housing project come to me and told me that they missed the good old days in Techwood or Bowen or Capitol homes, or any of the other projects. What is often said is: "Thank you for helping me and my family get out;" "My children can now go out and play;" or "My children are safer and are getting a better education."

What, then, is the community we've been building? First, our underlying premise is that all people have unlimited God-given human potential. Public housing over the years, in a well-meaning but often wrong-minded quest to have it address every social ill, diminished and destroyed that potential, especially the potential of children. In a direct response to reverse this unfolding tragedy, we sought to build a model that was "children-centered" and designed to capitalize on and celebrate human potential. The essential ingredients, as I've written in previous "Lessons Learned," are ending concentrated poverty, raising expectations and standards and creating healthy mixed-income and mixed-use communities built and operated by private-public partnerships.

Why these ingredients?

Concentrated poverty is synonymous with crime, drugs, hopelessness, economic wastelands and poor or no services. All of the research says you cannot overcome it and results are always dire. So we said: We must not concentrate poverty.

Low expectations and standards are insidious and destructive. They result in multi-generational problems. Again, all of the research says you cannot overcome it and the results are always dire. So we said: We must raise the expectations and standards.

Mixed-income is necessary because all investment and services (public and private) follow disposable income. The healthiest communities are ones where people of all incomes, races, cultures and occupations are involved – sharing and contributing to a vibrant and desirable neighborhood, with great schools, great amenities and quality living. When public housing-assisted residents have moved into mixed-income communities – either the ones built on the sites of the former housing projects or, with the aid of housing assistance vouchers, neighborhoods throughout the city – we have seen and documented that the assisted residents are soon indistinguishable from the mainstream, all striving to achieve the American dream. In every major U.S. city, the projects are identifiable when you pass them by. You know – by the stigma associated with the public housing program – these places are unsafe. So you keep moving.

When all of Atlanta's large family housing projects were operational, the residents lived in five ZIP Codes. Not surprising, those ZIP Codes were among the poorest in the city, with average household incomes as low as about $13,000. Since razing the projects, those families now live in 24 ZIP Codes around the city (plus a small number who have moved to other counties and states). What our studies show is that the residents now live in neighborhoods that, on average, are 27 percent more affluent than when they lived in the projects.

That incredible improvement in environment – which assures better schools, better retailers, and more social, cultural and recreational amenities – is the difference between what is euphemistically called "community," but isn't, and a truly healthy community.

Two other ingredients are also necessary for community. Mixed-use means the amenities and services that make a community great – globally competitive neighborhood public schools, excellent early childhood learning centers, upscale retailers and so on. And, private-public partnerships are essential because the new healthy communities must be built and marketed by great private sector developers. No one aspires to live in government-operated housing projects. AHA invests its land and public funds, but the value creation, innovation and market competitiveness are driven by the entrepreneurial spirit of the private developer. Because the private funds (and the market risks that accompany them) represent a majority of the investments made – the private players have a huge stake in insuring the long-term success of the community.

If you visit Atlanta's revitalized neighborhoods, what you will see are communities in the finest sense of the word. Residents from all walks of life (including those who receive public housing assistance) are living, working, playing, learning and thriving in great children-centered destination places. Throughout Atlanta in recent years, as a direct result of demolishing the projects and creating healthy mixed-use, mixed-income communities, the surrounding neighborhoods have dramatically improved by every measure. For the first time in decades, people are eagerly moving back into Atlanta. Mixed-use, mixed-income development flourishes throughout the city – and most of that new enterprise would not have happened if the housing projects still were standing.

So, our belief from the beginning is that community is more than just an address. It is a place where, above all, children will flourish and families will find the resources and amenities to build successful lives. That did not exist, regardless of the romantic wishes, in the housing projects. It does exist today in the communities we've helped developed throughout Atlanta.


  1. I fully support the mission and goals of the Atlanta Housing Authority, and not just because I earn my living selling and appraising real estate, but because America succeeds when our individual communities are successful and thriving.

  2. congratulations on a great article. You definitely touch the essence of what a community should be, integrated, healthy, and with resources. Hope others follow your initiatives. Conchy Bretos

  3. You had to go with a new formula to improve the "community".We had followed a pattern of making physical upgrades to the complexes,however,we did not change the culture.The role models to achievement were submerged. We created mini- prisons,poverty encampments,thanks for not keeping the same old failed policies.

  4. This was a phenominal vision. I believe that all states should adopt or use this model. Why? We can't continue doing the same old thing and expect different results. Every child deserves the right to a good education and a good quality of life.

  5. Renee,
    I cannot begin to thank you for your forward-thinking and your willingness to forge ahead to help so many have hope and pride in their communities. Your initiative on behalf of the Atlanta Housing Authority is the foremost reason so many are moving back in to the City of Atlanta. You are changing lives for the better. This is yet another example of "Creative Destruction" and the positive impact it can have on so many! Looking forward to reading the other 2 blogs in this series.

  6. I am from Atlanta but now live in another city. I wish our local Housing Authority could embrace the concept of community which you have enacted as opposed to defending the status quo in the name of "protecting history." Thank you for your efforts to rescue people and for the lives that will be more fully lived as a result.

  7. Government by itself cannot solve the social ills so deeply entrenched in our "communities". Thank you Renee for your courageous vision and the tenacity to forge ahead inspite of the naysayers. I look for ward to reading the next two segments. These comments should make the headline news.

  8. I love this article and fully beleive in the concept. I know this is they way to go to once and for all change the genarational cycle of people coming out of this type housing. My mother lives in a housing project community in Illinois, due to her having to stop working and raising my sister's three children after she was murdered. I am working on getting her out there it is so negative and depressing for her.

  9. When I was getting my Masters in Human Services (way back in 1992), my professor used this subject (community and the housing projects)as an assignment which asked us to construct a paradigm for a new community. Many of us postulated the same sentiments that were in your article. Thank you Ms. Glover for your brave convictions, courage and let's-get-it-done attitude that has made this paradigm a reality.

  10. Thank you for writing. Your blog is an example of how social media can be put to great use in sharing methods of social service delivery. I am a big fan of AHA and always glad to hear about your good work.

  11. I am reading this article after "discovering" the second. As a child of public housing, I can attest that what you write is so very true. I am currently in the Housing Choice Voucher Program and recently transferred from Ohio. There is a vicious negative cycle occuring in the projects. Crime, proverty, and hopelessness reign. Children grow to learn this as a normal way of life. I feel that your revitalizing paradigm will break this bleak cycle for many families and generations. KEEP ON KEEPING ON! TAKE IT NATIONAL!!!

  12. I want to first congratulate AHA for effectively taking on a task that has enormous complexity and the leadership for its commitment. Overall the need to replace archaic affordable housing paridigms was long overdue. Once the original mission of public housing shifted from its original internt, our policies for providing "transitional" and affordable housing should have followed the needs of our Communities.

    I believe overall the article explains approach and is clear and articulate in defining its goals, but it is misleading in its conclusions. Poverty eradication, which I believe should be the aim, was not the goal, but dispersing or diffusing poverty was and is the aim. Ms. Glover stated:

    "Concentrated poverty is synonymous with crime, drugs, hopelessness, economic wastelands and poor or no services. All of the research says you cannot overcome it and results are always dire. So we said: We must not concentrate poverty." Goal accomplished. Housing in and of itself doesn't eliminate the social conditions of poverty, low expectations, drugs, crime etc. Transformational programs intergrated with sustainalbe, afffordable living spaces do. Ms Glover goes on to say:

    "Since razing the projects, those families now live in 24 ZIP Codes around the city (plus a small number who have moved to other counties and states). What our studies show is that the residents now live in neighborhoods that, on average, are 27 percent more affluent than when they lived in the projects." I say, the residents themselves, in most cases did not become middle incomed, gentrified residents, they became invisible. Incomes didn't change for the most part, expectations did...expectations that were not met by those who were not permitted to stay in the newly developed communities. Previous public housing residents, if they met the criteria, were given the option to become a part of the new community. Most couldn't because of criminal record holders within their families or chose to take advantage of the housing voucher because it did expand their housing choices but not necessarily their income or standard of living.

    I commend Ms. Glover's knowledge of Community Development, revitalization and partnership building. I urge her to be more forthcoming when we assess the impact on poverty and the poor. And maybe we should work on the residual resentment between AHA and the "self appointed" advocates and their "romantic" ties to their neighborhoods.

  13. thnx for the information..
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