Activists Mobilize to Save Atlanta Public Housing, Seek Legal Options

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(APN) ATLANTA — An Atlanta activist with the Georgia Task Force for the Homeless requested April 4, 2007, that the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA) impose a voluntary moratorium on the demolition of the city’s public housing for at least one year.

“I have always felt in my heart, public housing that is available to people who are making minimum wage or less was a godsend,” Lynne Griever told the AHA Board of Commissioners during their regular monthly meeting. “How would we ever survive without public housing?”

Several groups are now working together investigating and researching possible legal remedies to stop the demolition, Anita Beaty, Executive Director of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeles, told Atlanta Progressive News. These groups are consulting and discussing the issue with legal experts.

Meanwhile, local advocacy organizations are mobilizing citizens–particularly the public housing residents themselves–to undertake a campaign of massive, drastic public outcry.

The City of Atlanta is planning to demolish its remaining public housing units that have not already been converted to so-called “mixed-income,” mixed-use developments as part of the AHA Quality of Life Initiative, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper (AJC) reported.

The proposed demolition will cost an estimated $15 million and, once complete, the land will be open for redevelopment. The project will affect approximately 3,000 units and 9,600 people.

“Mixed use, in theory, is great if everybody gets accommodated,” Griever told Atlanta Progressive News. “If you move 30 percent of people in public housing into a development with people of higher incomes and leave everybody else out, that’s the part that is offensive.”

Unfortunately, too often promises of mixed-income housing prove to leave most, if not all, of the homeless, public housing residents out.

For instance, during the negotiations to demolish the former New Orleans St. Thomas Housing Project in 2002, developers started out promising 50% of the units would be affordable, but in the end only 9% were affordable, one study showed.

Resident leaders from Atlanta public housing have expressed concern over the lack of consultation.

“I think the problem is we don’t fully understand what’s going on because they didn’t include us,” Diane Wright, President of the Residents Association at the Hollywood Courts apartment complex, told the AJC.

“That’s absolute insanity in a city where many people cannot find a place to live anyway,” Anita Beaty told APN.

The Atlanta Metro region already has a 200,000-unit shortage for people making under $40,000 a year, according to the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership. One-third of households earn less than $40,000 and 63 percent of the region’s jobs pay less than this figure.

“Don’t tear down one more housing unit until there is enough affordable housing for those who are going to be displaced!” Beaty said.

APN obtained a schedule of demolition plans and it appears the first demolition will not occur until early 2008 and continue through 2010.

LEGAL CONSIDERATIONS

The New Jersey Supreme Court decided the case of Burlington County NAACP v. Township of Mount Laurel in 1975. The court ruled “a developing municipality may not, by a system of land use regulation, make it physically and economically impossible to provide low and moderate income housing in the municipality for various categories of people who need and want it,” among other things.

Civil rights attorney Lindsay Jones, in a commentary in the March 15 AJC, writes that several states have adopted the doctrine “as legal precedence in requiring affirmative inclusionary housing policies.” However, Georgia Courts have not legally established this standard.

In 1974, Congress passed the Housing and Community Development Act. That act “requires, as a condition of receiving large entitlement federal community development block grants, that communities assess the housing needs of those of lower income residing in, or expected to reside in their jurisdictions based on labor demands,” Jones wrote.

Also, advocates are also looking at a recent injunction on the destruction of public housing in New Orleans, which argued those demolitions would violate the right of public housing residents to return to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. US Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) also pushed legislation barring the destruction of New Orleans public housing units or requiring that they be replaced with new units.

“Although demolition/disposition activity has always been permitted, HUD and its business partners have begun to actively pursue it as a management strategy option in the last ten years,” the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) website says.

Section 18 of the Public Housing Act of 1937 allows for the demolition of public housing.

HUD lists several reasons why developments can be torn down, first among them being this: “The costs associated with bringing the existing development into compliance with current standards are prohibitively expensive.”

As far as replacing housing that is torn down, the HUD Web site has this to say: “Except for disposition of developments based on the value of the property, replacement housing plans are no longer required as part of an application for Demolition/Disposition.”

VOUCHERS: A TICKET TO NOWHERE

Residents affected by the demolitions will allegedly be offered federal rent-assistance vouchers that are supposed to be good anywhere in the country.

But activists say this is not always the case.

“Vouchers are a ticket to nowhere,” Griever told the AHA. “We’re not seeing the vouchers, that are being heavily depended upon in order to relocate people that are in the housing now, will be the answer.”

“Vouchers are an illusion,” Terence Courtney of Atlanta Jobs with Justice, told APN. “History tells us less than 20 percent actually get vouchers and find a place to [live].”

Griever told the AHA not all landlords take these vouchers and that they can expire in 90 days if the tenant does not use them.

“There should be enough housing to help everybody with vouchers in their hand but there isn’t,” she told APN.

“If you can’t pay your utilities, you lose your voucher,” Beaty said of the program.

People must find housing without assistance, which could be difficult depending on the housing market, Beaty added.

Griever described to the AHA the shortage of low income housing as “critical.”

“If everybody did get a voucher, where would they go?” Courtney asked. He said a person selling his home for $200,000 or $300,000 “is not going to take a Section 8 voucher.”

“If they could realistically relocate people in a way that would work, they would do it,” Griever told APN after the meeting. “There just isn’t a way to do it.”

“We think AHA should put the brakes on this project until people have had more time to think about alternatives, ways that don’t destroy communities,” Courtney said.

“Let’s redefine the City in ways that are just and give power to the people who are most affected,” he added.

THE FUNDING PROBLEM

Since fiscal year 2001, federal funding for public housing has decreased by $1 billion, according to a document from the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) obtained by APN. This includes cuts in operating, capital, and HOPE VI funding.

The capital fund is important because it provides money for “modernization, including developing, rehabilitating and demolishing units, replacement housing and management improvements,” according to the NLIHC document.

“There is a more than $20 billion backlog for Capital Fund repairs in public housing.”

Some advocates for the homeless argue that the underfunding of public housing has been part of a strategy, because later the worn down condition of the units are used as an excuse to argue for demolition.

Atlanta has turned 11 of its original 42 public housing units into mixed use, mixed income developments since 1995 under the HOPE VI public housing revitalization program, according to the AJC.

The AHA maintains the HOPE VI redevelopment is moving too slow, leaving 5,000 families in housing units that they claim are too costly to operate, maintain, or renovate.

Courtney does not buy the contention the housing is too costly to renovate or in such bad shape that it all needs to be torn down.

“Why can’t we rehabilitate the community to have the quality of condos and then help the people organize in such a way to have a real, solid decision-making voice in how development happens?”

“The fact that housing is in such bad condition speaks more to the way the City and the region have funded public housing than the residents,” he continued.

“The poverty conditions in that area are created by conscious decisions of lawmakers. By not funding public housing properly, you create psychological conditions of deprivation, which are passed on through generations.”

THE PUBLIC WORKS OPTION

“We need a massive public works project in the city in order to renovate public housing,” Courtney said.

Residents could participate in rehabilitating their communities and take advantage of current laws that require residents to work in order to keep their housing, Courtney said.

“There could be training programs for people who don’t have living wage jobs,” Griever suggested. “[Residents] could be trained to do the renovations. A certain portion of those [units] that need to be renovated could be available to the people who are working [on the renovations].”

Courtney believes the benefits of such a program could be enormous. “It would be labor intensive but the money you put in on the front end is miniscule in terms of the money that gets produced in the back end because of the revitalized community,” he said.

The public wealth will increase. Education will improve. That creates a more harmonious society,” he added.

Beaty likes the idea. “It would be great if they got paid to do [the renovations]. People want to work and have the skills.”

HOUSING IS A HUMAN RIGHT

Housing is a human right. Every single person, regardless of race, class, or sex, is entitled to affordable housing, advocates argue.

“When you understand human rights, you understand every human being has a right to shelter,” Courtney said.

“If you’re going to implement a program that shows how work works, you’ve got to have affordable housing, you’ve got to have living wages,” Griever said. “If you don’t have living wage jobs, then you have to have subsidized housing for everybody.”

“The idea of having apartments for people who are working as nurses and teachers is great,” she said. “But the people working at Burger King have to have housing too. If you go to work everyday, you should be able to have it.”

“If the City was really committed to an egalitarian region, they could find the money [to save public housing],” Courtney said. “They don’t have to give tax breaks to all these private developers… why do they need our welfare to keep going?”

THE CITY’S ARGUMENT

“As long as public housing remains in the condition it is in, people who want to take that land and make profits from it have ammunition to say, ‘This is horrible’” and we developers can make something better,” Courtney said. “Then you have City officials that have accepted this model of City development that is very private, corporate oriented and believe their personal reputations will improve if they follow this model,” he continued.

“Race, class, and [sex] intersect in ways that help fuel this gentrification and privatization,” he added.

“It’s not like they just want to hurt people,” Griever said. “But there is a group that they will consider to be acceptable losses. There are no acceptable losses.”

“What we’re hearing is ‘We want more affluent people living in the city,'” Beaty said.

It is important for residents of public housing to organize because their numbers could translate into “a great deal of political might,” Courtney says.

“Part of the motives [in destroying public housing] is to destroy this political power,” he added.
“I think there is an effort to dilute minority voting strength,” Beaty concurs.

GETTING ORGANIZED AND TURNING THE HEAT UP

“They’re hoping maybe all the White people will come back from the suburbs and Black people can go away [and] that’s not realistic,” Griever said of the AHA plan.

Demolishing public housing will “push people further and further out into the unknown,” Courtney said. “Push[ing] people into the first ring of the suburbs that is deteriorating [where there is] no transportation to get to work — that to us is unacceptable.”

Members of the AHA Board of Commissioners expressed a willingness to meet with Griever and other activists in order discuss the issue further. “Rather than talking past each other, let’s sit down and see if we can find common ground,” Renee Glover, Executive Director of the AHA, told Griever.

Glover has been invited to an April 19, 2007, meeting on this issue at the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless headquarters but it is unknown if Glover will attend.

Griever talked about “empty promises” after the AHA meeting.

“They have a plan that has the appearance of considering other points of view. [But] they want to serve people who have more money,” she told APN.

“These guys are beatable. The people can win,” Courtney said optimistically. “You don’t always have to have 100,000 [protesters] in the streets. People do have the power and these forces will back down if there is some resistance put forward.”

“There are no acceptable losses and if there are losses, then the very least we can expect is to hold those responsible for those losses accountable,” Griever concludes. “We’re not going to go quietly. We’re not going to go away.”

About the author:

Jonathan Sprinston is a Senior Staff Writer for Atlanta Progressive News. He may be reached at jonathan@atlantaprogressivenews.com

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This article may be reprinted in full at no cost where Atlanta Progressive News is credited.

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