- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 29, 2009


The nation’s bulldozer attack on crime and poverty soon will 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 about 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 in June.

Advocates for the poor worry that not enough subsidized homes remain and that thousands of families are being dumped onto the street. Fewer 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 into privately owned housing, but the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) said 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 Courts project.

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.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt heralded the project 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, said former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros.

“There was no kind of forward-looking plan and no commitment to dramatic change,” said Mr. Cisneros, who in the early 1990s helped craft what is known as the Hope VI program.

Hope VI eventually would 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 that low-income families can use to cover rent with private landlords off site.

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