Commentary: What New Orleans Can Learn From Atlanta’s Public Housing Model

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As the proposed redevelopment of the Iberville housing projects moves forward incrementally, nascent opposition to transforming the last of New Orleans remaining “Big 4” pre-Katrina projects has begun to swell, as evinced in the piece by Elizabeth Cook of NewOrleansindymedia.org. It’s a shame that many self-labeled progressives do not seem to recognize actual progress, because if they objectively considered the Atlanta Housing Authority’s transformation, they just might change their opinions.

The Manhattan Institute’s Howard Husock offers an engrossing article in the City Journal on the Atlanta Housing Authority’s reforms and their benefits for the community at large.  At the national level, public housing is mired in a culture of apathy and neglect. 53% of households earn less than $10,000 a year, while only 13% have two adult residents. The preponderance of single-parent households is directly correlated to rents which are generally fixed at around 30% of household income, thus incentivizing parents to remain unmarried. Furthermore, public housing rarely has a work requirement or “sunset” limit on residency, resulting in an annual stay of 8 years per housing unit.

At the beginning of Renee Glover’s tenure as leader of the AHA, Atlanta had the highest murder rate in the nation, and in the housing projects, the crime rate was 6 times higher than in the rest of the city. Using a combination of HUD grants and private financing, the AHA demolished 14,000 units and preserved 2,000, mostly for elderly residents. Glover then leased the newly cleared land to private developers with the assurance that 40% of the new units would be reserved for tenants who met residency qualifications. 40% of the AHA’s previous residents then relocated to these new mixed-income units, while the remaining 60% received housing vouchers dispersed throughout the city.

The real game-changer, however, was Glover’s innovative policy of instituting a work requirement, or enrolling in a valid training program, for both project residents and voucher recipients. Atlanta was the first city to establish such a standard. She didn’t stop there, however. Recognizing that a true metamorphosis of the city’s housing culture would entail dedicated social work, and not simply physical redevelopment, Glover had the AHA hire the Integral Youth and Family Project to provide intensive counseling for tenants, as well as to help cultivate education and employment habits.

The results of Glover’s prescient, sweeping change of Atlanta’s public housing are impressive. AHA-supported household heads now have a 62% employment rate, which is a massive increase from the 18% rate when Glover began her tenure. Fewer recipients are failing to meet AHA standards, as only 12% of voucher recipients in 2009 failed to meet standards and lost their vouchers. This is down from 2007, when 23% failed to do so.

Challenges certainly remain. The average residential tenure has hardly budged, although Glover is flirting with the idea of a sunset requirement. Local businesses, likewise, are reluctant to invest in the still low-income area, even though a burgeoning nightlife scene has appeared close nearby. Nonetheless, there’s no disputing that the AHA has drastically bettered the quality of life for housing residents, and in turn, the greater Atlanta community by reintroducing thousands into mainstream socioeconomic society and lowering the once-astronomical crime rate.

Atlanta’s remarkable public housing transformation is the standard by which New Orleans should hold itself to. So far, our city has done well to emulate our counterpart in Georgia. However, obstacles on the horizon threaten the continued success of this “urban renewal.” As evidenced by Cook’s rendering of the situation, grassroots activists, coupled with local advocates like James Perry, are fighting to prevent any such redevelopment at Iberville. While there is a legitimate argument that there should be sufficient units to accommodate displaced residents from previous housing projects, conspiratorial gentrification theories do nothing to advance the debate.

It is inarguable that the old model of public housing failed not only its residents, but the city. Warehousing the poorest citizens in isolated apartment complexes ultimately deprives them of the means to grow into self-reliant citizens. This isn’t “fair housing,” it’s abandonment.  A progressive, prosperous future requires innovative solutions appropriate for the individual and the community. Reverting to the troubled past cannot alleviate the problems of New Orleans’ poor and will only damage recovery.

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