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Atlanta Housing Authority shell game

First you see the poor people, then you don't



Don't picture rusting trailers and parking lot drug deals, housing projects or tricked-out Oldsmobiles. Ignore the landfill that towers like a mountain and the rock quarry's window-rattling blasts. Those undesirables are so old neighborhood.

Imagine instead Craftsman-style bungalows in pastel hues, stone fountains spurting prosperity, a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course blanketing the dump -- a real grocery store in place of the Buy Low.

Welcome to West Highlands.

Northwest Atlanta, part lush forest, part urban wasteland, has sat mostly untouched for 40 years. That's about to change. The Atlanta Housing Authority has a vision for a mixed-income community to top all mixed-income communities to date.

Three years ago, the Atlanta Housing Authority won a federal grant to move 2,500 low-income residents out of Perry Homes and demolish and rebuild the 1,000-unit complex. West Highlands marks the city's eighth venture into redeveloping public housing as mixed-income communities. A ninth is in the works.

Looking at the communities that preceded West Highlands, it's easy to see why redevelopment is so popular. Who can argue with lower crime rates, higher property values, better schools and landscaped grounds?

Not the Housing Authority, whose modus operandi has been hailed by Congress and emulated in other cities. Not the developers, who were cut sweet deals to build both in and around the old projects' sites. Not the city, which rakes in heartier taxes from rising property values.

And not the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which hails Atlanta as its poster child for public housing. West Highlands will be the city's centerpiece.

Seven-hundred apartments. Two-hundred and fifty homes. A 65,000-square-foot YMCA. A library and a school. Most of the $340 million tab will be picked up by the private sector, with a $280 million investment by developers dwarfing the $35 million federal HOPE VI grant and the $22 million commitment -- fingers crossed -- from the city.

"You cannot name a better example of a public-private partnership in America today," says Greg Giornelli, a former Housing Authority employee who now works for the mayor. "This deal brings HOPE VI to a whole new level."

But the aggrandizing of West Highlands' good points has obscured the bad: as the biggest HOPE VI project to date, West Highlands displaces a record number of poor families.

So much for learning from the past.

After the first Atlanta public housing complex was redeveloped with a HOPE VI grant in 1994, HUD raised a warning flag. "Some housing authorities, such as Atlanta and Charlotte, have accomplished impressive physical revitalizations at their HOPE VI sites," the HUD inspector general wrote in a 1998 audit. "However, improvements to the lives of the residents who lived there are much less obvious."

The audit was the first and last of any criticism lodged from the federal level. After the first transformation, one after another public housing complex was demolished -- rebuilt with most units set aside for those who pay full rent. Today, there are 9,500 public housing units in Atlanta. Before all the redevelopment, there were 14,500. (The displacement of public housing residents was the subject of a May 8 CL story, "Locked Out.")

The number of apartments set aside for public housing residents at West Highlands will be true to past form. Of the 950 homes, 228 will be set aside for public housing.

There's nothing wrong with tearing down dilapidated projects. Nor is mixed-income redevelopment inherently flawed. It improves the lives of the people who return and offers an incentive for others to clean up their lives. Tenants of mixed-income communities must have jobs and a clean criminal history.

The problem is that when you replace substandard housing with high-standard housing and let only a fraction of the tenants return, you don't do a lot of good for the housing and poverty crises as a whole.

The Housing Authority chooses to ignore this -- reiterating that its job is not to serve the poor but "to provide quality affordable housing for the betterment of our community."

So skewed is the Housing Authority's perspective that it states in a "HOPE VI Lessons Learned" report: "The success of the HOPE VI ... Program should not be measured by how many of the original families return to the revitalized communities." Which begs the question: If the Housing Authority isn't accommodating the poor, who is?

Last year, the Atlanta City Council approved recommendations from the city's Gentrification Task Force -- one urging that the council enforce "a one-for-one replacement housing policy." More specifically, the recommendation stated that for each public housing unit torn down by the Housing Authority, another must be built.

The city is not doing much to heed the task force's warnings. In fact, some council members show an unwillingness to accept criticism of West Highlands.

At an Oct. 29 hearing called by the council's community development committee, council members listened to opinions on whether the city should approve northwest Atlanta as a special tax allocation district. Approving the tax district is the only way the city can afford the $22 million the Housing Authority seeks for road and sewer construction at West Highlands. "We're really counting on the city to come through on their end," says Anthony Pickett, of the Housing Authority.

Some of the northwest Atlanta residents who spoke at the hearing lamented that they, as well as many original Perry Homes residents, will never see the benefits of West Highlands.

"It's going to change the community in a positive way and that is really, really needed," said Deborah Williams, who grew up in Perry Homes. "It's also going to change it in a lot of negative ways."

"Let's be positive," councilwoman Cleta Winslow said, cutting Williams off.

"I'm here to positively say that we know a lot of promises were made" to residents, Williams replied. "And a lot of those promises will never be carried through."

The tone was more placid two days later when councilwoman Felicia Moore, whose district encompasses West Highlands, hosted a bus tour of the neighborhood.

With Perry Homes gone, the district is mostly comprised of houses built by blue-collar workers of now-defunct factories. But there are at least two upscale subdivisions -- one complete, one under way. In the latter, homes start at $370,000 -- directly across from the landfill.

From the nearby intersection of Bolton and Moores Mill roads, however, Buckhead "is just a stone's throw," Moore pointed out. Yet the stores at the intersection -- Buy Low Supermarket, Value Village and Dollar General -- are hardly evocative of the Buckhead shopping district anchored by Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue.

It's hard to imagine someone who just bought a $400,000 home stopping at the grocery for 89-cent- per-pound pork chops advertised in the window.

"These are not good services for the community," Moore said.

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