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Broken homes

Public housing shortages and lax oversight by the Atlanta Housing Authority are placing hundreds of Atlantans in ratty, possibly unhealthy apartments -- all at taxpayers' expense.

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Angela Sheffield's body is dotted with ring-shaped, fungal lesions. So are her two children's. Her neighbors in the Moreland Woods apartment complex, Sahara Callaway and Latoya Withers, each have a child who's suffered a bacterial lung infection. All three of Withers' children also have asthma. In fact, dozens of the residents take the same medication, albuterol, for asthma.

In all, at least 70 families who lived and breathed in Moreland Woods have fallen ill there.

David Bennett, an indoor environmentalist hired by an attorney to take bacterial samples, says toxic mold began to thrive in Moreland Woods sometime after 1997, when the management slapped a stucco facade over 1930s cinderblocks. The renovation trapped excessive moisture in the blocks, practically creating a petri dish for legionalla, E. coli and Stachybotrys chatarum.

In Dimasha Ponder's apartment, black mold stretches from the closet's floor to ceiling. It has crept from the floorboard to the headboard of Ponder's bed. In her children's room, two bunks are pulled askew to expose the spreading fungus.

"Every unit has something close to this magnitude," Bennett says of the 50 he's tested. "I've never seen a complex like Moreland Woods, one that had so much consistency with the [bacteria] concentrations. They're huge."

This is the first property attorney Charlie Peebles has targeted in an Erin Brockovich-style mission to determine if people's homes are making them sick. He has found others. And like the illnesses themselves, the addresses have something in common: They are partly paid for by the feds and, supposedly, inspected by the Atlanta Housing Authority.

"It's clear that [the housing authority] has been aware of this problem for the past two years," Peebles says of the mold growing inside Moreland Woods. "And [they] have only acted on it because of our legal action." After he threatened Moreland Woods owners with a lawsuit, the housing authority started moving families out.

Authority spokesman Rick White says tenants are supposed to complain to landlords first. If the problem doesn't get fixed, the housing authority pressures the landlord to do something about it.

"To the best of my knowledge, that process was followed" in Moreland Woods, he says. "But clearly there was a breakdown. We don't know at this point where the breakdown came."

Moreland Woods is the most dramatic example of the housing authority's lax oversight. But it is no anomaly.

Faced with an ever-shortening supply of affordable homes, Atlanta's poorest families have been forced to find landlords willing to sign a contract with the government. Under what's called the Section 8 program, landlords can take only the rent that the feds are offering. Most landlords aren't crazy about that idea.

But for those who agree to it, a monthly check is essentially guaranteed. So there's hardly any incentive to maintain the properties. And the Atlanta Housing Authority, the agency responsible for keeping landlords in line, has failed to carry out inspections in a way that ensures properties are decent and safe.

White says an upcoming audit of all 10,500 Section 8 rentals will help identify what happened at Moreland Woods and what might be happening throughout the city.

Right now, the only promise is a program that offers no incentives to conscientious landlords, that shuttles the poor into homes often resembling slums, and that fattens the wallets of neglectful landlords.

Congress birthed the Section 8 concept in the 1970s to complement Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1937 Fair Housing Act, which set up the first federal public housing complexes. For nearly 30 years, the program ambled along quietly, obscured from public view save for a few classified ads in which landlords attracted low-income tenants with the phrase, "Section 8 OK."

The concept works like this: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determines a city's "Fair Market Rent" -- basically, the average rent of all houses and apartments in the vicinity. Families with low incomes, usually less than $21,000 for a four-member household, apply for a Section 8 voucher from the local housing authority. Once the family gets a voucher, it finds a property below or slightly above the Fair Market Rent and a landlord willing to accept the voucher. The local housing authority then inspects the property, the tenant moves in and pays up to 40 percent of his or her income, and the authority uses federal tax money to pay the landlord the difference.

The theory is to evenly and unobtrusively spread poor families throughout middle-class neighborhoods.

The Section 8 voucher program grew modestly across the nation in the 1980s and early 1990s. Then it became all the rage. Starting in 1993, housing authorities began winning multimillion-dollar federal grants to tear down dilapidated public housing complexes -- traditional high-rises and barracks-style ghettos -- and replace them with safer and prettier "mixed-income" communities. To make up for the 23,000 units lost nationwide, housing authorities had to ask HUD for more vouchers.

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