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Locked out

How one of the country's most lauded housing agencies rebuilt the homes of the poor to better serve the middle class

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Stevie Rogers moved out of Carver Homes four years ago, expecting she'd be back one day. She settled into a cinderblock house with a dirt yard and kept tabs as the public housing project fell to the wrecking ball. She waited while construction crews cleared the 100 acres of rubble in the southern shadow of downtown. She watched them build rows of terraced apartments, a sprawling playground and a community clubhouse.

And she told herself that the new complex, renamed the Villages at Carver, would be perfect for her and her three children.

But the Atlanta Housing Authority's promise that there would be room for all the original Carver families turned out to be hollow. The AHA has denied application after application to live in the new complex. In March, Rogers was turned down because 19 years ago she'd been arrested for possession of marijuana.

"It was all right for me to raise my kids over there in Carver Homes when it was a hellhole," she says. "Now that they've remodeled and did everything, we ain't good enough to come back."

The authority's remedy for the dilapidated state of public housing -- tear down the tenements, construct gleaming new buildings in their place and encourage the poor and the middle class to move back -- looks on the surface like a success. Politicians and the press marvel at neighborhoods transformed from pitiable to posh. But this is no fairy tale.

Fewer public housing apartments are being rebuilt than are being torn down, meaning fewer low-income families get the shelter they need. Background checks to get into the new mixed-income communities are stricter than those at swanky Buckhead high-rises. And the list of families waiting for room in public housing now runs longer than the number of actual public-housing tenants.

All of which raises searing but seldom-asked questions: How, for example, can the redevelopments be deemed successes when only a tenth of the original residents ever return? And why is a taxpayer-funded agency winning so much praise for excluding the very people it was created to serve?

"Anybody who finds it difficult to get in," says AHA spokesman Rick White, "we probably don't want to have as a tenant anyway."

Apart from that pat answer, insight into the inner workings of the housing authority is hard to come by. University researchers and advocates for the poor have run into roadblocks when looking for data from the agency. A Creative Loafing request for basic statistics was met with a price tag of more than $24,000. And AHA Executive Director Renee Glover would respond only in writing to CL inquiries.

She maintains that no matter how you look at mixed-income communities, it's a win-win situation. "I believe that what has been accomplished at AHA benefits all Atlantans," she wrote, "low-income or not."

Built in the 1930s for Depression-era families, Atlanta's Techwood Homes was the federal government's first public housing complex. Its founding principle was simple: Provide affordable housing to families who need it. As Franklin D. Roosevelt prophesied at Techwood's inauguration, "Within a very short time, people who never before could get a decent roof over their heads will live here in reasonable comfort and healthful, worthwhile surroundings."

For decades, the Atlanta Housing Authority pretty much met those standards. But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as inner cities began to bow under the crack epidemic, the housing authority became overwhelmed. Places like Techwood grew into untended enclaves of crime and addiction.

Nationwide, the picture wasn't much prettier. In 1992, a congressional commission recommended that 86,000 uninhabitable public housing units be torn down. It was up to the Congress to figure out what to build in their place -- and what to do with the people who lived there.

Through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and local housing authorities, Congress offered tenants a deal: We'll help you find a new place to live and pay your moving costs. We'll tear down your substandard homes and build better ones. And we'll welcome you to an urban nirvana, clean and safe and professionally landscaped.

The deal had a catch, though. A certain number of the new apartments would have to be reserved for middle-class families. Making the communities mixed-income would ensure that the poor weren't isolated in pockets of poverty. And the well-to-do would help foot the construction bill, as well as help revitalize inner-city neighborhoods.

The program was christened Home Ownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere (nicknamed HOPE VI because it was the sixth attempt to reform public housing). HUD officials described it in grand phrases, like "the laboratory for the reinvention of public housing." The Atlanta Housing Authority would come to fancy itself the lead scientist.

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