If one word could possibly describe the state of Atlanta’s public housing a decade ago, it would be “isolated.” Each of Atlanta’s blocky brick projects was its own dismal universe of poverty and crime — walled off psychologically and sometimes physically from the rest of the city. “Isolated” also sums up the inept agency that ran public housing there. The Atlanta Housing Authority had hunkered down, as bureaucracies under siege do, deflecting its many critics while doing little to improve the lives of thousands of families living in its slums.
But in the past eight years, everything has changed. Today in Atlanta, people talk about housing projects as “catalysts” for rejuvenating entire neighborhoods. As for the housing authority, city officials, developers, bankers, educators and ministers all describe it with a new word: “partner.” This is Renee Glover’s vocabulary. Since taking over as AHA’s executive director in 1994, Glover has done nothing less than transform the way Atlanta, and much of the country, talks about public housing.
Glover put Atlanta at the forefront of cities that began tearing down decrepit housing projects in the 1990s. Up from the rubble arose sparkling townhouse communities where poor public housing residents lived next door to middle-class people. By now, this is a familiar story in urban America, but Glover was the first local housing official to figure out how to make this idea work. What she proved, in one project after another, is that it’s possible to reconnect public housing residents with the larger community. “These communities had become separate worlds unto themselves,” Glover says. “We’re restoring the social contract for families where it had been severely broken.”
Glover is America’s maestro of mixed-income, mixed-finance development. She pulled AHA out of its bunker to forge ties not only with builders and bankers but also with foundations, the school board and the YMCA. Glover’s gift for dealmaking, honed during a previous career as a corporate lawyer, moved a dozen Atlanta redevelopments steadily along, even as projects in other cities languished. Using $186 million in federal funds, she leveraged a staggering $1.5 billion worth of mostly private investment for neighborhoods that many had previously written off. “Renee connected public housing in Atlanta with the world of modern real estate, capital and finance,” says Conrad Egan, director of policy at the National Housing Conference.
Comfortable as she is in corporate boardrooms, Glover’s passion really is for the families living in assisted housing. When she took the job, she was struck by the multi-generational poverty in the projects: Children whose mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers lived in public housing had little inspiration to leave. As Glover sees it, creating quality housing and stable neighborhoods are the first steps to breaking that cycle. “So many things have been said to these families: You are different, apart from, not a valuable member of society,” she says. “Our biggest challenge is reintegrating these families into the mainstream.”
Glover’s approach is more than “knock down and rebuild.” She’s dramatically improved conditions in all public housing in Atlanta. She gives the credit to privatized management: As of last year, contractors have been handling all of AHA’s maintenance and rent collection. Glover also privatized the design and construction unit and the public relations shop. AHA’s payroll, which was notoriously bloated by patronage, is down from 1,400 to 380. Using new financial systems, this leaner staff got AHA’s books in order. When Glover started, AHA was considered a “troubled” agency by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Now, it is considered a “high performer.”
Glover has her critics. Some argue that her privatizing binge went too far. Others say it’s unfair that some tenants of the demolished projects aren’t returning to the mixed-income townhouse communities. Yet one thing is clear about Atlanta: In isolation, public housing was rife with excuses. Now that it’s becoming part of the city again, it is providing answers.
— Christopher Swope
Photos by Robin Nelson