Rehab Refugees

America's worst public housing projects are being fixed up, and many of them look pretty good. There's just one puzzling question: Where did the old tenants go?
by | May 2001

It is hard to believe that the Villages of East Lake, Atlanta's newest golf course community, was once a dangerous public housing project. From the wicker rocking chairs behind the leasing office, the view is one of country club elegance: an enticing swimming pool, a pair of gleaming new tennis courts, golf carts buzzing to the next tee. Gone are the infamous old housing blocks of East Lake Meadows, a place that was so violent people called it "Little Vietnam." In their stead are hundreds of three-story townhouses done in beige with red-brick accents and white picket balconies. The main public hazard is no longer flying bullets. It's flying golf balls.

It does not take much of an eye for architecture or urban planning to see that the transformation at East Lake is truly astounding. There are still public housing residents here, yet the homes are trim and the streets are clean. Crime in the neighborhood is way down, and property values are way up. Come here on a weekday afternoon and there aren't people idly hanging around as there used to be. That's because everyone is working.

Come here on a weekend afternoon, however, when the residents are out golfing or dipping in the pool, and there is another, more subtle transformation to see. The people enjoying this community, by and large, are not the same people who lived here before. This is a "mixed income" development now. Half of the residents are middle-class folks paying market rents. The other half are public housing tenants who have been screened and who have agreed to abide by stringent rules. Of the 428 families who lived here in the Little Vietnam days, only 79 moved back when it came to resemble a resort.

A similar makeover is happening in projects all over Atlanta. One by one, the city is tearing down its old public housing projects, places such as Carver Homes and Kimberly Courts, whose very names evoke a failed era in which society's poorest people were warehoused in enclaves of despair. Rising from the dust is the new face of public housing: quaint neighborhoods of townhomes where the working poor live next door to the middle class. By every measure, these new communities are better places to live.

But there's a nagging issue that's often overlooked in the enthusiasm for renewal. If most of the previous tenants don't live here, where did they all go?

It's a surprisingly difficult question to answer. It's an increasingly important one, though, as cities nationwide continue a drive to demolish their worst public housing projects. The infamous housing towers of Chicago, Philadelphia and Newark are coming down; Baltimore blew up the last of its high-rises in February. Meanwhile, equally decrepit low-rise units, more like barracks than apartments, are disappearing in Seattle, Nashville and San Antonio. Nearly everywhere, the demolished projects are being replaced with traditional looking, mixed-income neighborhoods.

It is all very encouraging. But there is a simple math tied to this revitalization, one that poses both short-term and long-term consequences. Cities are building fewer housing units for poor people than they are tearing down. Nationally, around 100,000 units came down in the 1990s, and about 60,000 were scheduled to be replaced. In the short-term, housing authorities are legally obligated to relocate residents whose homes are demolished. In the long-term, the question is: With the stock of affordable housing shrinking, where will poor people live?

Only now, a decade after the wrecking ball began to swing, are researchers and policy makers finally starting to look at these issues. Several national think-tank studies are currently under way. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has funded revitalization work in 130 cities through its "Hope VI" public housing reform program, is asking cities to assess the local impact on people and neighborhoods.

The single best place to ask the question may be Atlanta. This is the city that pioneered the whole mixed-income concept when it leveled and began rebuilding the Techwood/Clark Howell projects in 1995. Since then, it has begun turning 10 additional projects into mixed-income townhouse developments and planning three more, making it a virtual poster-city for Hope VI. Yet, when you ask the awkward questions about tenant displacement, you get wildly inconsistent answers. Depending on whom you ask, the Hope VI policies have either liberated hundreds of families with a new range of housing choices, or dumped some of Atlanta's poorest people out on the street.

Officials at the Atlanta Housing Authority, whose job it was to relocate residents, say they know exactly where families ended up. A small percentage returned to the new developments, but most received Section 8 vouchers and are living in apartments in the private rental market. Some residents moved into other public housing units in Atlanta, and a few even bought homes. "For some people, this is the first time they've had housing choices in their lives," says executive director Renee Lewis Glover. "They can move to where they like the schools or have more job opportunities."

Others, however, say that Hope VI reminds them of the urban renewal policies of the 1950s and '60s, when cities bulldozed low-income neighborhoods and forgot about the people who lived there. According to lawyers representing Atlanta tenants, hundreds of families were emptied out of the projects before any choices were offered to them, and nobody has any idea where they are sleeping at night. Meanwhile, as Atlanta loses one-third of its public housing stock to demolition, more people who need housing are turned away. "Where have the poorest gone?" asks Frank Alexander, an Emory University law professor who represented East Lake's tenants. "They are on the streets, under overpasses and in shelters. There's a direct correlation between the bulldozing of public housing and the increased demand for homeless shelters."

If you had lived at Little Vietnam before it was demolished, you had to meet certain criteria in order to return to the new Villages of East Lake. If able-bodied, you needed to be working, or receiving job training or enrolled in school. You couldn't have a history of skipping out on your rent payment. You and any family members on your lease could not have a violent criminal history or recent conviction. And finally, you had to agree to regular housekeeping checks.

The screening represents a new philosophy for Atlanta, one that is being echoed around the country. Public housing shouldn't be a semi- permanent holding pen for homeless people and welfare mothers. It should be a safe place for people to work their way to self- sufficiency. "We don't apologize for high standards," Glover says. "We believe every able-bodied person can be successful."

Few would disagree with that goal. But one impact of the screening has been to impose a drastic limit on the number of people who can come back to redeveloped housing sites. In Atlanta, the average return rate is less than 15 percent. The vast majority of people whose suffering justified tearing down the projects in the first place aren't coming back. In a national audit of Hope VI two years ago, HUD's inspector general noted that "some housing authorities...have accomplished impressive physical revitalizations at their Hope VI sites. However, improvements to the lives of the residents who lived there are much less obvious."

It's not just Atlanta that has seen relatively few original residents return. According to the inspector general's report, 8 percent returned to a revitalized Hope VI site in San Antonio, and 16 percent returned in Charlotte, North Carolina. Columbus, Ohio, managed 35 percent.

Housing advocates have pounced on the low return rates in making the case that this is 1950s urban renewal all over again. Georgia Tech planning professor Larry Keating has watched the redevelopment process unfold in Atlanta since 1990. He argues that the housing authority's policies have essentially abandoned the poorest and toughest-to-help residents, in favor of the less desperate. "If you're sincere about a policy meant to improve the lives of poor people, then work with the existing folks," Keating argues. "Don't just throw away the first bunch and get a better class of poor people."

Atlanta officials argue it is misleading to judge its polices by the number of residents who return after renovation. Not everybody wanted to return, they say. And nobody was cast out into the street. Instead, residents received extensive relocation counseling and had several housing options available to them. When offered a Section 8 voucher, most residents jumped at the chance to move out of public housing and into a private rental. Housing officials even drove them around to look for apartments and paid their moving costs, security deposits and utility hookup fees. "Not all of the families wanted to come back," Glover says. "The fact that they decide to stay in Section 8 is a success."

Keating admits that those residents who stayed long enough to receive relocation assistance were treated fairly. But he alleges that while some left by choice, others left because of deliberate efforts of the housing authority to step up evictions or cut back on building maintenance. (The authority denies this.) In any case, by the time relocation began at Techwood, half of the 1,115 original families had already left, forfeiting their right to relocation benefits. "The housing authority offered relocation assistance to 545 families," Keating says, "it should have been 1,115 families, not 545."

Another relocation debate has sprung up around the reliance on Section 8 vouchers. Section 8 is already squeezed in tight rental markets such as Atlanta's and it can be difficult for public housing tenants to find apartments in decent neighborhoods. In good times, landlords can afford to be choosy, and given the choice, most of them prefer non- subsidized tenants over tenants using Section 8. The result, housing advocates argue, is that residents are moving from one ghetto to another.

The Atlanta Housing Authority has taken steps to try to avoid that fate. It has had some success recruiting landlords into the program, and its policies prohibit more than 40 percent of any one apartment complex from becoming occupied with Section 8 tenants. Tenants have relocated across a wide geographic area and in every county in the Atlanta metropolitan region. The 2000 Census, somewhat surprisingly, showed that the inner-suburban counties of De Kalb and Clayton both had non-white majorities. Some attribute this in part to Section 8 dispersals under the Atlanta revitalization program.

On a national level, HUD is encouraging cities to use its databases to analyze how Hope VI is affecting local concentrations of poverty. Urban Institute researcher Tom Kingsley recently picked through data from 48 cities to look for patterns. "The results were all over the place," Kingsley says. "It doesn't confirm either side's arguments. It's not like everybody moved out to the suburbs, but it's also not the case that everybody is just moving into the building across the street."

The impact, it seems, depends a lot on the particular city and the strength of the real estate market. In Philadelphia, the flood of Section 8 tenants out of five demolished projects has substantially changed the character of certain neighborhoods. Investors have been buying up early 20th-century rowhouses in deteriorating parts of North and South Philly in order to cash in on above-market Section 8 rents. Neighborhoods that were historically high in homeownership are now turning substantially over to renters, and the influx has caused a Section 8 backlash.

The Philadelphia Housing Authority has had to step up anti-crime efforts and beef up its outreach in order to quell unrest from neighbors who are upset about seeing so many poor people moving in. "Section 8 doesn't create housing," says executive director Carl Greene. "In older cities like Philadelphia, it's changing the makeup of some neighborhoods from blue-collar working class to public housing. It's caused a different community dynamic that's forced some longtime neighborhood residents out to the suburbs."

It may be, as Renee Glover and other Hope VI advocates contend, that Section 8 is the primary answer to the question of where the displaced tenants are winding up. But judging by the evidence from Philadelphia, it may also be that the dispersal of Section 8 tenants and their destabilizing effect on fragile neighborhoods will create the next serious crisis in public housing.

Of the many mixed lessons coming out of the revitalization efforts, one seems relatively clear: It is easier to tear down housing for the poor than to rebuild it.

The sheer geography of mixed-income townhouse communities generally requires that fewer public housing units be rebuilt than were there previously. It is virtually impossible, after all, to replace a vertical tower that has 300 apartments with a comparable number of townhouses. The amount of land is insufficient. Even at more spread- out communities such as East Lake, the density is declining. The old community had 650 units. The new one will have 542. Half of those are reserved for market-rate rentals, leaving only 271 units for public housing.

Until recently, housing authorities that tore down units were required to replace them one-for-one. Congress lifted that requirement in 1995, setting the stage for a significant decline in the amount of "hard units" in the nation's public housing stock. Atlanta, for example, had 15,000 public housing units in 1994, although some of them sat vacant. Today, the number is closer to 10,000.

While some of the slack has been taken up with additional Section 8 vouchers, housing activists decry the loss of these hard units. They see Section 8, which Congress must reauthorize every year, as a tenuous commitment that is vulnerable to the political winds in Washington.

Hope VI advocates, however, argue that public housing as we came to know it was so irreconcilably broken that it had to be fundamentally changed. In Atlanta, Glover says that the loss of units is a concern, but that it shouldn't stop revitalization. With vouchers, Atlanta is serving more families now than it did before, she says, and the idea that Congress would suddenly cancel Section 8 and toss millions of people into the street is ludicrous. "It was fundamentally wrong to warehouse the poor," Glover says. "Why would you ever want to sustain a Little Vietnam?"

The issue of replacement units for the poorest residents has been at the heart of the revitalization debate in Seattle. The federal one- for-one requirement was still in place when planning began for Seattle's first big redevelopment, renovation of a World War II-era project called Holly Park. But when the numerical requirement was dropped, planners scaled back the number of units targeted for public housing. The old project had 871 units of public housing. The new one called for only 530 units to replace them.

An activist outcry led the city to reverse itself and adopt a one- for-one replacement plan. Affordable housing in Seattle is already in a tight crunch, they said, and losing these units would only make things worse. "In an era of rapidly rising rents, of gentrification, and increasing numbers of homeless people on the street, we should be preserving our low-income housing stock, not tearing it down," says John McLaren, an activist with the Seattle Displacement Coalition, which pushed for the change.

Meeting the one-for-one commitment, however, is proving tricky. The Seattle Housing Authority is building some off-site units itself, but it is relying on local nonprofits to build 221 of the replacement units. The work is coming along more slowly than expected. While 40 replacement units are built and occupied, the others have yet to get off the ground.

A similar one-for-one requirement in Baltimore has been even more problematical. The city blew up the last of its public housing high- rises in February, and construction of replacement homes on the old sites is well under way. But a consent decree that calls for 814 units for homeownership or rentals outside the inner city, as well as 40 public-housing rentals in mostly white, middle-class neighborhoods, remains unfulfilled. Last fall, when plans to buy the first scattered- site replacement units came to a hearing, hundreds of neighbors turned out to protest. Baltimore dropped the plans.

Advocates on both sides of these issues will be eagerly watching for results from two forthcoming studies. The studies, both being done by the Urban Institute, are the first academic efforts to try and answer the question of where all the public housing residents have gone, and whether their lives have improved.

In the first study, researchers are looking at eight cities that received Hope VI grants between 1993 and 1998. Using lists of names from HUD and the housing authorities, they are trying to track down 100 people who lived at each site before it was torn down. The researchers are hoping to get a read on whether people ended up better off than they were before, in terms of their housing quality and employment, and find out what services they received along the way. Results should be in by the fall, although Sue Popkin, who is overseeing it, cautions that there are limitations to this kind of a retrospective study. For one thing, peoples' memories fade. For another, the only tenants studied are those whom researchers are able to find, not the ones who have, for better or for worse, disappeared.

The other Urban Institute study holds out the greatest promise for a reasonably complete answer. Researchers will take a prospective look at five Hope VI grantees from last year: Atlantic City; Chicago; Durham; Richmond, California; and Washington, D.C. Over the course of four years, they will track a baseline sample of 200 residents. This study will look at a more detailed set of outcomes, including the mental and physical health of residents. Residents will be tracked over time, whether they stay in public housing or leave it. "Hope VI is a really ambitious effort and is really transforming communities," Popkin says. "But we know very little about how it's affecting the people who lived there the day redevelopment began."

So it seems we will have to wait until 2005 to find out which view is correct--the housing authorities' rosy outlook, or the housing advocates' bleak one. Most likely it is a little of both. For some residents, demolition was probably the gentle kick in the butt they needed to move up and out of public housing. For others, no doubt, it was more like a kick in the stomach.