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By Howard Husock

America’s Trillion-Dollar Housing Mistake: The Failure of American Housing Policy.

City Journal

Howard Husock
Atlanta’s Public-Housing Revolution
Renee Glover has torn down blighted projects, required tenants to work, and transformed lives.
Autumn 2010
Glover, head of the housing authority, strolls through the redeveloped site of a former project.
Erik S. Lesser/Sipa Press
Glover, head of the housing authority, strolls through the redeveloped site of a former project.

No one can doubt that the 1996 reform of public assistance really did “end welfare as we know it,” as President Clinton said—reducing the welfare rolls from more than 5 million to fewer than 2 million households. Its signature five-year time limit on assistance drew millions of the poor back into the world of work, making the reform of cash welfare the greatest social-policy success of a generation.

But if you think that America no longer encourages long-term dependency or underclass poverty, you haven’t been paying attention to public housing. Like cash welfare before the reform, public housing is dominated by extremely poor single-parent families (53 percent of public-housing households nationwide earn less than $10,000 a year, and only 13 percent have two adult residents). Like welfare, public housing offers recipients a disincentive to marry: because rents are fixed at 30 percent of household income, there’s good reason not to put a second wage earner on the lease. And like welfare, public-housing projects—and the closely related voucher programs run by housing authorities—impose neither a work requirement nor a time limit on recipients. So not only do 2.2 million people live in public-housing units in America; they spend an average of more than eight years in them. And dwarfing their ranks are the 5 million living in private, voucher-paid housing, where the average length of residency is six years.

In short, American housing policy encourages the formation of households in which low-income single women raise children—exactly the sort of homes where kids’ prospects are bleakest. Crime rates, moreover, are consistently high in and around public housing, and voucher units have been widely implicated in the spread of social problems to formerly safe areas. The problem is financial, as well: housing vouchers alone, which didn’t even exist until 1974, now cost taxpayers $18 billion, more than the $16.9 billion that we spend on welfare. And it’s a policy that disproportionately affects the African-American poor. Nearly 45 percent of public-housing tenants are black, as are 42 percent of voucher recipients.

All this makes what Renee Glover is doing in Atlanta so important. Since 1994, Glover, a child of Jim Crow–era Jacksonville, Florida, has led the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA)—the nation’s fifth-largest public-housing system, with 50,000 tenants and voucher recipients, 99 percent of them, like her, African-American. She has drawn national recognition for the fact that during her tenure, Atlanta became the first city in the United States to tear down virtually all its projects. But Glover’s plan is far more ambitious than demolition: she has set out to transform the dysfunctional behavior that condemns people to languish for years in public housing. Her approach is the most dramatic change in any city’s public-housing system since Franklin Roosevelt created the program in 1937.

When Glover first took charge of the AHA, just 18.5 percent of household heads in the city’s bleak projects held jobs. At a time when Atlanta overall had the nation’s highest murder rate, crime was six times higher in the projects than the city average. Lawlessness prevailed in these campus-style complexes. Drug gangs had their own apartments for conducting business, such as grisly initiation ceremonies (in one, teenagers performed oral sex on a six-year-old boy to prove that no act was too horrible to commit). Calls to 911 were so numerous, Atlanta police lieutenant Scott Kreher recalls, that reports of anything but the worst violent crime had to wait, sometimes for more than eight hours. “It was very common to start the night shift with 50 or 60 calls pending,” he says. In part, that’s because the projects came alive at night, especially during the summer. With so few residents working, most slept during the heat of the day and came out after dark. “You’d think it was midday at midnight. Everyone was out barbecuing, partying on the porches. And you were always hearing gunfire.”

All this was happening in places built to eradicate slums, whose immorality had so shocked progressives a century ago. Not surprisingly, real-estate development in the neighborhoods surrounding the projects was essentially nonexistent for decades, though the rest of the city boomed, say Atlanta development officials.

For Glover, the projects were clearly a “toxic environment” to be leveled—and she proceeded to do it. Starting with grants from the Clinton-era Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and then using private financing, she reduced the city’s 14,000 public-housing units to 2,000, most of them in complexes for the elderly. Gone were crime-ridden projects like Bowen Homes—immortalized in a rap lyric by the Shop Boyz: “My hood I love them ladies, / My hood I love them babies, / I can’t forget my niggas, / Bowen Homes we love you baby!” Glover then leased the land to private developers, who built apartment and townhouse complexes there; in return, the developers agreed to dedicate 40 percent of the new units to tenants who qualified for public housing. Two-fifths of the projects’ residents relocated to these “mixed-income” complexes. The remaining three-fifths received housing vouchers and used them to move into other private apartment buildings.

Such “vouchering-out” has happened elsewhere—notably in Chicago, after the infamous Robert Taylor Homes and other South Side high-rises were knocked down. But the AHA, using special autonomy that the George W. Bush–era HUD granted it under a program called Moving to Work, imposed a unique requirement on both the voucher recipients and the tenants of the new mixed-income complexes: as of 2004, they had to work (or be enrolled in a genuine limited-time training program). Today, the AHA is the only housing authority in the United States to require its beneficiaries, like recipients of cash welfare, to work. Those not working risk losing their right to a subsidized apartment. Further, the management of both the mixed-income complexes and the ordinary apartment buildings where vouchers are used have broad discretion to kick out tenants for not working or misbehavior. Over the past two years, the AHA reports, 109 tenants have been evicted for failing to comply with the work requirement and another 67 for criminal activity.

The AHA is clearly serious about changing the culture of those living in subsidized housing. And Glover may go even further: she is considering a “sunset” rule for AHA tenants—a time limit of the same kind that applies to welfare recipients. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution observes of Glover’s initiatives: “For those who believe that the alternative to cradle-to-grave dependency on government is to give individuals incentive[s] to make responsible choices, Atlanta is a conservative’s dream.”

The success of the new complexes isn’t assured. Though the buildings have been maintained well so far, the 60 percent of renters who pay the market rate may lose interest as the units age, especially if the surrounding neighborhoods lack amenities. The AHA has found, for instance, that major supermarkets are reluctant to open in neighborhoods near the new complexes—not because of fear of crime but because the median income remains too low.

On the other hand, knocking down the projects has surely benefited surrounding areas. The part of downtown Atlanta next to Centennial Homes, for example, has become a thriving nightlife hub. The Atlanta Development Authority reports that in and around areas redeveloped through the AHA, the assessed value of property has increased by some $1.1 billion since 1998. Glover has effectively unfrozen large tracts of Atlanta.

Glover’s tool kit includes much more than demolition, construction, and the work requirement, as complex and unusual as they are. Her least-known but most ambitious effort is what she unabashedly calls “human transformation,” an effort to instill in the public-housing poor the habits needed to join the social and economic mainstream. Glover’s memory of her childhood in the segregated South inspires the program. “We had a very strong and very strongly knitted community,” she recalls. “There was never a day that passed that we didn’t hear that we were being prepared to be the next leaders of the country.”

To re-create that culture of ambition and discipline, the AHA has invested nearly $27 million in what amounts to intensive counseling for public-housing tenants. The counselors—twenty-first-century versions of the Victorian “friendly visitors” who sought to encourage independence among the poor—follow the relocated tenants to their new homes and check up on them there, verifying that they’re employed or in school. They try to teach them the things that most Americans learn from their families: how to get a job and then get a better one; why it’s important to meet your children’s teachers and go to PTA meetings; how to live frugally and save for the future. It’s a striking example of what political scientist Lawrence Mead calls “the new paternalism.”

The troops in this war on dependency are employees of the Integral Youth and Family Project, a for-profit subsidiary of the leading private developer of complexes to replace Atlanta’s projects. They are called “family support coordinators” (FSCs)—a sort of Peace Corps for the underclass—and are virtually all African-Americans in their twenties and early thirties. Some have made the journey out of public housing themselves. Kenya Tyson went from Atlanta’s Harris Homes to Morehouse College and now counsels families who lived in the now-demolished Harris. Teaera Raines was raised by her grandparents in Macon, Georgia, after her parents succumbed to drug abuse; she went on to get a master’s degree in management from Troy University.

One senses in the group the same spirit of pragmatic idealism that characterizes Teach for America and the KIPP Schools: the belief that people whom others have written off can be reached. Every day, the FSCs fan out in their own cars to visit three or four households relocated from the demolished projects. They give their cell-phone numbers to their “clients” and understand themselves to be on call at all times—including when the call concerns an angry boyfriend, domestic violence, or where to find shelter with the kids at midnight.

The FSCs are unblinking in describing the situations they see. There are horror stories, such as that of the seven-year-old who was sexually abused on a regular basis by his mother’s live-in boyfriend, threatened suicide, and sprayed the household’s food with Raid in an effort to kill his family. More common are the frustratingly casual attitudes that the FSCs encounter. Many households, the group tells me, have never paid bills for themselves: utility costs came with public housing, food stamps helped with groceries, and everything else was paid for in cash. Not surprisingly, the priority was to keep receiving benefits and, if possible, to increase them. That meant keeping live-in boyfriends—even if one was the father of a child in the household—off the lease, lest their income lead to a hike in rent. It also meant suggesting to school authorities that a child might have a learning disability—such a designation could bestow nearly $300 a month in Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on the household. (School officials are reportedly often eager to comply because excluding hard-to-teach students could boost schoolwide test results.)

Hope Boldon, executive director of the Integral Youth and Family Project, says that it was common for four generations of female-headed households to live this way in the projects, combining housing, Medicaid, SSI, and food stamps to “get over.” That was originally a church expression for overcoming obstacles, one derived from the biblical account of crossing the river Jordan and immortalized in the old Mahalia Jackson hymn: “You know my soul look back in wonder / How did I make it over?” In its new, cynical usage, the phrase has become synonymous with successful hustles.

But as adept as those in the public-housing world have grown at maximizing government benefits, they’re usually utterly unprepared to make their own way in life. As Raines puts it, “They basically say to us, ‘You’re trying to tell me to live a life I don’t know anything about.’ ” Take a woman we’ll call Darlene—a single mother of two teenage boys whom Pamela Elder, another FSC, began to visit six months before tenants left the soon-to-be-demolished Bankhead Courts. Darlene, a longtime employee of the fast-food chain Checkers, had recently been fired because of attitude problems. She wasn’t an irresponsible mother; she insisted that her boys stay inside their apartment to avoid gang life. But neither was she ambitious for them. Asked what future she envisioned for the boys, Darlene said that they would “work at McDonald’s or someplace like that” and then added, tellingly, “That’s what we do.”

Two years after Elder first visited Darlene, that defeatism has vanished. Once she moved from public housing into a subsidized private apartment—and faced the requirement to work—Darlene did indeed start working again. In fact, she has a far better job than she ever had: cleaning airplanes at Atlanta’s international airport. (“I’d never even been on an airplane before,” Darlene told Elder.) With her own circumstances and living situation improved, she has encouraged her sons, whom Elder describes as “smart” and “athletic,” to stay in school, and the elder of the two has been nominated for a selective Atlanta program for public school students displaying leadership qualities and academic promise.

Most instructive about Darlene’s story are the many steps over many months that helped it come to pass. Elder insisted that Darlene attend a job fair—to prepare for which Elder went to a local discount store, Value Village, to buy an outfit for her to wear, since Darlene had always worn either sweatpants or her fast-food uniform. Darlene had to give up her marijuana habit to pass her new employer’s drug test and get the airport security badge that she now sports with pride. Elder taught her how to apply makeup and lip gloss, how to prepare for a job interview, and how to put together a résumé. Darlene, like all the clients, had to write down a “family wealth plan”—a list of goals (“educational, employment, family development, financial, health, and personal development”) and “steps needed to achieve goals.”

Such questions about goals and plans—which get at the essence of how to escape the underclass—didn’t fall on immediately receptive ears. Urged to think about her future, Darlene erupted, “All that’s easy for you to say—you’re white!” The outburst stunned Elder, who was not only darker-skinned than her client but had herself been a teenage mother in Atlanta before earning a counseling degree from Georgia State. “Just because I’m married and drive a Honda Civic, now I’m white,” she says. Her colleagues join her bemused laughter. I ask them whether, from the perspective of the projects, Barack and Michelle Obama are white. “Definitely,” one says. “Success is white,” says another, “except for athletes and rap stars.” The FSCs’ challenge is to make clear that in America, success isn’t simply the result of privilege. Raines uses herself as an example: she tells her clients that “they can achieve, just as I did.”

The stories don’t always have happy endings, of course. Kenya Tyson describes one that “will stick with me for the rest of my life” involving a mother and her six children, formerly of the Hollywood Homes project. State officials took the children away from their mother because of her drug abuse; once the household was reunited, the father of the youngest four raped one of the older two, an act that the mother denies taking place, despite the daughter’s pregnancy. The rape victim is now “making suicidal comments,” says Tyson. “I am currently seeking an in-home certified and clinical counseling agency for the family to deal with these issues. I am also working diligently trying to get the daughter enrolled into an adult literacy class because she is 18 and can’t read and write.”

The cost of the Integral Youth and Family Project is substantial. From 2002 to 2009, the AHA has paid it $26.7 million to work with 14,281 people. But that’s a substantial percentage of metropolitan Atlanta’s 81,000 black poor, meaning that the program has the potential not only to help individuals but to change broader social norms.

The statistical results are impressive, though it’s impossible to determine which part of Glover’s plan, the work requirement or the counseling, deserves more credit. The most recent figures show that 62 percent of AHA-supported household heads in Atlanta are employed. Before the recession, the figure had reached 70 percent. Recall that when Glover took over, it stood at 18.5 percent. A falling rate of attrition for those who fail to find work—in 2007, 23 percent of all voucher recipients were not recertified and left the program, a fraction that had declined to 12 percent by 2009—shows that the tenants have adjusted to the new standards, argues the AHA. “On so many occasions, people have said, ‘Thank you for believing in us,’ ” says Glover. “So all of a sudden, we were into a completely different planning process because we were not planning for poor people who were incapable, who could not be responsible. We were in the process of planning for God’s children.”

One must be wary, though, of overstating the pace of change in Atlanta. In 2004, when Glover imposed the work requirement, tenants had spent an average of seven to eight years in projects and voucher-paid housing. That figure hasn’t budged. In addition, police say that while violent crime in Atlanta has dropped steeply since the demolition of the projects, property crime has risen—a trend that Lieutenant Kreher attributes to the dispersion of voucher holders through the city.

It is also clear that even deep, long-term personal counseling can go only so far in repairing broken lives. Consider how the FSCs respond to an obvious suggestion: that they encourage their clients to marry, both to pool incomes and to provide fathers for boys apt to drift into gangs. Often, they say, fathers are present in the apartments they visit. One FSC does a quick count: fathers live in 17 of his 53 clients’ homes. But he is reluctant to recommend marriage to his clients. Far too many of the men are “parasites” with criminal histories, I’m told; there remains the problem that marriage means putting a second person’s name and income on a lease and thereby increasing the rent; and all too often, multiple fathers are involved, making the question of marriage far from straightforward. Only when pressed does the group agree that a married, two-income household might be one possible element of a “family wealth plan.”

The conversation is a useful reminder that simply observing that low-income African-Americans would be better off in two-parent households cannot quickly make it so. This is a generational challenge—encouraging work and pushing the next generation to choose that path, perhaps thereby slowly increasing the pool of marriageable men.

America talks little about black underclass poverty these days, except indirectly: we hear about black unemployment, high rates of black incarceration, and the “black-white achievement gap” in education. As Nathan Glazer recently observed in The American Interest, “the installation of the first black President in American history . . . coincided with the almost complete disappearance from American public life of discussion of the black condition and what public policy might do to improve it.” Or as the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson writes, “entrenched black poverty, with all its causes and implications, barely makes a ripple in the public debate these days.” The wonder is that Glover, through the unlikely vehicle of the Atlanta Housing Authority, has found a way to address it.

Those who would follow her example should be warned that her road has not been easy. For a housing authority to impose work requirements or time limits on tenants—or to put all federal aid into one big pot, to use as it sees fit for projects like “human transformation”—it needs HUD to give it Moving to Work status. And though some 3,000 public-housing authorities exist in the United States, HUD designated only 36 for Moving to Work in fiscal year 2010. Its latest budget proposes adding just three more.

Worse, California congresswoman Maxine Waters, an influential member of the House Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity (and currently under fire for alleged ethics violations), has proposed legislation to require one-for-one replacement of any public-housing units that are demolished—a law that would thwart any future Renee Glovers. “A further decline in the number of public housing units will only exacerbate the affordable housing needs of our most vulnerable populations,” Waters wrote in a letter to HUD secretary Shaun Donovan. Donovan hasn’t embraced the bill, but other ideas that HUD has cited approvingly could have similar effects. The 2009 stimulus bill, for instance, included funds to make “green” improvements to public housing; Boston plans $63 million of such projects. In the name of environmentalism, public housing, with all its social ills, may get patched together for another generation.

Glover’s approach is also far from universally popular in Atlanta’s black community. Academic papers presented at an annual conference on the “state of black Atlanta” reflect a consistently skeptical stance. In one, a group of sociologists from Georgia State University worry that the city is engaged in “resegregation”—failing to relocate public-housing tenants into mixed-race neighborhoods. (The paper does concede that the households are moving into “less poor neighborhoods.”) One discerns a familiar theme in such commentary: that the most important source of black poverty today is social barriers, such as segregation, not dysfunctional behavior.

By contrast, Glover has revived the moribund tradition of black self-help. Her allies have been the city’s black elite: the mayors, city council members, school boards, and CEOs of America’s leading African-American city. In this, her work recalls the early-twentieth-century Urban League, through which cities’ established black leaders sought to acculturate and uplift the formerly rural poor who had formed (and arguably remain) the core of the underclass. It happens that 1920s Atlanta had the first Urban League chapter in the South, led by the president of Morehouse College and the black-owned Standard Life Insurance Company. It was dedicated, according to a 2005 history by Alton Hornsby and Alexa Henderson, to helping the “ill-housed, underfed, unemployed or under-employed,” as well as those “suffering from some other manifestation of maladjustment.” That’s a pretty good approximation of what Glover and the AHA are up to today.

One even hears echoes in Glover’s words of a once-famous lecture delivered in Atlanta in 1895. Much of what Booker T. Washington said in his famous “compromise” speech at the Atlanta Exposition might sound embarrassing in today’s racial discourse. But his emphasis on work is deeply relevant to what Glover has set in motion more than a century later—just as it’s deeply relevant to the welfare reform of the 1990s. Washington’s ambitions for his people didn’t extend to the professions or the presidency, and his tone is dated, but his essential point about the transformative power of work remains: “Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labor.”

Howard Husock, a contributing editor of City Journal, is the Manhattan Institute’s vice president for policy research and the director of its Social Entrepreneurship Initiative. He received the 1980 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism award for his public television series Community Disorder: Racial Violence in Boston.

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