By Guest Columnist HATTIE DORSEY, civic volunteer, founder and retired president of the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership
After reading recent news articles about Egbert Perry and the Integral Co., I find I just cannot sit idly by and not respond in some fashion. I reluctantly take issue with many of my housing advocate friends who express concern based on media reports that do not dive into the history of what public housing use to be like in Atlanta. Because I happen to know what Integral’s vision was – Redevelop the terrible public housing projects into new and mixed income communities – I want to add my voice because I was involved.
The good news is that the vision is working: Horrible housing has been replaced with communities where anyone would not mind living. My discomfort about what I read is because it does not describe the person I know and whose corporate mission I support. I want to share a bit of background of why I think this series of conversations are off track and diversionary.
When founded, the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership (ANDP), of which I was the founding president, promoted the philosophy of mixed income neighborhoods through a housing revitalization platform. We formed a relationship early on with the Atlanta Housing Authority, which then was listed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as a failing authority, and watched two executives leave.
When Renee Glover stepped down from AHA’s board chair to assume the position of executive director (a job she did not want), it was because no one wanted to take the risk of taking charge of what was seen as a failing housing agency.
Egbert Perry had formed a new company to develop mixed income housing – I made the introduction to Renee Glover. I knew the intent of Integral – to redevelop horrible public housing projects into new mixed income communities. Perry believed that families of low, moderate and middle income could live side by side – breaking up the cycle of housing low income families in communities with very low expectations.
I know the folks at Integral, and don’t believe statements the new people at AHA make. I know of no new housing starts in the last eight years that were not already in the pipeline and even those in the pipeline have not been given the go-ahead approval. The need for affordable housing is at a crisis within the city – moving projects into the pipeline would be help many citizens currently living on the margin.
Having dealt in the affordable housing arena for much of my working life, I have to take issue with some assumptions. The following are some of the facts:
- First is to acknowledge that a key component of the Integral Co.’s mission is to “develop mixed income housing;”
- Integral took on transforming the face of public housing in Atlanta when no one else did anything but complain;
- Integral took the risk and developed the relationships with AHA, HUD and other housing finance agencies;
- The partnership formed with AHA conceived and implemented the first holistic revitalization of public housing in the country – addressing early childhood development; encouraging YMCA to put facilities next to, or in close range of, the development; working with Atlanta Public Schools for K-12 education improvements, and the list goes on;
- Unlike urban renewal, or as I sometimes state, poor people removal, the vision they implemented calls for placing larger percentages of higher income households in the later phases so that the project does not result in mass gentrification;
- 60 percent of the rental housing units and 20 percent of the for-sale units are affordable, which I believe is higher than what AHA is considering;
- Most admired is the fact that the model has been copied here in Atlanta and across the country for a reason – it works!
What I gather from what I read is that the properties Integral has under option are now worth more than when the transactions were struck, and other parties want to participate. I marvel at the growth of Atlanta – I am certain that if one had a crystal ball at the time, the price would be closer to today’s market rate. So since it was at the negotiated price way back when, should that price not be honored?
The other reason stated is that the properties would not be affordable – the issue first tackled was to break up large concentrations of poverty through a mixed income approach. Has that changed? The entire group of properties, some of which are already developed, will cater to a mix of incomes. Is this not what the expectations were from the beginning? Is this not about transforming low-income AHA properties to mixed income? Is this not about giving opportunities to children who reside in these housing communities an opportunity to live in safe environments, close to recreational outlets, and attend high performing schools?
Transforming the old image of public housing into mixed income, well maintained communities was the objective – and it did happen.
All of this has happened under the stewardship of Integral. Others have followed suit, others are trying, and now we want to behead the person who showed how it can be done. There are private developers other than Integral on these projects. AHA knows that – why are they singling out Integral? What is the underlying reason?
To end my tirade, I simply want to say it is easy to buy into the conversation that is negative when you don’t know the facts. Since I was around and participated in conversations on how to improve Atlanta’s then deteriorating communities and housing issues, I witnessed Integral step to the plate with a mission to make a difference. Perry has made a difference – just take a moment to look around our city and others he has worked in and applaud rather than take swipes because others want “a piece of the action”.