By Maria Saporta
For more than 75 years, Atlanta has been a birthplace of housing innovation for people with lower incomes.
It was back in early 1933 when an Atlanta real estate developer Charles Palmer drove through what was then Techwood Flats and became distressed with the living conditions in the 14-block slum area.
He organized a group of Atlanta leaders to write a proposal to the federal government for $2.375 million from the federal government to clear the slum and build public housing to give the poor an opportunity to get back on their feet.
The administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized Techwood Homes — a federally-subsidized housing project — the first in the nation — in October 1933.
On Nov. 29, 1935, President Roosevelt visited Atlanta for the dedication of Techwood Homes at Georgia Tech’s Grant Field across the street. It was considered a major milestone for providing housing of the poor in America.
As the years went by, Atlanta embraced the notion of public housing. At one point, the City of Atlanta had more public housing units per capita than any other city in the United States.
But all the good intentions of providing a temporary home where families could get back on their feet before moving on to a more permanent community were never realized. The public housing projects became concentrated communities of the poor living with all of society’s ills of crime, a lack of a quality education and limited opportunities for employment.
Atlanta soon found itself with large pockets of poverty and crime with a city’s population that was becoming increasingly divided between the rich and poor with a declining middle class.
Then in the mid-1990s, Atlanta once again became a birthplace of social innovation for another housing model.
Again, the testing ground was the site of Techwood Homes — the first public housing project in the country.
The Atlanta Housing Authority, working hand-in-hand with Integral Partnership, became the pioneers of the federal Hope VI program. Techwood Homes was demolished and replaced with Centennial Homes that included both subsidized housing apartments for the poor and market-rate housing units in the same complex. The project also included a new elementary school and a YMCA.
That model was quickly replicated in communities throughout the city. Perhaps the most famous project is East Lake, where the East Lake Meadows public housing project, also called “Little Vietnam” was leveled to make way for a new mixed-income neighborhood with a new charter school, and YMCA and other amenities.
Today, Atlanta has torn down all of its traditional public housing projects and replaced then with mixed-income communities combined with Section 8 housing vouchers that families can use to subsidize their rents. The only public housing units that remain are high-rise buildings primarily for the elderly.
This transformation has not been without controversy, but it has certainly changed the concentrated nature of poverty in the city.
On June 11, the Atlanta Housing Authority will celebrate its 75th birthday with a flag raising event. It is quite a landmark of an organization that has been on the cutting edge of national housing policy for more than seven decades.
Georgia also has been the birthplace of Habitat for Humanity International, another ground-breaking nonprofit that has built primarily single-family homes for low-income families across the nation and now the world.
But Atlanta’s work is far from done.
The Atlanta Regional Housing Forum, which has been meeting for 25 years, has been exploring the different ways the metro area can best serve the people who need more housing options.
At its most recent meeting on June 5, Renee Glover, AHA’s president and CEO, presented the recommendations of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Housing Commission report on “Housing America’s Future: New Directions for National Policy.” Glover was a member of that bipartisan commission.
What is painfully obvious is that there is still a significant gap when it comes to housing people of little means. Developers of affordable housing or people seeking to create housing options for the homeless have a hard time making the numbers work without public funding. And when there is financial support available from the government, often the regulations and bureaucratic paperwork make it too challenging.
So Atlanta, let’s challenge ourselves to come up with other socially-innovative models for affordable housing. Atlanta has done it before. It can do it again.