Atlanta — a birthplace of housing innovation — needs ideas to provide homes for today’s generations

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.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

5 replies
  1. Avatar
    Native Atlanta Boy says:

    The issue is not the quality of housing or the type of housing.  The issue is that the housing is not a temporary solution for these people.  This is especially true today as more and more people require federal assistance then ever.  The ugly truth is that the welfare system awards zero work and zero participation in the work place.  I suggest downgrading the housing and getting  these people back to work to pay on their own!  All this looked great on paper-give the poor housing, food stamps, etc. a few years later they get on their feet, get a job move out and into their own place and all is good.  Again the truth is that these people remain in the government system which provides voters for these politicians forever so fixing the system will never happen.  Simply throwing more money and upgrading free housing is not what this country, city or state needs.  That is tax dollars that they have plenty of.  Upgrading free housing simply keeps the freeloaders in that housing.
    Suggesting that there is a declining middle class is not the truth.  Just drive around Atlanta and you see beautiful homes for the rich as well as plenty of middle class abodes.  This is true as well in areas downtown.  The poor are poor because it is easy to be poor and they do not want to help themselves.  Why should they when they get free stuff and now are looking for a housing upgrade!Report

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  2. Avatar
    river rat says:

    Instead of simply including YMCA & charter schools, how about also including services that address a range of ages & needs – almost a specialized jobs-training/technical college setting with a public-private partnership twist?  Maybe a program where the elderly ‘earn’ their keep by baby-sitting and tutoring youth while their parents work?  Maybe also organize public-private partnerships with businesses and require that the non-working residents participate in a co-op program that gives them skills to hold a job, specific job knowledge and helps place them in a job when they complete training?  Maybe have a community kitchen where some families eat and congregate together; could also be a training ground for public-private partnership with restaurants.  The permutations are endless.Report

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  3. Avatar
    Atlanta Habitat says:

    Atlanta Habitat is proud to be the “home team,” building more than
    1,250 houses for over 4,700 family members primarily in the city and in Fulton County.
    Now in our 30th year, we not only build for and with qualified homebuyers,
    we also provide support services such as required and elective education
    classes and budget counseling that foster successful homeownership. As an
    affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International, we are one of 1,500 organizations
    that build in local communities. Since 2010, we’ve worked with Atlanta Housing
    Authority, where we conduct information sessions twice yearly. As a result,
    over 40 homeowners, formerly with AHA, now participate in our program.”Report

    Reply
  4. Avatar
    mariasaporta says:

    Dear readers, this is a facebook comment we received that I wanted to go ahead and post as a comment on this column. Thanks for reading. Maria
    Hello, and greetings from the Republic of Benin in West Africa. I am a native of Lithia Springs, Georgia and enjoy catching up with Metro Atlanta news and views via the enlightened reporting and commentary of Ms. Saporta and her colleagues. This, thanks to a hyper-slow Internet connection on my BlackBerry. Keep up the great work! 
    Ms. Saporta’s latest article concerning Atlanta’s innovative housing past (“Atlanta—a birthplace of housing innovation—needs ideas to provide homes for today’s generations” Posted in Maria’s Metro, Date: June 9, 2013) is informative and interesting, as usual. However, there is a glaring error that I feel the need to point out. She refers to Techwood Homes as America’s first housing project in two different instances. True, Techwood was the first to open, with President Roosevelt himself on-hand for the inauguration. President Clinton chose Techwood as a pilot project for his famous re-think of public housing for the very reason that it had been the first to open in the country. During the Olympics, there was even a museum to that effect on the Techwood campus. The thing is, while Techwood Homes was, indeed, the first housing project to open in America, it was not the first to be built and completed: That honor goes to Atlanta’s John Hope Homes, located at the corner of Northside Drive and Whitehall adjacent to Castleberry Hill and the AU campus–and named for Morehouse’s first African-American president (whose amazing wife, Lugenia Burns Hope, was a formidable and positive force for the community in her own right). Since segregation was the name of the game in the 1930s and 40s, and since John Hope Homes was to be a “negro” housing project (and Techwood a “white” project), the decision to inaugurate President Roosevelt’s housing initiative at John Hope–which had been the plan–was changed in the end for fear that such an expensive and controversial government plan might lose popular support if it was seen as explicitly for Black Americans. Opening the program at an all-white facility would garner public support. John Hope Homes became the second housing project to open in America, just after Techwood, even though the former had been built and ready for occupation month’s prior to the latter. Racism was already at the very heart of the federal program beginning even before Day 1.
    Christopher Ryan SmithReport

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