City and regional public housing authorities get spotlight at forum

By Sonam Vashi

At the spring Atlanta Regional Housing Forum, housing authorities across the region took center stage.

Atlanta Housing, the city’s housing authority, presented a plan to answer questions about what the public affordable housing provider will do to create more housing units, after years of building slowed.

Atlanta was the first city to build permanent public housing—Techwood Homes opened in 1936—and it was also the first city to demolish that housing (in 1996) in a controversial plan to replace it with new, mixed-income public units. But much of the property where public housing once lived still sits vacant.

Brandon Riddick-Seals, the interim president and CEO of Atlanta Housing—who’s held the job on an interim basis since past president Catherine Buell resigned 10 months ago—kicked off his presentation with a request: “What I need, and what our staff needs, is more trust.”

The quarterly Atlanta Regional Housing Forum, held at St. Luke’s Cathedral, is usually packed with housing industry professionals. (Kelly Jordan)

He introduced the authority’s 10-year plan to rebuild 6,550 housing units, about half of which will be affordable at some level. The plan, called the “Big Six,” referred to six major projects in various stages of development:

  • the new Bankhead Courts, just outside of the Perimeter next to Atlanta Industrial Park, will be a mixed-use development with 30% of its 320 units affordable.
  • the new Bowen Homes, at its former location along Donald Hollowell Parkway just inside the Perimeter, will be a mixed-use development with 30% of its 1,192 units affordable
  • Englewood North in Chosewood Park will be a mixed-use development with 950 units, 40% of which will be affordable.
  • Herndon Square in English Avenue will have about 40% of its 715 units affordable, including nearly 100 homes for seniors, which are under construction.
  • SoNo/301, which will be just north of Central Park in Old Fourth Ward, will be a mixed-use development with 40% of its 339 units affordable. It’s projected to be completed in 2022.
  • Palmer House, just north of Centennial Olympic Park, will be a mixed-use development, and all of its 184 units will be affordable for seniors. It’s projected for completion in 2021.

It’s unclear what level of affordability the units in these projects will be, but they’ll aim to fulfill the promise of creating mixed-income communities where the former public housing projects once stood.

Riddick-Seals outlined the challenges Atlanta Housing faces: a quickly growing market that’s losing affordable units, ballooning rents, and a project financing gap of more than $1.1 million, or more than half of what’s needed.

After Riddick-Seals’s presentation, the forum launched into a discussion of the role housing authorities are playing across the region, featuring Riddick-Seals; Lejla Prljaca of the Lawrenceville Housing Authority; Pete Waldrep of the Marietta Housing Authority; and Pete Walker of the Housing Authority of DeKalb County.

Prljaca outlined the dire situation in Gwinnett County: The northeastern suburbs lead the region in median rents, more than half of its renters are cost-burdened, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for first-time homebuyers to find housing in the county, she says. So, the Lawrenceville Housing Authority has tried to come up with housing solutions “across the whole spectrum:” It has developed 70 properties, created transitional housing programs for homeless women with children, and has provided resources for many stuck in extended-stay motels in areas like Norcross, where many families live for months out of living paycheck-to-paycheck, unable to save up enough for first month’s rent and a security deposit at an apartment.

Walker discussed the challenges that Section 8 voucher holders have been facing in DeKalb: These renters often can’t find landlords that are willing to accept the publicly-funded voucher payment. “In DeKalb, we don’t really have a utilization issue,” Walker said, referring to the performance of the voucher program. “What we have is a perception issue.” Several Section 8 tenants in metro Atlanta have reported facing discrimination from landlords who don’t want to participate in the program due to how it’s managed or due to negative perceptions about Section 8 tenants.

Waldrep explained that the Marietta Housing Authority mainly focuses on providing senior housing. “We have a very strong family self-sufficiency program,” he said. Bill Bolling, host and founder of the event, challenged Waldrep at the close of the event, suggesting that focusing on senior housing is a more politically palatable way of providing public services in a county that has—until recently—been a Republican stronghold.

Sonam Vashi is an award-winning freelance journalist in Atlanta writing about affordable housing for Saporta Report. Her reporting, which usually focuses on criminal justice, equity, and the South, has also appeared with CNN, the Washington Post, Atlanta magazine, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among others. She is the vice president of the Atlanta chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association, and she grew up in Gwinnett County.

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