By Maria Saporta
In 1994, the Atlanta Housing Authority was one of the worst in the country.
“It was basically managing substandard housing units in a substandard way,” recalled Henry Cisneros, who was secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development at the time. “It was one of those authorities that HUD was considering taking over under my watch.”
That’s when Renee Lewis Glover, who had been serving on the AHA board, agreed to quit her job as a corporate attorney to become CEO of the troubled authority.
“Renee brought excellence,” said Cisneros, who was in Atlanta on Oct. 7 to participate in a national conference. “She did what I would assert is the best job running a housing authority in the country.
“None started from as low a base as Atlanta did. And at the end of the day, Atlanta has gotten rid of every single one of its traditional deteriorating public housing units. Renee had a vision that it was not good enough to manage the units as they were. She developed a plan to transform communities and to make sure life got better for people.”
Glover announced in an Oct. 3 press release that she was in negotiations to leave AHA after 17 years as its CEO. The release went on to say that Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and the new board members that he had appointed had made it clear that they wanted a change in leadership. The negotiations are ongoing.
Cisneros said he could not speak to the “local political decision-making” that was taking place in Atlanta.
But he did say that sometimes local communities do not appreciate what they have.
“It’s tempting for local citizens to overlook true greatness in their midst and take it for granted,” Cisneros said. “The work that Renee has done is true greatness.”
What about all of the criticisms that have been leveled against Glover and the AHA for tearing down traditional public housing communities and replacing them with mixed-income neighborhoods. Today, that’s known as HUD’s HOPE VI program, an initiative that took flight in Atlanta. The AHA also increased the use of Section 8 housing vouchers where residents can live in apartments with subsidized rents.
One of the most common criticisms has been that Atlanta’s poorest citizens have been displaced and that it’s harder to provide services to the poor when they have been dispersed.
Cisneros brushed off those criticisms.
“You can’t make omlettes without breaking eggs,” Cisneros said, acknowledging that “there was criticism.”
But he went on to say that most of the objective national studies on the HOPE VI program have concluded that residents were better off — that their children do better in schools, that family incomes rise and that employment becomes more stable.
Cisneros also was asked whether after 17 years with Glover at the helm, was it time for a change.
“There’s something to be said for the continuity and stability in public housing organizations, and she’s brought that,” he said. “The job is never finished, and as long as you can have people who can continue to stay on course, the progress continues.”
Cisneros said it “would be a tragedy” that pace of progress diminished with a change in leadership at the authority.
“I can only attest to what Renee has done on her watch,” Cisneros said. “Among public housing authorities in the country, Atlanta is the best.”