In about two years Marietta and Cobb will have gotten rid of almost all the county's public family housing projects.
The Marietta Housing Authority, which handles public housing for the county, plans to demolish the last remaining project in Marietta, Fort Hill Homes, by 2012.
The 120 families currently living in the facility will be relocated; many will receive public housing vouchers to move into private housing throughout the county. Others could be moved into MHA’s developments for older residents.
Housing officials say the move from the old public housing, where all the residents are low-income, to private, mixed-income communities is better for families.
“You tear down these old public housing projects because they are not good places to live and they are just not good for the kids,” said Raymond Buday, MHA's executive director. “Everybody in the development is in the same low-income position: They are struggling economically. People need to see more of what the world is like.”
“It’s good for people to come out of the projects and get out on their own,” said Fort Hill tenant Pauline Hampton, 56, who has lived in the housing development two years. “When you move into a project you’re not supposed to get comfortable anyway. Why stay here when you can do better?”
As part of its five-year plan, MHA will have demolished all five of its housing projects located in Marietta, where most of its public housing has been concentrated. Fort Hill, built off historic Lemon Street in 1941, is the oldest and the last to go. (MHA operates one other family housing project in Acworth, occupied mostly by seniors.)
Some of the residents have lived at Fort Hill for decades. There is no limit on how long residents can remain in public housing, Buday said, and once they receive a housing voucher for private housing, there is no time limit on that, either.
Buday said he thinks public housing assistance and vouchers should come with a time limit. "Once you get the benefit you keep it forever. That's why there are so many people on the outside looking in," he said. "Our waiting list is so long we don't plan to open it for a while."
When the project is torn down the land probably will sit vacant until the agency decides what to do next. If they follow the trend, MHA will sell to a developer or secure low-interest loans to construct other types of housing.
Buday is hoping for mixed-income housing to replace the public project.
MHA has reinvested about $6 million from the sale of land formerly occupied by another razed housing project near Marietta Square to build a 72-unit mixed-income senior residence next door to the Marietta Fire Department, and will redevelop a former public housing high-rise into high-end apartments.
The MHA razing and redevelopment model is similar to that used by the Atlanta Housing Authority.
For years AHA received national recognition for tearing down old housing projects and replacing them with higher-end private condominiums. Low-income residents were relocated into neighborhoods throughout metro Atlanta using the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program, or Section 8. The vouchers can cover as much as 65 percent of rent each month. Eligibility is based on family makeup and income. Section 8 tenants are re-evaluated each year.
Last month the need for more housing vouchers played out as thousands waited days in long lines and fought for the chance to get on a waiting list for vouchers in East Point.
AHA closed its waiting list for subsidized housing in 2001 and still has 5,000 people on it. MHA opened its application process for two days in 2008 and received 1,200 applications. The city of Marietta, which operates its own voucher system, says it is not likely to reopen its applicant list for five years.
Steven Mints’ mother, Frances Reece, has lived in Fort Hill since he was about 4 years old. Mints is now 43; his mother is 80. When Fort Hill is demolished Reece likely will be moved into a senior facility, but Mints is concerned about the younger residents who will be given vouchers to move into private housing and might not be able to afford to pay a larger portion of their utilities.
Public housing and Section 8 voucher tenants pay 30 percent of their adjusted gross income for rent, Buday said. They also receive a utility allowance of about $150 to $200. When moving from public housing to private housing, tenants, like any other first-time renters, have to be aware of utility costs, Buday said.
“When you look at the whole scenario, when you tear down you leave blank space and people don’t have any hope,” Mints said while sitting with family friends on his mother’s porch. “This is going on all over [the metro area]. They are tearing down projects and replacing them with housing that former residents can’t afford. People are still poor whether you give them the vouchers or not."
Whatever your view of public housing, the razing and relocating method is taking low-income units off the market, said Deirdre Oakley, an associate professor in the sociology department at Georgia State University.
“The National Low Income Housing Coalition has come out saying we have a shortage of 3 million units for people with low income. Units for that level of income are not being constructed at the same rate,” she said. “Even if people who get vouchers do well, there are all sorts of people out there who aren’t getting a subsidy.”
Oakley and two of her GSU colleagues testified before a congressional subcommittee about their study of 300 AHA tenants who were relocated with vouchers when they left public housing in 2008. With the current economy, the tenants had no trouble finding private rental housing, but the process was made difficult by the sheer number of tenants going through the process and the bureaucracy associated with the vouchers, Oakley said.
“I have been trying to move out since I moved in ... life kept me here,” said Ebony Thomas, 31. The mother of two has called Fort Hill home for five years.
Her neighbor Shenterra Hardnett, also 31, agreed.
“I’m ready for a new environment,” she said. “People should be ready. Don’t try to live here forever.”
As of June, 1,642 Section 8 vouchers were administered by MHA, according to agency statistics.
The East Point problems will not happen in Marietta because the residents from the housing project will be issued relocation vouchers, instead being placed on a waiting list, Buday said. MHA clients will be assisted by a relocation company and moving expenses will be paid by the agency.
MHA public family housing projects demolished or set to be razed:
• Johnny Walker Homes, 100 units, demolished 2004
• Clay Homes, 132 units, demolished 2006
• Lyman Homes, 125 units, demolished 2007
• Boston Homes, 125 units, demolished 2010
• Fort Hill Homes, 120 units, to be demolished within the next two years
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