Published on October 2nd, 20120
Reinventing Public Housing: Is the Atlanta Model Right for Your City?
Although public housing is commonly associated with big cities, local authorities own and manage almost 1,200,000 housing units in more than 3,000 municipalities throughout the United States. An imaginative management approach to public housing holds the potential to improve not just housing conditions but also the finances and real-estate-development climates in cities across America.
Local officials—including housing-authority board members—who are contemplating whether a new approach is worth trying ought to consider the following questions:
- Are local public-housing properties increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain?
- Is operating and capital assistance increasingly limited or unreliable?
- Are local public-housing projects known for high crime rates and other social dysfunction?
- Do local public housing properties inhibit new investment in adjoining parts of the municipality?
- Is there reason to believe that private developers, whether of subsidized housing or commercial or industrial property, would be willing to build on public-housing sites?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, authorities in your city ought to consider the lessons developed by the unusually innovative housing authority in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1994, the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA) owned and operated almost 14,300 apartments in forty-three housing developments, including twenty-six large “family projects.” (The remainder were smaller buildings reserved for the elderly.) By mid-2010, the AHA expects to have demolished virtually all those “family development” units and five of the elderly buidlings. (It will continue to own—but not to manage—11 buildings for housing the elderly (a total of 1,861 units) and two small family properties (a total of 92 units).
At the same time, the total population served by the AHA is larger (50,000) than before demolition began—larger, even, than it was in 1994. AHA-assisted tenants are now almost exclusively housed in privately owned buildings, either apartments paid for by housing-choice vouchers or public-housing units set aside in new mixed-use, mixed-income communities in which low-income households are a minority and whose development and construction has sparked a revival in adjoining neighborhoods. Notably, the terms of such housing assistance have also been dramatically changed, thanks particularly to higher expectations and standards, including a work requirement for AHA-assisted tenants.
Rather than being an owner/manager of a fixed set of properties, the AHA today is better characterized as “an integrated real-estate developer and asset manager,” says its Chief Executive Officer, Renee Lewis Glover. The AHA has outsourced many of its management functions to private companies and reduced the number of people it employs from 1,500 to 300.