Augusta Chronicle (Georgia), July 6, 2008: The right mix

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By Johnny Edwards | Staff Writer

Sunday, July 06, 2008


EDITOR’S NOTE: A controversial aspect of poverty in America has been its federally funded public housing projects, criticized as isolated pockets of negativity and malaise. In Augusta, it’s places such as Underwood Homes, Cherry Tree Crossing and Allen Homes. The closing of Gilbert Manor will be the impetus for the local public housing authority to start bringing this Depression-era model to an end — for better and for worse, say experts on the matter.

Today, The Augusta Chronicle takes a look at the mixed-income concept and its effect on entrenched poverty as part of a series on issues of concern chosen by readers.

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Within a couple of hours, Andrea Mitchell and her three daughters moved from a cramped, dank apartment in Gilbert Manor to a four-bedroom rental home with new carpet.

Adrianna, 5, jumped on a box spring laid in her bedroom. For the first time, she’s not sharing a room with her sister.

“Mine! It’s all mine!” she shouted.

By most measures, Ms. Mitchell is the typical face of poverty in Augusta — a black, single mother of several children, a high school dropout with shaky employment.

She spent most of her life in the projects, finally winding up in Gilbert Manor for the past three years, rearing her children amid frequent gunshots and blue police lights. The pending sale to Medical College of Georgia gave the family a way out through a Section 8 voucher.

“I’m just tired of living in public housing,” Ms. Mitchell, 24, said in February. “I just wanna choose something different.”

Time could prove her to be one of the lucky ones.

The emptying of the 67-year-old housing project signals the start of a progression that the Augusta Housing Authority hopes will someday end the warehousing of the city’s low-income, projects-residing population. It’s a new model whose logical conclusion is the end of public housing as we know it, and whether the Andrea Mitchells of the world will be part of it is questionable.

“Unfortunately, there will be some casualties along the way,” authority executive director Jake Oglesby said.

THE AUTHORITY, the agency that disperses federal funds for public housing, is buying into a modern concept, tried but not entirely proven, that aims to integrate its residents into the mainstream community.

Under the paradigm, barracks-style complexes such as Gilbert Manor are gradually eliminated, their occupants given a choice between another public housing apartment or a Section 8 voucher, pushing those on the waiting list even farther back for a declining number of units. In place of projects come mixed-income developments — apartments, townhouses and detached homes where the poor and middle class live side by side.

Authorities partner with developers, investors and property management companies to build and operate them. Public housing is replaced, but diluted by market-rate housing.

Getting into a unit becomes tougher, too. A sticking point for critics is also a selling point for developers: Many of those who get pushed out of the projects can’t get into mixed-income communities.

Day-to-day management is handled by private operators who screen applicants for bad credit and criminal backgrounds and require tenants to be working, have a reliable income stream or be in school. Nationally, only 11.4 percent of displaced residents move into replacement units, according to a 2002 study by the National Housing Law Project and other groups.

Ms. Mitchell worked briefly at a hotel last year, but she said she quit because she didn’t like her boss. She worked at an IHOP restaurant after moving out of Gilbert Manor, then quit because of car problems.

Staying home and taking care of her children is cheaper than working and paying for day care. She said she’d like to return to school someday, but only after her 2-year-old daughter starts kindergarten.

A Section 8 voucher, which Ms. Mitchell got, allows a family to move to a private home or apartment with the federal government paying part of the rent. Vouchers are already hard to come by, and the program is in constant danger of losing funding from Congress. Augusta has more than 3,000 families on its waiting list, which is closed but for a few exceptions.

Gilbert Manor residents were given priority, and the Mitchells were among 94 of the 280 displaced families who opted for Section 8 rather than another public housing unit. In her case, it pays all her rent, and her father helps out with utilities, Ms. Mitchell said.

AUTHORITIES ADOPTING the mixed-income concept don’t talk about it often that they’re cutting off those who depend on public housing the most, said Frank Alexander, a professor at Emory University Law School who represented displaced residents in a lawsuit against the Atlanta Housing Authority.

“It may be unavoidable. It may be the right thing,” he said. “What frustrates me is that no one admits that when they tear public housing down, they replace it with places where richer people live.”

While sympathetic to those who might be left behind, Mr. Oglesby is unapologetic about the new concept.

“I just personally believe in the philosophy,” he said, “that it’s much better to mix families — low-income with middle-income and higher-income families — all in the same community, so that they’re a part of the larger community and their little world is just not isolated among poverty and that type of environment.

“They have different role models,” Mr. Oglesby said. “They see people getting up and going to work every day. They see families that are more involved with their children, more involved in the school system. They don’t have to worry about going outside, where there may be somebody on the corner selling drugs, or having outsiders coming into their community stirring up trouble.”

There’s no denying that eliminating public housing complexes reduces the number of units available, worsening the situation for people trying to get in, he said. The loss of Gilbert Manor has cut the public housing stock by 10 percent, and Augusta has 1,600 families on a unit waiting list that’s closed for all but the elderly and disabled.

Like it or not, though, the mixed-income concept will be in practice early in the next decade. The $6.89 million made off the MCG sale will be used to leverage tax credit loans to build mixed-income developments on sites yet to be announced, likely in the city core, Mr. Oglesby said.

A long-range goal — at least five years away — is to demolish east Augusta’s 37-year-old, 248-unit Underwood Homes, which is nearly obsolete and, with its location along the Savannah River and proximity to Bobby Jones Expressway, would be an ideal spot for apartment or townhouse living.

These are the kinds of developments the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will support, Mr. Oglesby said. Old-style projects, relics of New Deal social policy, have been a failed experiment.

OTHER CITIES have been in the mixed-income business for years, using a $6 billion U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program called Hope VI. The program started in 1992 so housing authorities could demolish and replace their worst inner city slums, such as Cabrini-Green in Chicago or Techwood Homes in Atlanta.

A decade later, block grants were trickling down to midsize cities. Savannah, Ga., got $16.3 million; Macon, Ga., got $19.3 million; Columbus, Ga., got $20 million; Columbia got $36.6 million; and Greenville, S.C., got $41.1 million.

Augusta got nothing because in 2004 the Augusta Commission refused to chip in $50,000 for a Hope VI application for $45 million. Now money is drying up as President Bush calls for the program to be abolished and Congress reins in appropriations.

Last year the housing authority tried to build a mixed-income development off Deans Bridge Road with other funding sources, but it got more than it bargained for.

Neighbors from Georgetown, Meadowbrook, Breeze Hill, Hampton and Winchester subdivisions couldn’t be convinced it wouldn’t become Gilbert Manor II. Residents around the Deans Bridge site didn’t want people such as Ms. Mitchell driving down property values, nor did they appreciate not finding out about the planned development until it went before the commission.

Local legislative delegation members and city commissioners rallied to their cause, including two commissioners, Calvin Holland and Marion Williams, who’d expressed no complaints when the project was presented to them a year earlier.

The authority conceived the Deans Bridge project as a “Hope VI-type development,” relying instead on low-income housing tax credits. Administered by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, tax credits can accomplish the same thing as Hope VI grants, Mr. Ogelsby said, attracting private investors by offering dollar-for-dollar reductions on federal income taxes.

PLANS INCLUDED 132 apartment units, 18 detached homes, 120 senior housing units and 21,000 square feet of commercial space on 23 acres, along with park space, a community center and a pool. The first phase would have cost $12.5 million. Ten percent of the units would have been market rate, 30 percent would have been public housing and 60 percent would have been tax credit units, reserved for working-class families in the $28,000- to $31,000-per-year income range, Mr. Oglesby said.

Hoping to quell concerns, the housing authority organized a bus tour for critics, surrounding neighbors and public housing residents that visited developments in Atlanta, including the Villages of East Lake, considered the gold standard of the mixed-income model.

One traveler, Richmond County Neighborhood Alliance President Sammie Sias, said he noticed it took a high level of security to keep the spaces safe. He said he suspected that if a new development includes public housing, bad word of mouth will eventually cause the rest to be Section 8.

Some academics who have studied the issue agree. Howard Husock, the director of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research’s Social Entrepreneurship Program and author of The Trillion-Dollar Housing Mistake , said he thinks the so-called mixed-income panacea is based on naivety, and the habits of lower-income residents are just as likely to rub off on their neighbors, defeating the purpose.

“Sheer proximity to middle class people — what’s the theory there?” he said. “Why would that work? To me, it’s the process of getting to a better neighborhood that instills the right values.”

CITY COMMISSIONERS voted against a resolution of support for the Deans Bridge project, dooming the city’s tax credit application. Housing authority Planning and Development Director Richard Arfman said it needed written approval from the local government to be competitive.

Now Gilbert Manor is being eliminated anyway. The commission, wanting to keep growth of the medical college in Augusta instead of Athens, voted to give MCG $10 million to buy the project and demolish it.

Under federal rules, Augusta could build another public housing complex to replace the lost units, but Mr. Oglesby said he’s not going to do that.

To replace the 278, he estimates it would take four or five mixed-income communities, about seven years to construct them and at least $40 million. The first tax credit application will be due in May, with the first new development opening to residents in December 2011.

With this year bringing new commissioners to the city government, Mr. Arfman and Mr. Oglesby said they’re optimistic about a thumbs up on their next attempt at tax credits. In May, the commission voted to support a similar application by Vantage Development to build 72 apartment units for the elderly in south Augusta.

“I think once we get one successful mixed-income development built,” Mr. Oglesby said, “when the community sees how it turns out and what it can mean to the community, then they will get on the bandwagon and be very supportive.”

Next time, the officials said, they’ll involve politicians and surrounding residents from the get-go, something they didn’t do with the Deans Bridge project.

“We’re not asking to build a 100-unit public housing complex anymore, all low income,” Mr. Arfman said. “These new mixed-income developments are very nice. To be competitive, to get the funding, you have to have all the amenities a nice complex would have — swimming pools, community centers, day cares. They’re high-end complexes, and that’s how the system works.”

WORRIES PERSIST about how this new system works for some of those served by the old one.

George Moses, the chairman of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, testified to a House Financial Services subcommittee last year that the Hope VI program needs overhauling. Authorities should be required to replace every unit they eliminate and give every displaced resident the right to return, he said.

Problems in public housing are exaggerated, said Mr. Moses, who grew up in the Pittsburgh projects himself. People there already live among families with working parents trying to improve their lot. Vouchers can put residents in neighborhoods laden with other Section 8 renters, which can be equally bad or far worse, with rampant crime, squalor, deadbeat landlords and economic isolation, Mr. Moses said.

The effect on Ms. Mitchell’s family remains to be seen. For now, she said, they’re better off.

With help from her mother, her brother and some cousins, on moving day she filled a U-Haul truck with boxes, furniture and mattresses. They pulled away from Gilbert Manor Unit 681, leaving to demolition crews its narrow rooms, battered walls, scuffed tile floors and the littered grass around the front stoop.

In public housing, Ms. Mitchell didn’t like her daughters being outside without her. Their first day at the new place, the girls played in the street with neighbors’ children while their mother ran errands and their grandmother unpacked.

SITTING ON A CURB by a basketball goal, Alexis, 9, said she won’t miss her old neighbors.

“They sell C-R-A-C-K,” she said.

Their new neighborhood, Riverchase Rental Homes off Lovers Lane, is made up of nearly identical, one-story homes and operated like an apartment complex. With the arrival of families from Gilbert Manor, the percentage of renters with Section 8 vouchers has increased from 80 to 90, according to a site manager.

Already there have been instances of vandalism that bother Ms. Mitchell — plant pots knocked over and the basketball goal toppled — and she said she suspects the trouble is emanating from nearby Underwood Homes. She hopes to move again when her one-year lease is up.

“They see me struggling,” Ms. Mitchell said of her girls. “They know I’m doing it all alone. They know their father’s in and out of prison.

“I hope they learn from it and have something better.”

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or

Poverty levels in Augusta surpass state numbers

Percentages of people/families with yearly incomes below the poverty level in Augusta-Richmond County (estimated population: 197,372) and in all of Georgia (estimated population: 9,544,750):


All individuals



All families



Female-headed households



Female-headed households with children under 18 years old



Female-headed households that only have children under 5 years old









* 1999 data

Source: U.S. Census Bureau data and estimates, including its 2006 American Community Survey

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