Haunted by past lawsuits and leadership strife, Atlanta Housing (AH) has long been admonished by public officials for dysfunction and underachievement. Though the housing authority’s CEO, Eugene Jones, says the agency has stepped up its game since he came aboard two years ago, his job and others could be on the line once voters pick the next mayor.
Mayoral candidate and Atlanta City Councilmember Andre Dickens said, if he’s elected, Jones—among others city officials—will have 100 days to show he means business and deserves to keep his job. Otherwise, he gets the axe.
Dickens told Atlanta Civic Circle that, today, “Gene is definitely the right leader, with his history of actually building complicated projects in Chicago.” But if he wants to stay at AH, Jones will need to fast-track the development of city-owned property, the councilmember said.
Dickens said AH has been “asleep at the wheel for new construction on all of that vacant land for the last 12 years.” He conceded that AH has done a bang-up job administering its Housing Choice Voucher Program in recent years, “but with new construction, they’ve been abysmal.”
City Council President Felicia Moore, who’s up against Dickens in the mayoral runoff, was more terse about the fate of AH leadership. “We’re going to have to be willing to make some big changes and some drastic changes that may not be comfortable,” she said in an interview.
“They haven’t been productive,” Moore said. “We’ve had housing authority properties that have been sitting vacant for well over a decade, and there’s a desperate need for affordable housing, so we need to get moving.”
Jones, however, told Atlanta Civic Circle last month, after mayoral candidates dragged AH during an Atlanta Regional Housing Forum discussion, that it’s easy for people to cast stones when they’re not paying attention. Under his watch, AH has begun construction on hundreds of affordable housing units, with hundreds more in the development pipeline, he said.
Shouldn’t elected officials—especially those seeking the city’s highest office—know that?
Both Dickens and Moore admitted they had not attended an AH board of commissioners meeting recently. (For his part, Dickens is part of the advisory committee for AH’s Bowen Homes redevelopment, which is slated to produce more than 1,300 residences where a public housing complex was demolished years ago.)
Jones declined to comment for this article, although he’s said in the past that opinions about the housing authority are often based on the AH of days past.
No doubt, AH has plenty of catching up to do after years of turmoil, and the next mayor will be expected to push for serious reforms at the agency.
Dickens said, during Jones’s 100-day contract, the CEO, as well as AH board members, will be charged with “aggressively pushing for new construction of affordable housing.”
Dickens added that, in all likelihood, the board would look different under his leadership. “[Board members] are not going because they’ll be reprimanded,” he said. “They’re going because I’m coming in with an aggressive posture.”
Moore also said she might “revamp the board and leadership so that we can move forward.”
“I would take inventory and clean house at the same time,” she said. “There are some things that may be valuable to keep and others that need to be changed.”
Asked if she thinks AH’s recent accomplishments might have been eclipsed by its turbulent past, Moore said, “If we don’t know about [AH successes], it’s because we haven’t been told.”
“I don’t know what they’re doing,” she said of AH’s board and leadership. “So the first thing is to make sure that I’m educated and up to speed on what they’re doing.”
Both mayoral candidates said AH could do a better job of housing Atlanta’s unsheltered population. Moore suggested, “there may even be some opportunities for our city employees who can’t afford to live in the city that they work for.”
For now, though, it seems the future organizational structure of AH is up in the air.