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The number of extremely low-income Atlanta families receiving housing benefits through traditional programs at the city’s housing authority hasn’t increased since 2004 — it’s stuck at about 17,000 families, even though that’s the income bracket where demand is highest.

Instead, it’s families a step or two up the income ladder — and landlords — who benefit from the program that the federal government calls the country’s most important resource for creating affordable housing today.

Part of the story begins a generation ago and more, when policymakers in Washington, D.C. and cities like Atlanta started shifting away from public ownership of housing and toward subsidized units in private housing.

This widespread trend shows up in Atlanta data — a good place to start is in 2004, when Atlanta’s housing authority first filed a federal report with data comparable to its reporting today.

Back in 2004, Atlanta Housing (AH) served about 17,000 families that fell below a key point on the metro area’s income ladder: A family of four earning zero to $21,530 per year. At the time, $21,530 was considered 30% of the average median income, or AMI, for a metro Atlanta family of four. 

Adjust for 17 years of inflation and wage changes, and that key poverty point of 30% AMI rose to just $26,500 for a family of four in 2021.

Yet the growth since then in AH’s traditional clientele is among families a little higher up the income ladder, represented by a family of four that earns $26,501 to $43,100 per year today. 

From public housing to private subsidies

Atlanta was home to the first public housing project, Techwood Homes, in 1935 – and then to some of the first project demolitions that kicked off nationally in the 1990s.

Right as the Olympics were about to arrive in the neighborhood, the city and housing authority knocked down Techwood Homes, arguing that the buildings hopelessly trapped residents amid gangs, criminals, and poverty.  

From then until now, people have been asking a very good question that no one has fully answered: If projects are demolished, where are very poor Atlantans supposed to live?

The policymakers’ answer has been mixed-income communities where housing authority clients would enjoy a better quality of life while market-rate tenants help foot the bills.

Clients would either show up to a private building of their choice with a voucher to pay rent. Or a block of voucher funding would help bankroll a mixed-income building that would have below-market-rate units.

But a bigger and bigger share of federal public housing support is going to tax breaks for developers who set aside below-market-rate units in mixed-income buildings. In jargon, that’s LIHTC — the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. 

And LIHTC doesn’t tend to serve folks at the very bottom of the income ladder. 

Instead, the affordable rents in those LIHTC buildings are set to be affordable to families between more like 30% AMI and 60% AMI.  

Nowhere to live

“Can Atlanta Housing serve its most vulnerable residents with Housing Choice [tenant-based] Vouchers ? Sure doesn’t look like it from this graph,” said Deirdre Oakley, a Georgia State University sociology professor who has researched the outcomes for former residents of Atlanta public housing.

“This is exactly what critics worried about beginning with Atlanta getting the [1996] Summer Olympics,” Oakley said.

Andrew Aurand, vice president for research at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said that the programs that are deeply subsidized, that serve the lowest-income renters haven’t seen an increase in a long time.

“What we really need is a return to long-term commitments to subsidized housing,” Aurand said in an interview.

The commitments that exist now can seem precarious, especially in Atlanta.

Some 19,000 families below 30% AMI were on the waiting list for vouchers alone in June 2021, as of AH’s last report. That’s more than in any other eligible income bracket.

Voucher funds are part of the federal budget — the money that houses thousands of Atlantans is subject to an annual congressional fight.  

And subsidies on LIHTC units expire.

Zoom in on Georgia, and it’s hard to find a place, even when with a voucher in hand. That’s because landlords can legally turn away voucher holders in favor of renters who have cash.  

Zoom in on Atlanta, and the city has kept on demolishing its public housing, except for a few publicly owned senior towers. Would-be developers can pay to get out of a local inclusionary zoning law that calls for some set-aside units with small affordability requirements in some neighborhoods.

And private rents are rising faster than incomes, while the city continues to lose older, lower-cost apartment buildings, said Dan Immergluck, a GSU urban studies professor who studies housing justice and policy.

With Atlanta’s “red hot” real estate market, the pain is much greater than it used to be for Atlantans languishing on the voucher waitlist.

It’s either leave the city or live in what Immergluck calls “last resort” housing — nobody’s first choice.

There are ways to do things differently. Some cities, like New York City, still have big inventories of publicly owned housing. Land trusts make housing more affordable by owning land and selling people only the house that’s on the land — Atlanta has a land trust with a growing portfolio.

AH itself assisted another 5,000 or so families in 2021 who weren’t in traditional, federal programs (so demographic data is lacking on them.) That includes people in a small down payment assistance program and people who got short-term housing help.

Sean Keenan contributed reporting.

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