Sunday, August 22, 2010

30,000 wait in scorching heat for Housing Vouchers

By Dianne Mathiowetz
Published Aug 19, 2010 8:23 PM

It merited the evening news, not just in Atlanta but nationally.

Contradicting all the pundits who were opining on the “positive” economic outlook came the startling video of thousands of people standing in long lines that stretched around an East Point, Ga., strip mall parking lot. A predominantly Black suburb of Atlanta in south Fulton County, East Point has about 40,000 residents.

On Aug. 11, in scorching heat, a crowd of 30,000 — mostly women of all ages, many accompanied by children, some using walkers or in wheelchairs — waited for hours in hopes of securing an application for a Section 8 housing voucher. Dozens had actually been camping in front of the East Point Housing Authority building for more than two days just to be sure they would be among the first to get one of the forms.

To make matters worse, the East Point Housing Authority has no funding for any new vouchers now. Those fortunate enough to get through the red tape can expect to be on a waiting list for years.

The story is the same throughout metro Atlanta. Although about 15,000 Georgia residents receive federal subsidies under the Section 8 program that they can use to secure privately owned housing anywhere, thousands more have qualified but remain on waiting lists. Most metro agencies have not even opened their application process in more than two years. This was the first time since 2002 that East Point was taking new names.

Over the last decade, Atlanta has demolished all its large public housing stock, including some senior high-rises, eliminating thousands of low-cost housing units. Once these publicly funded assets were torn down, private developers were allowed to build so-called “mixed” housing, in which most of the apartments rent for market rates and only a small handful are considered “affordable.”

The former tenants of public housing projects — including Bowen, Grady, Capitol Homes, Hollywood and Bankhead Courts — were supplied with Section 8 vouchers and told to find a private landlord willing to rent to them. Many of these families lost their vouchers because they could not pay the skyrocketing utility bills resulting from unusually severe weather. Others have been victimized again by landlords who fail to pay the mortgage and the renters end up getting evicted.

The housing crisis is also exacerbated by Georgia’s unemployment rate, which is higher than the national average. Atlanta’s rate is higher still — more than 10 percent. Recent studies show that while per capita income nationally went down 2.8 percent from 2008 to 2009, in metro Atlanta it dropped 4.8 percent.

Metro Atlanta also ranks among the top areas for foreclosures. On Aug. 3, more than 9,000 foreclosed properties were scheduled to be auctioned off on various courthouse steps, from Gwinnett to DeKalb counties. All these factors combine to create great demand for a shrinking supply of decent, affordable housing.

Throw in unchecked gentrification of in-town neighborhoods, with business-driven legislation dominating public policy decisions, and the sense of desperation and hope that caused 30,000 low-income people to try to improve living conditions for themselves and their families, even if it meant standing in the blazing sun for hours, becomes understandable.

Women interviewed by local media all expressed how hard it was for them to afford a safe place to live on their wages, disability or Social Security checks. Each held out hope that with some help, they could make it. All said that whatever they had gone through that day would be worth it if they could get a voucher.

Equipped with riot gear, police from several jurisdictions were called in to control the crowd. Watching the news coverage, one sees the similarities to other recent catastrophic events such as those in Haiti, Pakistan and New Orleans, where the dire need of the people is met with armed police who enforce “order” but don’t facilitate justice.

The scene became more chaotic as police began moving people from one place to another, causing some to lose their place in line and adding to their feelings of frustration and anxiety. Sixty-two people suffered some type of injury, with more than 20 people taken to hospitals because of heat-related distress.

Unable to handle the volume, the East Point Housing Authority finally gave stacks of applications to police, who stood on their cars and distributed forms hastily to a sea of outstretched hands. Some 13,000 applications were passed out. The lucky recipients have until Aug. 31 to return them with all the required information.

If their application checks out, then they get to wait again — this time maybe for years.
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