Housing voucher hysteria in Atlanta highlights national crisis

OPINION - On a grander scale, it's not just the indication of the nation's downturn economy but also the lingering effects of poverty and inadequate education...

“I thought Katrina had happened all over again,” began Lorraine Jacques-White for her popular Powertalk show on the black-oriented talk radio station WAOK in Atlanta this morning. Witnessing the mass of black bodies gathered yesterday in 90 degree heat in East Point, where the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport is located, for simply the chance to be placed on the wait-list for Section 8 vouchers was an eye-opener for many regarding the scarcity of affordable housing and the overwhelming need for it in the United States. An estimated 30,000 people came over the course of three days to receive applications for the slim chance of obtaining one of the 62 vouchers. The East Point Housing Authority was prepared for 10,000 people. East Point’s current population is estimated at just over 41,000.

“I’ve got to tell you that the first thought that I had when we pulled up on the scene here is whether we were in America,” NBC News’ Ron Mott told Ed Shultz of MSNBC’s The Ed Show yesterday evening. He was not alone in his sentiments. Many callers to Atlanta’s Too Much Truth, another program on WAOK, yesterday expressed their shame that this could happen in this country. Others debated not just the turnout and the current problem but also the pitfalls of public assistance. Such talk was also duplicated on Power Talk.

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The unemployment rate for Fulton County, where East Point and the more popular Atlanta are both located, is reportedly 10.8 percent; while the national average remains stuck at 9.5 percent. Even more disconcerting is that those in the crowd weren’t all unemployed but also working poor. Given the number of boarded up houses and former projects in the metro Atlanta area, many wondered why such places could not be used to satisfy the affordable housing demand. To receive a Section 8 voucher, a family’s income is not to exceed 50 percent of the area’s median income, which is an estimated $31,847 in East Point.

Interestingly, the last time the wait list opened up was in 2002 and the currently housing availability in East Point is zero. Some local media began reporting on the situation Tuesday, when hundreds of people had already begun lining up, vowing to sleep outside to ensure their chances of receiving an application. In the metro Atlanta area, public housing has entrenched roots. The opening of Atlanta’s Techwood Homes in 1936 is widely credited as the nation’s first public housing project.

In recent years, the Atlanta Housing Authority, under the leadership of Renee Lewis Glover, has championed eliminating traditional public housing units in favor of mixed-used communities. While the housing units have been shuttered and crime has reportedly declined, such “progress” has, perhaps, not so coincidentally coincided with the drop in the city of Atlanta’s African-American population. The 2006 New York Times article “Gentrification Changing Face of New Atlanta” noted that “For the first time since the 1920’s, the black share of the city’s population is declining and the white percentage is on the rise.” In the Old Fourth Ward, home to the Sweet Auburn District from which Dr. King hailed, the African-American population dropped from a high of 94 percent in 1990 to less than 75 percent.

For some, East Point’s high Section 8 voucher turn-out is a reflection of Atlanta out-sourcing its problems to other areas. On a grander scale, it’s not just an indication of the nation’s downturn economy but also the lingering effects of poverty and inadequate education. After all, Techwood Homes opened in 1936 in the midst of Jim Crow. That the overwhelming majority of the crowd was African-American while the face of the East Point Housing Authority personnel was white and female was a disconcerting image that echoed racial stereotypes of white patronage.

Coupled with renewed concerns of the “wealth gap” among African-Americans and whites in this country, the East Point turnout is even more disturbing. Last month, BET founder Robert Johnson appeared on CNBC to discuss creating governmental policies aimed at eliminating such disparities. Taking the Atlanta metro area’s reputation for African American wealth also into consideration, the images from East Point, especially the touches of violence, are powerful reality checks on that “bounced check” Dr. King referenced during his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

As reports have already begun to pour in about people lining up in East Point this morning to turn in their applications despite being advised to mail them in, it’s increasingly evident to many Americans that something needs to be done, even if it’s not quite clear what should be done. In this so-called post-racial America, some of the very real problems of this nation’s troubled racial past continue to linger and, perhaps, the East Point turnout is an uncomfortable manifestation of both that history and these times.