Atlanta Housing Shortage Sparks Desperation, Chaos

An estimated 30 thousand individuals stood outside in sweltering heat earlier this week at the East Point Housing Authority, just outside Atlanta, to be placed on a waiting list for housing assistance. Local authorities were unprepared for the large crowd, which eventually grew impatient and resulted in a number of individuals needing medical attention. Journalist Corey Dade and Harvey Newman, a professor of Public Management and Policy at Georgia State University, talk about the dire housing shortage that left so many people desperate to get assistance.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

On the program today, the Barbershop guys on the JetBlue guy who cursed at his passengers and did a hasty retreat. You'll hear what they have to say about that. And other news of the week, also today, the other side of Ramadan, the good eating that goes on after sundown. And we'll hear your comments in Backtalk.

But first, we want to focus on a story out of suburban Atlanta that gave many of us pause. It reminded many people of the scenes we are accustomed to seeing in developing countries after a natural disaster. But we're talking about a small city outside of Atlanta, where 30,000 people gathered in the sweltering heat just to get an application to get on a waiting list for housing assistance.

For the first time in eight years, the East Point Housing Authority opened up that waiting list. People lined up days in advance in the sweltering heat to apply for so-called Section 8 vouchers. That's part of a federal program offering support to low income individuals or families to help pay for housing. Local authorities evidently were unprepared for the crowds and dozens were hurt.

Now, we put a call out to people who had been out there and were waiting just to get their sense of what it was like, so Shirley called us back and this is what she told us.

SHIRLEY (Caller): It was crazy. People were just falling out from dehydration and the ambulances were there, you know, taking care of them the best they could, you know. They said they were going to start giving out applications at 9 o'clock. I got there about 9:30. They was trying to calm people down and tell them to back up. But, you know, nobody would back up. They started pushing everybody, you know, everybody was just standing at the door going forward.

When I got off the bus and I walked up, they were giving some people some in the back. So I happened to get me one. By the grace of God that I that happened to me like that. I just work, like, five hours a day and I really need me a Section 8. And I only got an application because they only had, like, 62 vouchers to give out. And they were saying they were going to give them to the elder and the ones that were disabled. The rest of it was just to get an application to get on the waiting list.

MARTIN: We wanted to know more about why something like this could happen, how it happened, why it happened. So we've called Corey Dade. He's a journalist formerly with The Wall Street Journal, but he's actually moving to join us here at NPR in Washington. Also with us is Harvey Newman. He's chair of the Department of Public Management and Policy at Georgia State University. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. COREY DADE (Journalist): Thank you, Michel.

Professor HARVEY NEWMAN (Department of Public Management and Policy Chair, Georgia State University): Delighted to be with you.

MARTIN: So, Corey, let's start with you. Just tell us a little bit about East Point, Georgia, where this happened. Can you just tell us a little bit about the city?

Mr. DADE: Sure. East Point is a small city just south of Atlanta. It is a city that much like Atlanta and its suburbs has gone through gentrification over the years. And it has old housing stock and it also has an overabundance of foreclosed properties, distressed properties.

And, overall, the city has been trying to get funding from the federal government, from the state, et cetera, to not only tear down that type of housing, but also build owner-occupied housing. So the city is trying to shift as far as it can away from affordable housing, public housing, subsidized housing. And...

MARTIN: Now, as I understand it, though, total population is 40,000 of the whole city.

Mr. DADE: Right. And that's not unusual for Georgia, for the cities in Georgia. Most cities in Georgia are relatively small with Atlanta, Decatur, Macon and a few others being the exceptions.

MARTIN: So almost the entire population so just picture this, a crowd that's three-quarters of the size of the entire population of the city...

Mr. DADE: Right.

MARTIN: ...shows up for these applications. And do you happen to know how many spaces were actually available? How many vouchers were available, how many spaces how many rent assistance vouchers were available and how many public housing spaces were actually available.

Mr. DADE: They passed out 13,000 applications, but only 655 spaces are available. Two-hundred of them are for public housing units. The rest are for vouchers for Section 8 housing.

MARTIN: And were all of the people who arrived, who came, were they all from the area? Were they all from the Atlanta area, broadly defined?

Mr. DADE: Broadly defined, which is a huge area, they were all from metro Atlanta. And as the professor knows, part of that is driven by more than a decade ago the city of Atlanta starting to tear down its public housing units, its public housing projects and displacing thousands of residents. And so, that helped lead to just a pent up demand throughout the region.

And many of these people have gone from sort of city to city throughout the metro area looking for these types of opportunities to apply for public housing.

MARTIN: So, Professor Newman, this is a good time to bring you into the conversation. I think first we'd like to know, first of all, what is the housing situation in that area that would lead to a situation like that? I think we're going to set aside the whole crowd control aspect of it because I think people grasped that there was a crowd control issue there. Obviously many, many poor people showed up. Many more people showed up than had been anticipated. But that's a separate issue.

So, first, Professor Newman, I want to ask about just that area. And then I want you to tell us nationally whether is this kind of circumstance confined to the particular issues of this area or is there also a national issue too?

Mr. NEWMAN: Well, we hear a good bit about the foreclosure crisis affecting people who own housing. And that has had something of a trickle-down effect as people lose jobs and become caught up in tight economic circumstances. The demand for rental housing has far exceeded the supply. So whereas a few years ago, the rental market in Atlanta was very soft, now it's extremely tight.

And this translates into an enormous demand for subsidized housing. And at the very time, gentrification has occurred. There are fewer neighborhood areas that were formerly occupied by low and moderate income folks. So there is a tremendous demand not just in the Atlanta metropolitan area, but I think this mirrored in cities throughout the country.

MARTIN: Well, we got some figures from the National Low Income Housing Coalition. They told us just for Fulton County that a third of those who rent, who make half or less of the area's median income are paying more than half of their income on housing and utilities. So, I mean, let's sort of picture what that's like.

So, Professor Newman, I guess I'd like to ask, are there specific circumstances in that area that have led to that affordability crunch? Or are there other or is the same situation being replicated in other places?

Mr. NEWMAN: I think the affordability crunch is affecting low and moderate income people all over the metropolitan Atlanta area. The unique thing was that East Point was able to open its housing voucher waiting list, and that's what attracted the crowds. Most of the other housing authorities in the metropolitan area simply do not have waiting lists open. Their waiting lists run as high as 10 years for people to have access to housing.

So this was seen as simply an opportunity for people to get on a waiting list. As Cory said, there are a few units available and there are a few housing vouchers available. But simply to get on the waiting list was an opportunity that no other housing authorities in the metropolitan area had available.

MARTIN: Corey, what are people saying about this now? What are officials saying about this now? About the lessons learned from this or just how is sort of the Atlanta's kind of political leadership, the metropolitan political leadership responding to this?

Mr. DADE: I think you saw it yesterday, the second day when they took applications. The main response they had to bring was a logistical one. So they did it differently in bringing in police officers to direct traffic. And instead of having people kind of congregate outside of the building, they had people kind of doing a drive thru where they had people, employees taking applications right out of the drivers' cars. And folks were able to kind of move on through. So it was much more efficient.

I think that beyond that, you're not seeing much in the way of political response in part because metro Atlanta is kind of more kind of distracted by the gubernatorial race that's happening right now. And I think most it appears, from what we can tell so far, it appears that the group think here is that this was more of a logistical nightmare than anything else as you kind of mentioned. But that, as the professor said, the problem of a scarcity of subsidized housing is something that all these jurisdictions deal with.

MARTIN: And professor, final thought from you, what lesson would you want public policy leaders to draw from this. I mean I don't whether the situation is that people are unhoused or they're in crowded conditions. It's just that they're paying so much for housing that other priorities are not being met. But, so, I'd like to ask in the minute and a half we have left, what lesson would you hope public officials would draw from this.

Mr. NEWMAN: Well, I think those local, state and national public officials need to regard the lesson of this episode as an indicator, a strong marker that low and moderate income folks need better access to housing. We need either more vouchers authorized at the federal level that can be available to municipalities and distributed perhaps at a state level. But this is certainly the lesson that I would want from a policy perspective for our public officials to learn from this.

MARTIN: And, Professor Newman, finally, were you surprised by this, by what happened?

Mr. NEWMAN: Not terribly. Any access to subsidized housing is a strong magnet when people are hurting. And I think the economic climate that we have on the national level and this is just one more indicator of how people are hurting in the current economic climate.

MARTIN: Harvey Newman is professor and chair of the Department of Public Management and Policy at Georgia State University. Corey Dade is an Atlanta-based journalist. He's heading here to Washington to join us here at NPR. They both joined us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. DADE: My pleasure, Michel.

Mr. NEWMAN: Good to be with you.

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