30,000 wait in scorching heat for housing vouchers
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
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
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
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
If their application checks out, then they get to wait again — this time
maybe for years.
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