The Making of a Ghetto

By Bob Powell

Vol. 2, No. 2., 1979, pp. 17-20

For Southerners who weren't raised in them, federal housing projects are often visualized as inner city creatures of high crime with vandalized shells where rats and cockroaches populate among the left behinds of the Great Society. While they are generally thought of as exclusively a downtown, big city problem, public housing projects are creeping into the suburbs where new problems create old, disappointing results.

The move towards the suburbs began in the early 1970s when the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and local housing authorities around the country came under fire for allegedly perpetuating housing segregation in the nation's cities. Critics claimed that placing new projects in predominantly inner city neighborhoods perpetuated residential segregation.

The Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 mandated that "large concentrations" of poor people be avoided in the selection of new project sites. With lawsuits later filed against some major urban housing authorities for failure to comply with the Act and with charges of violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1974 and due process, the move of housing projects to the suburbs began.

In 1975, the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA) acquired two suburban sites, called Red Oak and Boatrock. Originally built as middle class apartments, the projects went to the city authority when the original developers went broke.

With 15,000 apartment units serving 51,000 tenants, AHA became involved in disputes with the county housing authority over who owned the projects. The courts finally awarded control to the county authority which is slated to take over this year.


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Until the court battle with AHA, Fulton county had no projects that it owned or ran directly and had dealt only with rental subsidies of private landlords on behalf of the tenants. Based on Atlanta's experience with Boatrock and Red Oak, the county may find some unique problems with suburbia housing.

A root problem is physical isolation. At Boatrock in Southwest Atlanta the nearest physical structure, a hugh Western Electric plant, is a quarter of a mile away. The closest store - just a country store - is about three miles and the nearest shopping district, Ben Hill, is 7 miles away. The project is 17 miles from downtown Atlanta.

The Red Oak project is better off. It is located 5 miles from the suburban town of College Park and only a mile from the nearest chain grocery store.

While these may not be great distances to a middle class commuter they are terrific barriers for the poor dependent on second hand gas guzzlers and public tranportation. Even the AHA management agrees that transportation is a problem for outer city projects. Margaret Ross, information officer of AHA, says of Boatrock, "Boatrock had transportation problems but they were cleared up."

According to residents of the projects the transportation woes still exist. In its first year Boatrock had no bus service at all. Now, buses are available at Boatrock and Red Oak but only during business hours. It also takes at least 45 minutes for the one-way trip to downtown Atlanta. The last bus from downtown to the outer reaches of the projects leaves at 6 o'clock p.m. and only Red Oak has weekend bus service to downtown.

Annie Morrison, president of the Boatrock Tenant's Association is not only critical of the buses' timing but also of their destination points. The buses to Boatrock run only between the project and downtown, 17 miles away. To travel to the nearby shopping center of Ben Hill, a resident must go 17 miles downtown and then 10 miles back to the shopping area. A direct bus route to Ben Hill would allow easier access for Boatrock tenants to grocery stores, commercial enterprises, the post office and to the local public health clinic.

The outer limit projects have other distinct disadvantages.

The bulk of doctors and clinics who treat the poor are located downtown. Grady Memorial Hospital, which accepts large numbers of welfare/Medicaid clients and pro-rates service costs for the working poor ineligible for Medicaid assistance is downtown close to the inner city projects. Scottish Rite Hospital, which serves many handicapped poor people at little or no cost, is 30 minutes from downtown housing projects. A bus ride from Red Oak or Boatrock takes as long as two hours one way.

The suburban projects are also separated from the centers of power that shape their lives. A former Boatrock tenant, who had previously lived in Techwood, a downtown project, contrasted the affects on activism. "At Techwood, we had a strong community group," said Betty Thompson, "but at Boatrock, we are isolated from everything."

While the seats of power (the mayor's office, the City Council chambers, housing authority officers, the major media, and the state capitol) are all within a stone's throw of most projects in Atlanta, "it's a little hard to make those nighttime council meetings when the buses don't run after 6:00 p.m. or you have to depend on your beat-up car," one suburban project dweller pointed out.

The Boatrock Tenant's Association has sent representatives to meetings of coalitions of citywide housing residents. One activist in the local welfare right's organization sees the projects' move to the suburbs not so much aimed at breaking down segregated housing patterns as breaking up poor people's concentration of political power.

Another activist in the downtown Bedford-Pines area, Joe Boone recently accused a


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White developer of trying to drive the poor out of the city when plans for luxury condominiums next to poorer Bedford-Pines were announced.

Boone and other activists fear that the gas crunch will increasingly encourage White middleclass suburbanites to opt for city life. Already, Whites are beginning to trickle back into Atlanta's inner city neighborhoods to renovate houses that were once left in disrepair.

As they trickle into neighborhoods like Grant and Inman Park, and Midtown, real estate prices skyrocket. The neighborhoods get better but moderate and low income private housing is forced out due to higher prices of real estate. If the trickle of Whites turns to a snowball, more public housing will be necessary and suburban projects may be more in demand.

For the present, the suburb is still the place of the American Dream for the many of the middle class and housing for the poor is not often welcomed.

Where the mountains of North Georgia meet the urban sprawl of Atlanta, North Fulton County is an idyllic area of station wagons, dogs, children, PTA meetings and homes ranging from $50,000 to $100,000.

The Fulton County Housing Authority announced early this year plans to build small projects in two suburban enclaves in North Fulton, Aipharetta and Sandy Springs. The suburbanites were not happy to hear the news and several hundred of them jammed hearings on the proposed projects. They held high banners that told how projects will bring crime and undesirables, welfare deadbeats and folks with dark skins. As one man said, "I moved out here to get away from those people".

However, one North Fulton resident took a


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more mocking view in private of her neighbor's fears. "They should be happy about the projects. Now they won't have to send all the way to downtown Atlanta for their maids." HUD tried to allay fears by issuing a report denying that rising crime and the pillage of the suburbia would occur.

Because the county housing authority can give priority to residents living outside Atlanta, the North Fulton residents probably would not face any influx of Black inner city residents. They can hardly escape the poor Whites, however.

Down the dirt road away from the new suburban neighborhoods, live the poor Whites of North Fulton in wretched housing, worse than many of the inner city housing projects.

Many shacks of these poor Whites are without running water or electricity and some have no indoor plumbing or heating except for wood burning stoves.

With political sophistication and economic advantage, the middle class residents of North Fulton may be able to use the problems of inner city projects and the fear of Black migration to the suburbs to consolidate support and block any federally funded project in their area. If so, the poor Whites of the area - the most likely beneficiaries - will have lost the opportunity for better housing.

At the same time, the problems of residents in suburban Boatrock and Red Oak remain overshadowed by the controversy over additional housing projects outside downtown. Frustrated and hampered, these residents wish for a return to the old projects or become disillusioned and disrespectful of their present housing. The makings of a ghetto are thus laid.

HUD appears incapable of avoiding the political decisions and unwilling to help residents of the suburban projects solve their problems. The bureaucracy is apparently much better at identifying project sites than nurturing the projects to become livable, convenient housing.

While inner city residents may face the blight of everyday deterioration and crime, the housing projects of the suburbs may be subject to the same forces, as they slowly take hold, without the political influence and downtown services that at least make life bearable.

Bob Powell is a free-lance writer living in Atlanta, Georgia.