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Public housing for the poor: Mend it, don't end it

In this time of housing crisis, what's needed are patient reforms, not a rush to end a model that has met an important social need for the past 75 years.

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For 75 years, public housing has served the needs of America's poorest families. With the nation's homeless population expected to grow by 1.5 million over the next two years, the need for low-income housing is crucial.

But today, this New Deal program is on the verge of collapse. Atlanta, the first city to provide public housing projects in 1936, is demolishing these units and relocating residents using vouchers in a bid to deconcentrate poverty. Other cities are following suit; by decade's end, traditional public housing could be over.

That would be a mistake, because poverty and homelessness are serious problems lying beyond the scope of the private market. Before rushing to replicate this shift nationwide, policymakers ought to reflect on its broader implications.

In the past decade, the city has bulldozed over a dozen developments, forcing tens of thousands of families to relocate. "Concentrating families in poverty is very destructive," Atlanta Housing Authority CEO Renée Glover told The New York Times last year. The last residents were moved out on Dec. 31, 2009. About 7,000 qualified residents have been relocated to private market rental housing with the help of a voucher subsidy. There are no plans to build replacement housing.

Atlanta's effort reflects a national campaign that goes back 30 years.

By the 1980s, lack of maintenance, crime, and other problems had given public housing a bad name. The Reagan administration gutted funding, exacerbating the strain on these communities.

In 1992, the federal HOPE VI Program was created to transform public housing by building mixed-income housing in its place. Atlanta has been at the forefront, demolishing some of its largest public housing developments and building 10 nationally acclaimed mixed-income complexes between 1994 and 2004.

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