Public housing

Atlanta’s pioneering construction and demolition of public housing at the center of the markers, exhibit


By John Ruch

Atlanta has played a key role in the history of affordable housing in the United States: it was the city that pioneered federally-funded public housing complexes – and was also the first to demolish them all.

Like many stories with unflattering endings and a focus on the poor and working class, this story has received little mention in the civic storytelling and myth-making of Atlanta. A change effort that is now underway from researchers at Emory University in partnership with the Atlanta Housing Authority – the agency that did much of the building and all of the demolition.

The first step will take place in April with the installation of historic state monuments on the sites of the first two social housing complexes: Techwood Homes and University Homes. Meanwhile, researchers are preparing an exhibit on the “broken promises” of a century of Atlanta housing reform history to premiere in 2024 at Emory’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library.

“Atlanta has this remarkable and fundamental history of public housing,” says Christina E. Crawford, professor of architecture in Emory’s Department of Art History who works on the markers and the exhibit. “And now it’s 100% over… It’s a turbulent past. “

Christina E. Crawford, professor of architecture at Emory University. (Special.)

Crawford researched the history of public housing in Atlanta for about five years and gave a seminar on it. Some of this work is based on the papers of Charles Palmer, a developer who came up with the idea for Techwood and was the housing authority’s first chairman. Crawford said she “realized at one point that this is a public history process, that Atlanteans should know, that writing an academic book was not going to be enough – essentially to make Atlantians aware of the good and bad sides of this story. “

The Rose Library houses Palmer’s papers and is working on this exhibit, the working title of which is “Broken Promises: Housing and the Pursuit of the American Dream in Atlanta.”

Rose Library Director Jennifer Gunter King said next year’s historic marker placement “recognizes the families who have made Techwood Homes and University Homes their home, as well as the continued displacement, segregation and sustainability. economic. [issues] which ultimately led to the demolition of these projects at the turn of the century.

Pioneer of “slum clearance” and social housing

The history of these housing projects ranged from the New Deal programs of the 1930s to land grabs at the Olympics and gentrification of the 1990s. Like many affordable housing innovations, they were born out of thirst. institutions and developers of land occupied by poor people and then succumbed to this same force.

Techwood and University were designed and built separately, in 1936 and 1937, respectively. In Jim Crow’s day they were initially racially separated, Techwood only for whites and University only for blacks. But, says Crawford, they were packaged as one for consideration by President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration as the first federally subsidized housing projects.

Techwood, which adjoins the Georgia Tech campus, was the brainchild of Palmer, a real estate developer who owned land nearby and wanted to clean up a poor neighborhood called Tech Flats. Replacing it with a new affordable complex was his solution. “Palmer, by his own admission, got into this because he saw an opportunity to clean up the slums – of course, that’s his own term, ‘clean up the slums’… for government pennies. He went there for purely selfish needs.

But “to his credit,” Crawford says, Palmer developed a genuine interest in the social housing innovations of his day, traveling to European cities to see model projects and bringing back ideas for Techwood. This included not only 1,200 housing units, but also parks, laundry rooms and other community amenities. He ended up chairing the housing authority and writing a memoir titled “The Adventures of a Slum Fighter”.

“So he started out as a villain and became a hero telling the story,” says Crawford.

University Homes sat next to what is now the University Center of Atlanta. John Hope, the first African-American president of the University of Atlanta and civil rights advocate concerned with housing conditions, was “really the hero of this story,” says Crawford. Hope also sought to replace a poor community, unusually named Beaver Slide, with a public housing project.

The beginning of the end

By the 1970s, conditions in complexes were deteriorating, as in many public housing units across the country, as crime increased and public funding declined. The Coca-Cola company, headquartered near Techwood, openly advocated the demolition of social housing. In 1990, such plans gained momentum when Atlanta won the 1996 Olympic bid, sparking a redevelopment frenzy. And in 1992, the federal government launched a new program called HOPE VI aimed at replacing public housing projects with smaller, mixed-income, mixed-use developments, typically owned or managed by the private sector.

In Atlanta, the Housing Authority pioneered HOPE VI, demolishing Techwood and the adjacent Clark Howell homes as an Olympics-related project linked to the adjacent ‘Athletes Village’ of Georgia Tech, which is now dormitories. . Techwood became the Olympic-nominated Centennial Place, with the vast majority of its tenants relocated permanently. The housing authority has proceeded with an aggressive program of demolishing all of its traditional public housing stock in what is essentially a new take on Palmer’s old “slum clearance” approach.

A conceptual illustration of the renovated Roosevelt Hall, which was once part of University Homes. (Choose Atlanta.)

The Techwood and University sites each still have an original building, and that’s where the historic markers will be unveiled on April 18. The former University Homes building is Roosevelt Hall at 660 Atlanta Student Movement Boulevard, where the sign unveiling coincides with a ribbon cut for a mixed-use makeover in conjunction with an adjacent private housing development.

The surviving Techwood building sits on Centennial Olympic Park Drive and Pine Street and remains vacant, apparently the victim of a property entanglement between the housing authority and Centennial Place, Crawford said. The housing authority did not respond to requests for comment.

Decades ago, the importance of the two complexes was recognized via listings of historic neighborhoods on the National Register of Historic Places – Techwood alone and the university as part of the University Center District of Atlanta. But that didn’t stop the behemoths of the Olympics and HOPE VI. Crawford says a broken promise during the Olympics era was that the surviving Techwood building would get a historic marker and maybe even house a “public housing museum.” She uses authority records in her research and says she is a partner in the marker effort because she owns the properties and because of the ability to fulfill this old promise at Emory’s expense.

“They were very happy, especially with the Techwood scorer, because they were supposed to do that 25 years ago,” Crawford said. “… Maybe it will make them ashamed to do something [with the surviving building]. “

The two housing complex markers were among only six approved statewide for installation in 2022 by the Georgia Historical Society, which is still working with Crawford on their exact language.

The past informs the present

Crawford’s research focuses on the beginnings of social housing projects, not their messy ends, where there is still debate about factors such as racial integration in the 1960s. “But the history of housing audience in the United States is really about maintenance and funding, ”she said, describing the big picture that emerged from Atlanta’s early efforts. “So it has nothing to do with the people who live there. It is divestment – financial divestment and political divestment – in social housing as a social project.

It’s a more relevant topic than ever in a city still facing severe income inequality and a housing affordability crisis amid its latest city-wide urban redevelopment project, Atlanta. BeltLine. Today, the housing authority is back to building housing, and a new municipal administration takes office in January with a stated focus on affordability. Crawford says now is a great time to take a look at Atlanta’s unique public housing past to inform the present.

“I think it’s important to be really honest and to have real discussions about moving to Atlanta,” she said. “And I hope, in the next cycle, to do it better. There are some really positive things to learn and there are also what not to do.