A new mixed-income development on the former site of the Underwood Homes public housing project could be the beginning of the end for concentrated poverty in Augusta.
The Augusta Housing Authority is buying into a model widely used across the nation that replaces traditional barrack-style public housing with modern apartment homes where the poor and middle class live side by side.
The first residents began moving into The Legacy at Walton Oaks off Sand Bar Ferry Road the first week of October. The initial phase includes 75 units for residents older than 55.
In a complex featuring manicured landscape, cushioned patio furniture, a community room with a flat-screen television and an exercise facility, 12 of the units are low-income public housing.
Those residents pay rent totaling 30 percent of their net income. An additional 25 units are designated for low-income residents receiving project-based rental assistance, a Section 8 program.
Right next door, higher-paying tenants receive the same amenities at a reduced rate to attract middle-class tenants.
Federally funded public housing projects, criticized as isolated pockets of poverty, have begun to disappear across the nation. The Augusta Housing Authority sold Gilbert Manor to the Medical College of Georgia in 2008. It was razed followed by the demolition of Underwood Homes.
Cities across the nation, including Atlanta, Macon, Ga., and Savannah, Ga., have implemented mixed-income housing. Richard Arfman, the director of planning and development for the housing authority, said he hopes Walton Oaks succeeds and it becomes a trend in Augusta.
“That’s the problem with traditional public housing. Traditionally, they call it warehousing of the poor, and you put them all in one little area. That just doesn’t breed (a) very good social atmosphere, and it creates crime issues,” he said.
Escaping the problems of concentrated public housing provides an incentive for low-income residents to maintain their property or else risk eviction, he said.
Olla Maloyd, a former Underwood Homes resident, never thought she would get out of public housing or temporary living situations. She moved to Walton Oaks from a trailer on Oct. 5.
“It’s like a dream come true. Me living here is like you wake up and you’re in heaven,” Maloyd, 56, said.
That dream, however, could be an illusion. Maloyd is concerned the next phases of construction at Walton Oaks, which will build hundreds of family housing units, could bring problems for the seniors who have already settled into the neighborhood.
“They’ll bring break-ins, vandalizing things. You’ll have to worry about people coming into your part,” she said.
Arfman said high standards set by Walton Communities, the property’s developer, will help avoid those problems. A management firm will constantly monitor the families for housekeeping, loitering and over-extended guests, Arfman said. Residents who cause problems will be evicted.
Maloyd is on a fixed income, consisting of Social Security and disability payments. Like other new residents, she cleared a screening process from the Augusta Housing Authority and the apartment managers for financial and criminal background.
Walton Oaks is the Augusta Housing Authority’s first mixed-income housing to become reality. A proposed development on Deans Bridge Road was nixed after nearby residents opposed low-income people moving into their neighborhood. The housing authority still owns the tract of land but doesn’t plan to build there.
Walton Oaks had a quieter entrance into the east Augusta neighborhood. Several community meetings detailing plans for the development uncovered little opposition.
“They feel anything that can upgrade the neighborhood, they’ll all for it,” said Ernest Muhammad, the president of the East Augusta Neighborhood Association and a 30-year resident of the area.
INTEGRATING PEOPLE from various economic situations could solve societal ills such as crime and unemployment associated with warehousing the poor, said Dave Hunt, an associate professor of sociology at Augusta State University.
“It’s an attempt to get people to change their behavior by changing their living situations,” he said.
Higher-income people provide different values and attitudes for others to model. Better-quality housing also instills a sense of ownership and responsibility. On the other hand, some fear the communities will deteriorate rapidly and resemble the low-cost housing it’s intended to replace, Hunt said.
An $8.2 million low-income tax credit from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs was awarded in 2009 for the Walton Oaks project. The housing authority provided an additional $1.2 million it received as federal replacement funds for 528 units lost from Gilbert Manor and Underwood Homes.
The authority operates 12 housing projects for 4,958 residents. The most dense projects, Cherry Tree Crossing and Dogwood Terrace, contain 1,660 people. Arfman could not detail future plans, if any, for those complexes, but he said several high-rise apartment buildings for the elderly will not be replaced by mixed-income units.
Renee Glover, the president and CEO of the Atlanta Housing Authority, has been called a pioneer of mixed-income housing. Since she joined the authority in 1994, 16 mixed-income communities have replaced 10 public housing projects in Atlanta.
“This is not a statement about the families that have few resources. This is a policy problem,” Glover said. “It’s a horribly flawed social design.”
Affordable housing for different income levels improves a city’s economic condition, education system, tax base and crime rates, she said.
“Crime is reduced because you don’t have a situation that is desperate and people are feeling helpless,” Glover said.
THE ECONOMIC IMPACT of the mixed-income communities was studied by Bruce Seaman, an economist at Georgia State University. In his study, Seaman focused on the impact of households attracted to live in the new, revitalized communities and the impact from construction associated with demolition and rebuilding.
Since revitalization efforts began in 1995, household spending from affected families had an economic impact of more than $165 million. The construction investment impact totaled about $1.5 billion.
Glover cited the study published in May as proof that the private market invests around mixed-income properties. In some cases, investment began as soon as demolition occurred.
More retail is attracted to an area when the number of households with disposable income increases. That change might take more time to realize in a down economy, but the social dynamics change immediately, she said.
Liza Farmer, 57, is a higher-income resident who chose to live in Walton Oaks for the amenities and quality of life. She’s not concerned about living close to low-income residents or incoming families.
“I don’t think it’s going to bring the area down at all,” Farmer said. “When they tore (Underwood Homes) down, I think all the bad apples went down with it.”
Standards set by the apartment and agreed to by residents on their leases should keep the complex from deteriorating, she said.
“They’ll be put out, so that makes me feel secure,” Farmer said of anyone who violates the agreements.