A series on affordable housing issues in Hall County and Gainesville. See more stories, interactive maps and videos at the above link.
What: Lisa Chester and others share stories of living in less than ideal environments, followed by open discussion of housing issues
When: 5:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: The Loft at Scott’s Downtown, 131 Bradford St. NW, Gainesville
How much: $5 in advance, $7 at the door; tickets available at gainesviletimes.com/voices
How public housing works
The Gainesville Housing Authority operates 494 units, ranging from 1-bedroom to 5-bedroom. About 800 families are currently on the waiting list.
Public housing recipients in Gainesville will not pay more than 30 percent of their adjusted income toward rent and utilities. To qualify for public housing with the Gainesville Housing Authority, individuals and families must:
• Have an income below 80 percent of the area median household income level, which was $37,212 in Gainesville between 2009 and 2013, according to census estimates. Income is adjusted based on various deductions, such as how many children are in a family or major medical expenses.
• Pass a criminal background check.
• Have no outstanding debts with any other public housing authorities.
Public housing can seem like both a blessing and a curse to those who call the projects home.
Gainesville resident Lisa Chester knows this truth all too well. Some of her formative years were spent in Harrison Square, a 75-unit government-subsidized complex.
“Growing up, we didn’t really know we were poor,” Chester, 35, said. “But once I got older, I started realizing that other people didn’t live that way. It’s a totally different world when you’re on that side.”
Though public housing provided her family a place to live in hard times — transitional housing between the ups and downs of work and family life — it also opened Chester to “lots of bad influences.”
Chester gave birth to twins at just 15 years old.
The drug and crime problems that often permeate public housing projects like the Green Hunter Homes on Atlanta Street or the Melrose community homes on Davis Street, continue cycling today.
“It’s about the same as it is now,” Chester said of her youth in the 1980s and 1990s compared with 2016.
A particularly common refrain heard in the projects is that kids grow up so fast there.
“They pretty much raising themselves,” Chester said.
Antonio Champion, who now resides in Macon but visits family and friends in Gainesville frequently, said he still sees some of the faces struggling in the city’s low-income housing that he remembers from decades ago.
“The communities in Gainesville have lost the meaning of community,” Daphne Bailey told The Times last summer as she organized community cookouts and other events along Atlanta Street.
But the troubles that plague the projects have the seemingly paradoxical effect of solidifying bonds between residents.
Despite their concerns and objections, Chester, Champion and Bailey keep coming back to give to the hardest neighborhoods in Gainesville.
Chester said there are more resources than ever to engage troubled youth and downtrodden adults in these communities.
For example, she coordinates a dance team of young girls who live along Atlanta Street. The team performs at halftime of basketball games at the local Boys & Girls Clubs.
But Chester requires the girls to earn good grades or show improvement in school before they can compete with the team.
She meets with the girls each week and also conducts a pregnancy prevention course, informs them about educational and work opportunities and teaches character qualities and leadership skills.
“They don’t have to be a product of their environment,” Chester said.
For all the challenges of managing and operating government-run housing, existing programs remain a part of the solution to the area’s affordable housing crunch.
After all, just 35 percent of homes in Gainesville are owner-occupied. And these are still places where residents gather and socialize, where day laborers can meet and find work.
That’s why renovations have been made or are ongoing at several public housing sites throughout the city, including the Wills Street units, where residents were temporarily relocated while exterior and interior work was done.
And the housing authority was rated a “high performer” by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the 2015 fiscal year.
The assessment reviews critical areas of operation, including physical conditions, management, financial responsibility, occupancy rate and adherence to federal guidelines.
But the way that public housing currently exists is in for a shakeup.
There are plans to redevelop the Atlanta Street complex as HUD looks to get out of the business of public housing.
“The current public housing model is antiquated, and with the limited funding available, not viable for long-term sustainability,” said Beth Brown, executive director of the Gainesville Housing Authority.
There have been many attempts over the years to “clean up” the neighborhood, built in the 1950s, and put a stop to the recurrent issues.
The latest plan calls for demolishing the public housing buildings and constructing both affordable and market-rate units in their place for a diverse group of residents — seniors, students and working-class families.
Brown said this partnership will bring $10 million in cash to the project through a tax credit program.
And a private developer, Walton Communities, will partner with the housing authority, though the authority will remain the majority owner.
“Without that kind of funding, you can’t build affordable housing, especially deeply subsidized housing,” she added.
The project would result in 252 new apartments, which would increase residential capacity, over three phases, which could begin as early as 2017.
Meetings are underway to begin relocating tenants so the new development can move forward.
“I think that’s the best thing they can do,” Chester said. “I feel like this is giving people an opportunity to learn that there is more to life than living poor.”
But change is hard.
Wendy Glasbrenner, managing attorney for the Gainesville regional office of the Georgia Legal Services Program, said public housing affords residents strong protections, much more so than subsidized housing owned and managed by private landlords participating in a federal program.
“We will continue to work with tenants in Atlanta Street to be sure they are able to find affordable housing and receive appropriate services to utilize their Section 8 vouchers,” Glasbrenner said.
GLSP will also have a new staff attorney in place within the next month, “which will dedicate a lot of time and energy to this project, as well as similar situations across our 27-county area,” she added.
Rose Johnson, executive director of the Newtown Florist Club civil rights organization in Gainesville, said there needs to be a concentrated effort to track residents after they are relocated to ensure they retain access to support services and public resources.
Johnson added that she hopes no one will be left behind.
Residents of Atlanta Street and other public housing complexes are predominantly low-income African-Americans and Latinos.
According to the U.S. Census, 32 percent of Gainesville’s population lived below the poverty line between 2009 and 2013, compared with just 18 percent of the state’s population.
The current poverty threshold is $24,250 in annual income for a family of four.
Chester said she recalls getting insulted and looked down on when growing up for being poor, and she always wanted a better life for her own children.
She’s hopeful a new focus on housing issues will provide a lifeline to the next generation trying to break free of poverty.
“That was my motivation,” Chester said, adding that a life of drugs, crime and gang activity was “definitely not for me.”