ATLANTA The city isn't the same since RenÃ©e Lewis Glover arrived.
President and CEO of the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA), she has transformed the city's worst public housing projects and poorest neighborhoods into inspiring mixed-income, mixed-use communities.
“Environment matters,” says Glover, explaining one of her guiding principles.
“Breaking up these horrible areas of concentrated poverty is critically important,” she says. “We know, and all the studies support, that when you have concentrated poverty areas, all the predators in life will prey on the situation and the people who find themselves in that situation.”
Glover, with a blend of idealism, business savvy, and thick skin, has led the housing authority as it has demolished 15,000 units in 32 public housing projects and replaced them with new mixedincome developments.
While her work is centered in Atlanta, Glover's impact reverberates nationally for she has helped pioneer a model for redeveloping troubled public housing projects and worked to eliminate the stigma associated with living in public housing.
Most of the major public housing authorities have replaced at least some of their older buildings with new developments, but few have been as steadfast as Glover's AHA.
“What did I do?”
A corporate finance attorney with advanced degrees from Boston University and Yale, Glover had recently moved to Atlanta from New York when she volunteered to work on the election campaign of Maynard Jackson, who was seeking a third term as mayor in 1989. The two had been active in the early days of the National Association of Securities Professionals, a group that assists minorities and women working in the securities business.
After winning election, Jackson asked Glover to sit on the board of the housing authority, an agency that was facing receivership and considered one of the worst in the country. Wondering if she was being punished, Glover's reaction was “What did I do?”
Still, she agreed and was chairman of the board when the executive director abruptly left in 1994. When a national search for a CEO failed, the other board members and city officials urged Glover to step in for a few years and get them through the Olympics, which was about to put the city in the international spotlight.
The Atlanta model
If Glover was the right person for the job, then Atlanta, a city famous for rebuilding, was the right setting for her work.
It was the site of the oldest public housing development in the country. Techwood Homes was built in 1935, and Clark Howell Homes expanded the development to an adjacent site three years later. By 1993, the crime rate at Techwood- Clark Howell was 69 percent more than the citywide rate.
“I wouldn't drive through there,” says Thomas D. Boston, an economics professor at the adjacent Georgia Institute of Technology. A street ran through the housing projects and continued through the university campus, but nobody from Georgia Tech would take that route.
Located near downtown, the project would be the first that AHA targeted for redevelopment.
A child of the Jim Crow era, Glover grew up in an economically integrated neighborhood in Jacksonville, Fla. Her father was an insurance executive, and her mother taught first and fourth grade.
In Atlanta, Glover envisioned replacing the failed public housing project with a new mixed-income community.
AHA partnered with the Integral Group and McCormack Baron, two urban development companies. They worked through months of thorny negotiations with residents and federal housing offi- cials, creating a new public-private hybrid.
Named Centennial Place, the project used an innovative model where public housing units, which provide no financial return on investment, were incorporated into a development that was otherwise fi- nanced by the market.
When the Olympics opened, the first of the multifamily apartments were built.
Forty percent of the 738 apartments are public housing units, 20 percent are low-income housing tax credit apartments, and 40 percent are market rate. The affordable apartments are seamlessly mixed with the market-rate apartments.
“We're not trying to create nicer concentrated poverty areas,” says Glover. “We're trying to create environments where people from different economic strata will choose to live, work, play, learn.”
To do this, she became an early user of HOPE VI, a federal program that provides grants to replace the nation's most distressed public housing projects. At Centennial Place, Glover leveraged a $42.5 million grant to bring $150 million in new investment to the site, including an elementary school and YMCA. It's a formula she has repeated with several later projects.
“RenÃ©e revolutionized public housing and immediately saw the potential for HOPE VI to revitalize an entire city, and not just individual neighborhoods,” says Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who helped create the program. “RenÃ©e brought her talent, creativity, and unwavering faith in the people of Atlanta to her city's public housing challenges.”
Glover's success is an example to public and private housing professionals across the country, she says.
“She's one of the foremost practitioners of HOPE VI development,” says Stephen Norman, executive director of the King County Housing Authority in Washington, who has also used HOPE VI to create award-winning developments.
In Atlanta, the changes have been dramatic. Georgia Tech students and faculty not only drive through the neighborhood, they are among those who live on the site, says Boston, who has studied AHA's revitalization efforts. He found that crime rates fell about 90 percent from when it had been Techwood-Clark Howell and residents who moved to mixed-income communities were more likely to be employed than those who stayed in the projects.
The last of the projects
AHA has demolished and revitalized more than a dozen of its obsolete housing projects. Still, Glover, 59, has her critics who see her efforts as displacing families from their longtime homes. Residents are relocated, primarily by using Sec. 8 vouchers.
“You can't imagine the sort of criticism that she has had to brush aside to continue to do what she is doing,” says Boston. “You have to have a strong belief.”
Fortunately, he says, she has the right personality for the job. “You have to be willing to walk through a brick wall if you have to,” he says.
By and large, the families that are directly involved have been overwhelmingly supportive, according to Glover.
This year, AHA reached another milestone when the walls began coming down at Bowen Homes, marking the end of Atlanta's large public housing projects.
After being the first to build public housing, Atlanta is the first major city to eliminate all of its large projects, according to AHA officials. Atlanta just hasn't been the same.