30,000 queue for housing assistance in Atlanta

By Katie Connolly
BBC News, Washington

Media caption, The queue at the shopping centre became unruly at times

Some 30,000 people lined up outside a local shopping centre in Atlanta, Georgia, on Wednesday in the hope of receiving public housing assistance.

The authorities were unprepared for the throng, which was unruly at times. Amid sweltering conditions, 62 people were hurt and 20 needed hospital care.

Only 455 rent assistance vouchers and 200 public housing spaces were on offer - while 13,000 applications were taken.

Some had lined up since Sunday for the possibility of discounted rent.

It was the first time in eight years that the housing authority in East Point, a municipality in south-west Atlanta, had accepted applications for public housing and rent subsidies, known as Section 8 vouchers.

Authorities estimate it will be six months before any vacancies become available for the small number of successful applicants.

Most of the 16 other local housing authorities in Atlanta have closed their waiting lists. But Section 8 vouchers are portable, so people flocked from across the city for a chance to receive housing aid.

Atlanta is an economically polarized city: it has the fastest growing number of millionaires in the US but also has the third-highest proportion of people living below 50% of the poverty line.

"People are desperate. They are really willing to do whatever it takes to get into housing," James Fraser, a public housing expert at Vanderbilt University, told the BBC.

"When you have large numbers of people going into foreclosure and have to move, that places additional pressure on the rental market and creates a greater strain on lower income people trying to find affordable housing," he said.

Less public housing

Frank Alexander, a public housing specialist in the law school at Atlanta's Emory University, said the dramatic scenes in East Point on Wednesday were the result of three main factors.

Firstly, the massive spike in home foreclosures - or repossessions - over the past two years as a result of the sub-prime mortgage crisis has displaced large numbers of low income people.

Image caption, Across the US, high density public housing has been abandoned in favour of mixed-use schemes

Second, high levels of unemployment in the US are hampering people's ability to access housing.

And finally, policy changes that have occurred over the past two decades have decreased the amount of public housing available, and made it more difficult for very low income people to receive aid.

Mr Alexander says that in the 1990s, federal policy experts deemed the very large public housing projects that were characteristic of the 1960s and 1970s not to be a viable model.

"That model created very dense concentrations of individuals and families that had the greatest social service needs of services and the least amount of disposable income," Mr Alexander said.

"The housing conditions deteriorated rapidly in those large-scale projects. In many instances, there was a high degree of criminal activity and violence."

Cities such as Atlanta set about demolishing their inventory of publicly owned and occupied public housing, and shifted their focus to Section 8 vouchers and mixed-use housing, where housing aid recipients live alongside other tenants.

Lost in transition

That policy shift was combined with a devolution of authority over housing policy to local rather than federal authorities.

Municipalities, whose budgets were already squeezed, looked to find ways to save money. That made Section 8 vouchers more attractive than investing in publicly-owned housing.

In addition, assistance to low income people (over 60% of the median income level) rather than very low income people was more affordable to local authorities, who had to fork out less cash to cover the subsidies of the working poor than the unemployed.

Mr Alexander says that it is wise to acknowledge that large public housing projects did not create healthy living environments.

But he says an important, under-served population has been lost in the transition: "We are no longer serving those who have the greatest need or the lowest income."

Mr Fraser agrees: "Concentrated poverty has multiplicative negatives. Residents have fewer services like grocery stories and pharmacies. Crime can be higher as people prey on these areas."

But with those high-density projects demolished, more and more of the very poorest people are left out in the cold.

Mr Fraser worries that unless the economy improves or federal authorities address the crisis of public housing, Wednesday's scenes in Atlanta will be replicated across the country.