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Review: Diverging Spaces for Deviants: The Politics of Atlanta’s Public Housing

Diverging Spaces for Deviants: The Politics of Atlanta’s Public Housing

Akira Drake Rodriguez

The University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA, 2021 268 pages • $36.95

If it seemed like the crisis in housing affordability couldn’t get worse at the start of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem. Millions of Americans are now unsure of how they will secure shelter in the long term, with the south being particularly hard hit by food and housing insecurity. While federal legislation protecting renters from eviction and increasing spending on housing vouchers and homeless services was certainly needed, these constitute only a temporary reprieve from a decades-long descent into mass housing insecurity in a largely private housing market.

As the People’s Policy Project has argued, publicly provisioned housing is one of the best defenses against housing insecurity. Indeed, for the first time in arguably fifty years, publicly owned housing is back on the national policy agenda. Momentum around investing in and constructing new public housing units is growing from the local to the federal level. In 2019, Representative Ilhan Omar introduced the Homes for All Act, which calls for the construction of millions of new public housing units, and in July of 2020, the House passed a provision that repeals the Faircloth Amendment, passed in 1998 to cap the number of total public housing units. Today, most Americans support a “public option” for housing and believe that safe, affordable housing should be a “top national priority”.

While this increasing support for public housing may seem like a direct reflection of just how bad the housing crisis has become, authors like Akira Drake Rodriguez remind us that no change in policy happens without political struggle. Even as tower after tower of public housing was demolished over the last three decades, activist scholars and tenant organizations have worked to dispel prevailing myths about public housing and to protect hundreds of thousands of units from the wrecking ball. The change in public sentiment toward public housing also reflects a shift in the broader ideological terrain, with neoliberalism facing increasing challenges to its legitimacy thanks to an upsurge in radical left politics following the great recession. In short, the American public may finally be ready to embrace a more complex and redemptive history of this long-scorned federal program.

In her timely book, Diverging Spaces for Deviants: The Politics of Atlanta’s Public Housing, Rodriguez shows that the value of public housing lay not only in its use as a form of safe and affordable shelter for low-income households, but also in its role as a vehicle for political organization and radical social and economic change. In her analysis, Rodriguez draws on political opportunity theory, which argues that in times of political instability, new interests can be folded into a given political regime. As a “political opportunity structure,” public housing policy provided a malleable set of institutions and spatial arrangements that allowed a diversity of actors – from Atlanta’s Black and white elites to the growing number of poor Black Atlanta residents – to pursue their social, political, and economic interests.

Marshaling a wealth of evidence from primary public documents, letters, and ephemera from the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA), Rodriguez traces the development of public housing in Atlanta from its contested build-up as a racially segregated institution for the city’s Black and white middle classes to its eventual role as an incubator of mobilizations to expand the limited gains of the New Deal. As public housing increasingly became available to those previously derided as “deviants” on account of their non-normative family structures or participation in informal economies, these new tenants organized to shape social and economic policy in their interests rather than conform to sexist and racist bourgeois norms. Rodriguez thus shines a light on the contingent nature of urban policy making: at the same time that public housing often hardened the dividing lines of the racially segregated city, it also opened up new possibilities for transformative change.

Rodrigues also theorizes urban planning as a practice enmeshed in institutional and economic processes that extend to the regional, state, national, and even global scales. The key players operating within and against Atlanta’s urban regime were therefore always required to seek out organizational and financial resources beyond the scale of the city itself. Crucially Diverging Space for Deviants shows that it was the active disorganization of multi-scalar “deviant” formations that transformed public housing from a widely hailed supplement to the private market into a major scapegoat for the social ills of the late 20th century.

From uplift ideology to deviant politics

According to Rodriguez, Atlanta’s unique history of biracial cooperation set it up to be the site of the nation’s first federally funded housing development under the Public Works Administration Housing Division in 1935. By the time the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act was passed, Atlanta’s white and Black elites had established a practice of “Black political and spatial marginality” in exchange for white non-violence. While elites across the color line stood to benefit economically from this policy of racial-harmony-through-separation, the exclusion of Black voters from Democratic primary elections prior to 1946 pushed Black elites to accept token inclusion in bureaucratic decision-making processes and to take on the role of spokespeople for Atlanta’s Black community.

At the same time, the local consensus around financing urban development was regularly hampered by the Georgia state legislature, which was overrepresented by conservative and agricultural interests that were hostile to government intervention. Looking to circumvent this state obstruction, a tenuous coalition made up of Atlanta real estate developers, local industrialists, social reformers, and administrators from the city’s Black and white colleges sought federal funding for slum clearance and public housing construction in the wake of the Great Depression.

Reflecting the contradictory intent of federal housing policy, local advocates of public housing in Atlanta hoped to address a range of social and economic crises stemming from the Great Depression, including high unemployment, a housing shortage, labor and civil unrest, and a depressed local economy. But because of the long-standing dominance of the biracial elite-led regime in Atlanta politics, public housing would also be strictly implemented within established practices of racial partitioning and containment.

Most public housing supporters viewed the problem of slums in individualized and racial terms. White elites, like the Atlanta realtor Charles E. Palmer, had advocated on the national stage for a federal public housing program, recognizing the economic utility of federal funds for slum clearance and the displacement of poor Black migrants, who were presumed to threaten the viability of the downtown real estate market. Through slum clearance and segregated public housing construction, elites hoped to eradicate the most destructive elements in society and replace them with public housing residents who would be acculturated to the bourgeois norm of the self-sufficient nuclear family headed by a male wage earner. Segregated public housing would also assist in the systematic and ostensibly peaceful transition of neighborhoods from white to Black (never in reverse), bolstering Atlanta’s image as “the city too busy to hate.”

While Black elites were similarly invested in securing their economic interests through slum clearance, Rodriguez argues they also viewed public housing as a vehicle of economic and political advancement for Black Atlantans as a whole. Through their advocacy for and implementation of Black public housing projects, Black elites and their liberal white allies successfully provided patronage jobs in construction for Black workers, eased pressures on the local housing market, and expanded what Rodriguez calls Atlanta’s “Black participatory geography” by creating new gathering spaces for political education and organizing residents into tenant associations. When the Georgia supreme court declared the white Democratic primary unconstitutional in 1946, the auditorium of University Homes, Atlanta’s first Black public housing development, served as a key voter registration site for the city’s Black community.

Though Black public housing served a vital public function for surrounding communities, which suffered from a dearth of public investment in institutions like libraries, schools, and green space, Rodriguez argues that “uplift ideology” limited the transformative power of early Black public housing developments. Paralleling white elites’ desires to acculturate working-class whites via public housing, Black elites hoped Black public housing residents would act as “role models” whose moral respectability would inspire other members of the Black community to leave behind their deviant ways of life. Thus, for the first three decades of public housing, the poorest Atlantans – among them single mothers and the unemployed – remained excluded from this emergent Black political geography.

Significant changes to federal housing policy in the late 1960s combined with the then decades-long policy of subsidizing slum clearance, suburbanization, and single-family (white) homeownership dramatically expanded access to public housing. In 1968, the federal government eliminated admissions restrictions and called for the construction of over six million public housing units over ten years. The following year, public housing rents were capped at 25% of tenant income and desegregation in housing developments was mandated. Over time, Atlanta’s public housing population grew and became increasingly made up of low-income, single Black women, many of whom had been displaced by ongoing urban renewal projects. By 1983, 10% of the Atlanta’s population lived in public housing.

Building on the gains of past organizing and the institutional structures set up by public housing’s early elite champions, this new bloc organized at the city-wide and national levels in their efforts to capture federal resources and boost their political power. In response to growing antagonism between public housing tenants and AHA, a city-wide body – the Advisory Council on Public Housing (ACPH) – was set up in 1969 to incorporate tenant activism into the urban regime. But rather than become demobilized, tenants appropriated this institutional structure to organize rent strikes and take legal action against the housing authority throughout the early 1970s.

Some of the most effective leaders in Atlanta public housing tenant associations were also active in national organizations like the National Welfare Rights Organization and the National Association of Community Development (NACD). For example, Susie LaBord, tenant leader from Grady Homes development, successfully lobbied to make Atlanta public housing the site of federal economic opportunity programs and used her platform as a leader in the NACD and other national organizations to fight for public housing funding into the 1990s. Other tenants mobilized the institutional capacities of the national Tenants United for Fairness (TUFF) through their local chapter, pushing the AHA to adopt the Tenant’s Bill of Rights and abandon policies that policed the behavior of public housing residents.

In addition to pushing for increased investment in public housing maintenance, improvements in education for their children, and access to good-paying jobs, tenants also sought federal funds for community organizing and mediation, signaling their ground-up political orientation and desire to expand the social wage to those historically considered the “undeserving” poor. In 1974, these tenants were instrumental in ushering in the first Black mayor of Atlanta, Maynard Jackson, who had supported rent strikes and vowed to take a ground-up approach to planning and decision-making through programs like the Neighborhood Planning Unit. Organized as tenant associations and multi-scalar coalitions, poor Black women became a political force to be reckoned with.

Neoliberalism, Demobilization, and the Demise of Public Housing

Ultimately, Rodriguez argues that public housing in Atlanta, at least in its deviant-serving form, could not survive. Despite achieving important political wins at the local level, political, economic, and ideological shifts at various scales would soon restructure the political opportunities available to Atlanta public housing’s new majority. Like other cities, Atlanta was struggling with capital flight and rising poverty, crime, and drug addiction by the 1980s and 1990s. The crisis known as the Atlanta Child Murders throughout the 1980s added to the general sense of chaos and fear, as nearly a third of the 30 missing or murdered children came from public housing developments.

Chapters five and six of Diverging Space for Deviants capture the complex and multi-scalar political struggles that transformed public housing in Atlanta from a vehicle for expanding the social wage to the target of policing, surveillance, and, eventually, dispersal. In the face of Atlanta’s fiscal and social challenges, local elites and community leaders across the ideological spectrum embraced a neoliberal growth-oriented development strategy. The election of Mayor Andrew Young in 1982 signaled the fracturing of Black political mobilization along class lines and the reconstitution of the cross-racial elite-led urban regime. Abandoning the neighborhood-based planning process established under Maynard Jackson, Young and future mayors (including Maynard during his third term) would instead ally with the city’s business elite to craft policy that would displace rather than alleviate Black poverty and entice more affluent (and white) residents back to the city.

New federal, state, and local policies would assist this development strategy in several ways. First, supported by calls from public housing tenants themselves to address the problems of violence and drug abuse within their communities, policymakers increased funding for policing and surveillance both in and around public housing developments. At the same time, tenant screening criteria that had been jettisoned in the 1960s and 70s – like housekeeping checks and proof of employment – were reintroduced, while drug use and other forms of “undesirable” behaviors would become grounds for eviction.

There was also an expansion of federal housing policies that encouraged renting and owning in the private housing market, further diverting funding away from traditional public housing developments. For example, Section 8 housing vouchers were expanded, while HOPE I funding allowed the AHA to privatize some of its units for the first time in the early 1990s. Beginning in the mid-1990s, HOPE VI supplied the AHA with significant resources for the demolition and replacement of public housing with privately managed developments made up of both market-rate and low-income units. By 2011, Atlanta had demolished every unit of its existing public housing, a process that could not have been possible without direct financial support from the federal government.

This is not a simple story. Rodriguez’s telling admirably refuses to moralize individual actors, emphasizing instead that their actions were always embedded within structural constraints. Residents were also up against their racial and gendered stigmatization as lazy, irresponsible, and duplicitous – tropes that delegitimized their claims to state resources and political representation. In the face of such stigmatization and fiscal austerity, Rodriguez argues, residents had little choice but to accept the programs on offer.

But one of the greatest strengths of Diverging Space for Deviants revolves around an important contradiction: that public housing tenants were sometimes the most vociferous advocates of policies that targeted individual behavior rather than structural solutions. Not explicit in her discussion but present in her evidence is the sense that the urban regime intentionally selected which tenants it elevated to positions of relative power, exploiting divisions within public housing developments and surrounding communities . Under the guise of “tenant empowerment”, federal funds were made available to support Resident Management Corporations (RMCs) through which resident leaders administered neoliberal restructuring and the banishment of tenants now reinscribed as “deviant.”

Many tenant leaders advocated for and won increased local and federal funding for policing, surveillance, and construction of physical barriers that cut public housing developments off from surrounding communities. Abandoning earlier efforts to mobilize federal funds for living wage employment, community organizing, and education, these official tenant leaders eventually advocated instead for expanded access to the private housing market through homeownership subsidies and rental vouchers. That Atlanta went on to become the first U.S. city to demolish all of its public housing demonstrates the extent to which deviant tenant interests had been displaced from Atlanta’s urban regime.

The Power of Organization

For a brief moment, public housing tenants were able to tailor housing policy to their needs. They did this by leveraging every tool at their disposal: legal aid, direct action and strikes, petitioning the federal government for resources, electing progressive local leadership, and leading local and national social movement organizations.

Through a process of defunding, demobilization, and redirection of funds, however, Atlanta’s elite political regime was able to roll back these gains. The neoliberalization of public housing – particularly the shrinking of once expansive geographical “community” of public housing developments through policing and tenant screening – demobilized and narrowed political opportunities for public housing residents over time. The introduction of work and job training requirements in exchange for public housing benefits pushed women into low-wage or wageless work, further limiting their ability to participate politically in their communities. Finally, by dispersing public housing residents and privatizing formerly public land, Atlanta’s redevelopment agenda diluted the political power not just of public housing residents, but of low-income Atlantans in general.

Diverging Space for Deviants provides important lessons for radical planners and activists looking to (re)build sustainable and broad-based alternatives to the private housing market. First, we must mobilize political and institutional capacities across scales, from city-wide coalitions to national organizations. Further, imagining a more capacious community which resists racial, gendered, and other binary distinctions of “us” and “them” will mitigate against divide-and-conquer strategies. Finally, Rodriguez clearly demonstrates that low-income residents must be organized in coalition with sympathetic allies, including those in elected office, in order to institutionalize their power and access financial resources at different scales.

For this reason, tenants’ rights organizations are calling on the federal government to release U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding dedicated to organizing tenants in federally-subsidized buildings, funding that would particularly benefit residents in places like Atlanta where public housing has been completely decimated. In the current context of waning support for capitalism, we have an opportunity to marshal public resources in support of housing for all – but we’ll need a mass movement to win it.

Hilary Wilson is a PhD candidate in Geography at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her work examines urban policymaking in the U.S. Rust Belt and has appeared in Society and Space Open Site and Gotham: A Blog for Scholars of New York City History.




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