Atlanta Housing Projects: Gone But Never Forgotten – The Story of the Atlanta Housing Projects 1936 – 2011

Capitol Homes Sanborn Map
Capitol Homes as it appears in a 1940’s Sanborn Map (Capitol Homes was completed in 1941)

While the majority of my blog mostly focuses on abandoned historical Atlanta relics, I thought it would be interesting to make a post about a huge gentrification project in the city that drastically changed the landscape of the city. Most transplants wouldn’t know that housing of this nature existed, mostly because the areas have been completely transformed and cleared of ant remnants of what once existed. The huge gentrification project I am referring to was the large scale, housing project demolition spearheaded by the Atlanta Housing Authority. The project began in the late 1990’s (demolishing Techwood Homes and East Lake Meadows), was finally completed in the 2010’s with the demolition of Bankhead Courts. For a complete list of former housing projects in Atlanta, visit Demolished Atlanta Housing Projects. After researching George W. Adair in the book “Atlanta and Environs, Volume III,” I ran across a chapter concerning the Atlanta Housing and Authority and major developer who was credited with building the first set of projects in Atlanta in the 1030’s. This article piqued my interest in completing a little bit of research on the housing projects that I could find.

After researching George W. Adair in the book “Atlanta and Environs, Volume III,” I ran across a chapter concerning the Atlanta Housing and Authority and major developer who was credited with building the first set of projects in Atlanta in the 1030’s. This article piqued my interest in completing a little bit of research on the housing projects that I could find.

Current views of the city of Atlanta show no traces of housing projects. The housing projects of Atlanta are all but wiped from the landscape of Atlanta. Most natives (who are hard to find in Atlanta these days) vividly remember the housing projects of Atlanta. What we have been told throughout history is housing projects were constructed in hopes of erasing slums, increasing affordable housing options for the city’s poor all while improving the landscape of Atlanta; which ultimately evolved into areas blighted with concentrated poverty. However, Harold Martin’s “Atlanta and Environs” reveals an alternate truth behind the implementation of housing projects in Atlanta.

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The very first housing projects constructed (federal subsidized housing) in the United States happened to be Techwood homes. Built in 1936, Techwood homes consisted of 1,230 housing units. Prior to the construction of Techwood-Caldwell Homes, the area was home to some of the worst areas of concentrated poverty in the city of Atlanta, named Techwood Flats. Techwood Flats consisted of inexpensive, inadequate rental properties that dated back to the late 1880’s. The Atlanta City Directory revealed that most residents of the area were employed in low-paying service jobs in warehouses or industrial plants in the city. The most common occupations were cooks, dressmakers or washerwomen.

Though we have been told that housing communities were created as a method to provide the poor with affordable and hospitable housing, many developers jumped on the project to earn a quick living. Building sustainable, affordable and safe housing was not a part of the initial plan in their eyes. Touted as a “slum clearance pioneer” by Harold Martin,  Atlanta real estate developer Charles F. Palmer initially jumped on the large scale housing project as a way to make quick cash. Charles F. Palmer also happened to be the very first chairman of the board of the newly formed Atlanta Housing Authority in 1938.

Charles F. Palmer

Charles F. Palmer (courtesy of Library of Congress). First Chairman of the Board of Atlanta Housing Authority. The Atlanta Housing Authority was formed in 1938.

Initially, Charles F. Palmer admitted that he took on the slum clearance project out of an interest in earning money through the removal of slum areas. After all, this was in 1933 as the economy wasn’t at it’s strongest due to remnants of the Great Depression. Banks were closed and nearly 15millions Americans were unemployed (only 1 in 16 were employed). In order to stimulate the economy, President Roosevelt introduced legislation that would provide federal funding for employers who created jobs tearing down and rebuilding some of the nation’s worse slum areas. Palmer jumped at the chance, seeing as he owned office buildings in areas near the slums. Palmer initially assumed that by clearing the slums, property values in his area would increase, thereby making his properties more valuable.

It wasn’t until he began to meet with Dr. John Hope (John Hope homes would carry his name), a prominent African-American educator and civil right leader, and his wife did Palmer have a change of heart toward the slums. Palmer’s wife seemed to question his motivation and asked him if he’d ever visited the slums and understand the people who currently reside there.  Palmer recalled:

“Here were sagging shacks built generations ago. Designed to wring the last cent from their use, for fifty years they had taken all and given nothing. In the rear were stagnant pools of water near an open privy serving several families. People were everywhere. It was the same block after block. Soon I’d had enough. “

Palmer soon switched his focus from earning income by razing the slums, to fighting the slum owners who were taking advantage of the city’s poorest residents. Palmer took his concerns to Washington D.C. and managed to convince President Roosevelt to fund the development of two housing projects in Atlanta; in October of 1933, his efforts were awarded. Construction of the first housing projects community in the United States was underway and completed in 1936. Techwood Clark Howell Homes (designed by architects Burge and Stevens) were built in the former slum areas of Techwood Flats. By 1944, six additional housing projects (all were segregated, unfortunately) were completed. Those communities are as follows:  University Homes (1938), Capitol Homes (1940), Grady Homes (1942), John Hope homes (1940), Herndon Homes (1940) to name a few. By the 1940’s these six housing communities housed 20,000 people in a total of 4,000 apartment homes. The government ultimately invested $21 million dollars into improving housing for the poor in Atlanta. Techwood Clark Howell homes and John Hope homes were aptly named for the two men who were instrumental in the implementation of Charles F. Palmer’s vision of affordable, clean housing for Atlanta’s poorer residents. As a result of Palmer’s vision, Roosevelt passed the Housing Act of 1937, which allowed for local housing authorities in many major and rural cities. Palmer would ultimately resign from his position at the Atlanta Housing Authority to take on a new role as U.S. Coordinator of Defense Housing in 1938 (pgs 35-37).

Techwood Homes Floor Plan

Library of Congress, Techwood Homes Housing Design (initial construction began in 1935)

One cannot ignore the ugly facts about the housing projects of Atlanta. The housing communities were obviously segregated and quite possibly built with many different standards. As white flight encroached, white housing communities racial makeup drastically changed.  Techwood Homes remained an all-white housing project until 1968. Withing 6 years of integration, Techwood Homes was more than 50% African-American. By the early 1970’s local businessmen and politicians began suggesting the demolition of Techwood Homes, replacing it with. If this isn’t an obvious sign of racially motivated politics, I don’t know what it is. Techwood Flats were mostly comprised of low-income, underemployed African-American’s in the 1930’s before being demolished and replaced with the all-white Techwood Homes. It appeared that Atlanta was on track to repeating history, however, the idea of demolishing Techwood Homes in the 1970’s was halted by then mayor, Maynard Jackson.

Unfortunately, federal spending wasn’t designated over the years regarding the upkeep of housing communities, yet Atlanta continued to build low-income housing.  Many of the housing communities were built in cramped areas, containing very little room for upward mobility as a job in these areas were still hard to come by. As a result, crime crept it’s way back in, and once again the pre-housing community slums had returned. What’s more, the Atlanta Housing Authority had become increasingly corrupt and poorly managed. By the 1990’s,  The Department of Housing and Urban Development deemed the AHA to be one of the worst housing authorities in the nation. Ouch!

Atlanta continued to build more and more housing communities, even as late as the 1970’s despite the failure of creation a “Model City.” Was the new purpose of building housing communities to keep African-American’s concentrated in Atlanta and out of Atlanta’s growing suburbs? Why continue to build substandard housing in areas that already contained concentrations of poverty? Wouldn’t the availability of well-paying jobs and equal rights assist with the reduction of concentrated poverty? I suppose only time will tell…..

After years of failed revitalization and high crimes/poverty rates in Atlanta’s local housing communities, as well as the impending hosting of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, demolishment of the Atlanta housing communities were underway. Additionally, housing project communities had become the subject of a major research project which resulted in Congress establishing a 1989 Commission on Severely Distressed Areas.  Flash forward to 1992, concerned with the increasing crime and poverty in America’s inner-cities, congressional leaders voted to allocate $5 billion dollars toward the revitalization of America’s 86,000 housing project communities (enactment of the HOPE VI program). I’m a bit skeptical of the intentions behind this program, therefore further research will soon follow.

The first to be demolished was Techwood /Clark Howell Homes in favor a newer, more hospitable housing complex titled Centennial Place. After 60 years of use, Techwood would be replaced with a mixed-income housing community with only a tiny portion set aside for former housing project residents. Many former residents weren’t able to return despite being promised a voucher or ticket to rent in the new construction. From 1996 to 2011, the AHA replaced 12 housing project communities, demolished 15, and remodeled the remaining 10 converting them into low-income housing or leaving them available for potential developers. By 2011, Atlanta became one of the only major cities to completely do away with public housing. This move came with much controversy as the AHA was accused of violating the Fair Housing Act (an accusation I truly believe is true) after it was determined that the AHA

Currently, affordable housing in Atlanta is hard to come by. Luxury apartments, homes and condos now stand in areas once occupied by outdated, uninhabitable housing communities. While the housing projects were obviously a colossal failure, the city of Atlanta should not forget that the city is desperately in need of affordable housing for residents who cannot afford the newly constructed condos, apartments, and single-family homes. I doubt that anyone would agree with bringing back housing project communities, but the city should at least offer a larger percentage of affordable housing units so that all residents, from all walks of life, can enjoy the metropolis that Atlanta has blossomed into. After all, it takes all kinds of characters, economic backgrounds, races, genders, and ages to create this amazingly diverse city we all call home. Why exclude certain residents because of their economic status? Is that a reputation a city “Too Busy to Hate” would like associated with its name? I think not…..

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  1. Atlanta History Center – Atlanta Housing Authority Photograph collection
  3.  Franklin Miller Garrett, Atlanta, and environs: a chronicle of its people and events, vol. 3 (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 2011).

Further Reading:

  3. Chared F. Palmer Collection at Emory University: