“They changed the quality of life for thousands of people,” Mayor Steve Tumlin said of the Authority. “They have just done this city a great job in every way.”
The Marietta City Council formed the agency on May 9, 1938, to secure federal money for slum clearance.
“The thing they did at the outset, which kind of set the tone for the next 75 years, is they were going to seek the money, and back in those days with those New Deal programs, there was money to be had,” said Ray Buday, MHA executive director.
The idea was to build two housing projects for families to live in, allowing them to move out of the squalor of the existing “shanties,” Buday said.
Fast forward 75 years, and the MHA has just torn down the last of its federal housing projects for families, Fort Hill Homes on Cole Street.
The aging projects became concentrations of poverty and crime, Buday said. The strategy is to move those families into neighborhoods, providing them with federal money to help pay for their rent through Section 8 vouchers.
During the Great Depression in the late 1930s, the city obtained $1.5 million in federal money to build two housing projects. One was Clay Homes off Roswell Street near the Square, which was to be used for white families. It was named after U.S. Sen. Alexander Clay of Marietta, whose statue can be found on the Marietta Square.
The other was Kennesaw Homes, which later changed its name to Fort Hill Homes. That development was reserved for black families.
“The South and Marietta was pretty poor after the Depression, and people lived in cardboard boxes, just right within the shadow of the courthouse,” Tumlin said. “Most of them didn’t have refrigerators, washing machines, had no modern technology whatsoever, had no indoor plumbing, and here’s Clay Homes, Fort Hill Homes, and they moved people into what at the time were just unbelievable upgrades.”
The new tenants had to be taught how to live with indoor plumbing, Tumlin said.
“What Roosevelt and the housing did for people was just unbelievable. I think the South, including Marietta, was very grateful,” Tumlin said.
World War II brought the Bell Aircraft Corporation to Marietta. To house the workforce, the government built 1,000 homes in the area of what is now Southern Polytechnic State University and the Cobb County Transit station on South Marietta Parkway, deeding the property over to MHA after the war and calling it Marietta Place.
MHA built Clay and Kennesaw Homes in 1941. It built Lyman Homes in 1951, Boston Homes in 1953, Branson Homes in 1961, Johnny Walker Homes in 1963 and Dorsey Manor in 1972.
In the 1960s, it tore down the 1,000-home Marietta Place left over from the Bell Bomber workforce and sold the land to the university and county government. That was Act 1.
A time for urban renewal
Act 2 involved urban renewal.
“The ‘50s and the ‘60s were the heyday of urban renewal,” Buday said.
This was another period when the federal government showered cities with money to acquire properties to fight blight. There were three large urban renewal projects in Marietta.
One was along the stretch of Powder Springs Street from the Confederate Cemetery to Polk Street.
“Both sides of the road the housing authority acquired and sold to who is there now,” Buday said.
Another project was in the area where the downtown post office and new Cobb Superior Courthouse building are located.
“The government would cover two thirds or three fourths of the cost of acquiring the land,” Buday said. “The Housing Authority or the city would go out and negotiate, and if they couldn’t negotiate they’d condemn it. They exercised eminent domain to take property away from people. It was a big deal. There was a dark side because I don’t know if they treated the relocation as well as they did now.”
Act 3 for the MHA began in the 1970s when President Nixon declared a moratorium on any new subsidized housing, which gave birth to the Section 8 program.
“Before, housing authorities would own and operate all these brick structures that we’ve now torn down,” Buday said.
But they became discredited, gaining reputations as centers of drug abuse and crime.
“So the idea was let’s let the private landlords rent to lower income people, and we’ll help them out with the Section 8 program, so that’s still the program today. That’s still our flagship program.”
The Marietta Housing Authority has 2,700 families enrolled in its Section 8 program. Landlords get to decide whether they will lease to them or not.
“We’re pretty much out of the business of owning and operating family housing,” Buday said.
In addition, MHA operates a senior housing program, partnering with private developers such as Walton Communities to build and run senior living facilities. It manages 600 senior apartments.
“The things that you worry about with concentrated families, the old projects, you don’t have that concern with seniors,” Buday said.
A third program MHA operates is its homeownership program, currently having helped 109 families become homeowners.
Buday said he would like to see term limits for people who receive public assistance.
Back in 2009 when the MHA opened up the waiting list for Section 8 program for 48 hours, it had 1,200 applicants.
“So let’s say in Cobb County for the people eligible and who could use Section 8 that could be 40,000 families, for all I know,” Buday said. “And we only have 2,700. And those 2,700 get the vouchers and they basically get to keep them forever.”
The MHA’s mentoring program encourages people to graduate from the program through training at such places as Chattahoochee Technical College.
“Most people are way below the income limits, which is around $36,000 for a person and goes up to fifty-some-thousand, but by and large the incomes are much lower than that,” Buday said,
MHA has a budget of about $32 million, most of it federal dollars, and a staff of 50.
Criticism of old model
J.D. Van Brink, chairman of the Marietta-based Georgia Tea Party, said he would prefer to see the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development phased out.
“It’s obviously not a federal responsibility, but then I even question how effective the state can be at this sort of thing,” Van Brink said. “It really is best done at the community level.”
If the housing program must exist, however, Van Brink said the voucher system is superior to the traditional housing project model.
“To concentrate people who tend to have a lower level of education, lower income, they tend to not be married, to concentrate people like that, it doesn’t make any sense at all. The children for one thing grow up without good role models, many times they grow up without men in their lives, fathers in their lives,” Van Brink said.
Buday agrees that the old model of public housing, where the government owned and operated the facilities, was ineffective.
“Private sector ought to manage properties, so we have a certain amount of common ground on that,” Buday said. “All of our senior properties we don’t manage. We manage by a private company.”
There will always be some who believe the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the housing authorities should be administered in a different way, Buday said.
“I don’t have a strong feeling about that,” he said. “How they provide this housing assistance is up to the Congress. One way is through HUD. There are other ways. But we are getting out of the public housing program. We’re going to another model. It’s better to have private management by and large in these projects.”