By Sean Keenan
Saddled with the dubious title of income inequality capital of the United States, Atlanta is no stranger to stark socioeconomic disconnects when it comes to housing.
But, flaunting a more redeeming nickname — “The City Too Busy to Hate” — one might expect more from Atlanta in terms of class parity, as recent news reports have underscored a trend of seemingly targeted discrimination among folks living in the city’s margins.
Earlier this week, WABE’s Stephannie Stokes published a four-part investigation on “equity theft,” the practice of pressuring or tricking people into selling their homes for less than they’re worth.
Real estate investors will seek out lower-income homeowners in some of Atlanta’s fastest-gentrifying — and historically Black — neighborhoods and offer them cash for their houses.
Sometimes, the homeowners are able to sniff out a ruse. Other times, though, they might not know how their property is valued and could be tempted by the prospect of quick money.
And when some of these wholesale investors identify someone who’s willing to take far less than their home is worth, they pounce, oftentimes uprooting families who might have been planted for decades in communities only recently watching property values spike due to projects like the Atlanta Beltline or other development-inspiring endeavors.
The harsh reality of this so-called equity theft, though, is that, in most cases, it’s not illegal, just arguably immoral. And, according to WABE’s analysis, the practice is rampant, which is evidenced by the peppering of signs and flyers around the city advertising fast cash for “ugly houses.”
Shady efforts like this have contributed to a longtime trend of Black homeowners benefiting less from their home equity than their white peers, the report revealed.
Equally disconcerting is a recent exposé from Mother Jones that spotlighted the story of an Atlanta cop who was essentially asked to help gentrify an affordable housing community by way of tickets and arrests.
Wrote ex-patrol officer Tom Gissler:
On my beat, they started telling me: “We really want you to start policing this section of Boulevard and Ponce de Leon Avenue, basically the Bedford Pines Apartments. We think there are dope boys in there. We think there’s a lot of illegal activity happening and we want to really focus there. So we’re gonna put up signs that say you can’t park on the street. I want you to go and write tickets on every single car that’s on the street and I want you to get those cars out of there; if they don’t move, tow ’em. I want you to start running checks on everybody standing on the street; if they have got warrants, I want you to lock ’em up.”
The point, Gissler claimed, was to displace as much of the complex as possible to pave the way for the place to be razed and replaced with something that could demand higher rent prices. (Atlanta Police Department officials disputed this interpretation of what was going on.)
But instead of preying on low-income residents at and around the Bedford Pines Apartments, he quit, signaling his disgust for the tactic.
Nevertheless, the Mother Jones story provides context to a concentrated aversion to public housing, which has long been stuck with a stigma that has some people believing that providing housing for lower-income people magnetizes crime and other undesirable activities.
Atlanta Housing CEO Eugene Jones and other affordable housing advocates have long been working to help the city rid itself of such beliefs, but reports like these seem to show that accomplishing that is much easier said than done.
Sean, do you think there’s any chance of an investigation into APD regarding that Mother Jones article?