By Maggie Lee
Under the noonday sun, maybe two dozen residents of Thomasville Heights stomped through a patch of scrubby woods separating one set of buildings of the Forest Cove apartments from another.
The red dirt has been beat down by hundreds of feet over years, but it feels isolated. Those trying to hike to the management office up the path with canes have to depend on friendly hands to help.
As do the people pulling a speaker on wheels, blasting 1960s soul hits on a July day. Residents and tenant organizers were on the way to the management office, delivering a list of demands.
“We need better maintenance immediately, right now,” said resident Lateresa Chaney, firing up the group beforehand. “We need the right to remain once this property is fully renovated, we need better security to protect our children and we need better communication with our management.”
Forest Cove’s residents are at an impasse with a system that’s failed them.
The weekend before, an infant had been grazed by a bullet when some person or persons opened fire at part of the complex. According to 11 Alive, police later found 20 bullet casings. And that’s just one incident.
Chaney said she’s lived there five years. “My personal experience is witnessing violence, so much violence, so many innocent children getting hurt.”
Then she starts listing maintenance problems, in her home or others: leaky roofs, holes in the floors, water coming up out of toilets, water not working, mold, mildew, broken air conditioning, ancient appliances, people squatting in vacant apartments.
Joeann Mathis said she’s lived there almost 13 years.
“We got all the drug boys over here, done took over. Children can’t come outside and play,” she said.
And families can’t leave either; the waiting list for subsidized housing is long.
“There’s nowhere else we can go, nowhere else we can go. It’s based on income, they done shut everything else down,” Mathis said.
And besides that, it’s a place that the residents out marching don’t want to leave: what they want is what they’re supposed to get, a good place to live and raise families.
The complex is 396 units. It’s next to Thomasville Park and Recreation Center and an easy walk for even little children to Thomasville Heights Elementary School.
It’s means-tested affordable housing: that means each resident family won’t pay more than 30 percent of their income to stay there. The balance of the cost is paid via Section 8 vouchers: checks from the federal government to the landlord.
But it doesn’t seem like much of that taxpayer money has gone to keeping the place up. None of 86 Atlanta complexes has in recent years scored as badly as Forest Cove did in two U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development inspections: a 32 in February this year and a 26 in July, 2016.
For more than two years, the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation has been next door to Forest Cove, with offices inside the elementary school. AVLF provides legal assistance to tenants dealing with mold, overdue repairs, leaks, rot, overall bad conditions, eviction threats. The idea is to make sure the children of Forest Cove can stay in one place — a decent place — and therefore stay at the same school year after year without disruption. The fewer school transfers there are, the better it is for both the student and the school.
Forest Cove distinguishes itself for being both large and that neglected, said AVLF Deputy Director Michael Lucas.
“What is particularly frustrating is that there are institutions in place that were supposed to keep Forest Cove from getting this bad,” Lucas said, pointing to HUD and to city of Atlanta code enforcement.
“For both the City and HUD’s inspection regime, plenty of the story is about a lack of resources — but both entities could have done better in terms of approach,” he said.
The complex is changing hands. Tax records still say Global Ministry Foundation, though they’re on the way out. GMF has been the subject of investigative reports in several cities for running slums. In a 2016 speech on the U.S. Senate floor, Florida’s Marco Rubio said GMF steals taxpayer money and that it’s a slumlord, pointing to one GMF property in Jacksonville, but also calling out Forest Cove and other properties.
In the meantime, a company called Millennia Housing Management is managing the property and looking to buy it. Millennia owns four other properties in Georgia and all do better on HUD inspections, much better.
One thing that residents are asking for is a “right to return” after renovations. Chaney said they are concerned that the new owner might come back with stipulations that keep people out like higher rent, background checks or credit checks.
HUD does have certain well-intentioned rules that allow the termination of leases when peoples’ behavior interferes with the health, safety or peace of neighbors. And certainly no one wants a dangerous drug dealer next door. But somebody with an old conviction of some sort might be a different story.
A “right to return” is not supposed to be a difficulty for current leaseholders. First, they have leaseholders rights. Second, they shouldn’t be kicked offsite during the renovation anyway.
Jeff Crossman is the public affairs manager for the parent company, The Millennia Companies, headquartered in Ohio.
“There are no plans to relocate any resident off-site,” he said.
Typically what happens when Millennia buys a complex is that families who lease are temporarily moved to another unit in the same complex while their own home is being renovated. Then the family returns to their own home once it’s fixed.
“We’re looking forward to moving forward with the acquisition and the redevelopment of this project,” Crossman said. “Our hope is that at the end of the day, when we’ve done what we said we’re going to do, that this is going to be a place that everybody’s going to be proud of.”
But people who have suffered bad conditions in publicly supported housing don’t always get to hang around for the new day, said Lucas, from AVLF.
AVLF is the largest provider of legal assistance to tenants in Fulton County and does the same place-based work, called “Standing with Our Neighbors,” in other parts of Atlanta. So they’re in a good position to know what the rule books say about conditions, evictions and tenants’ rights across the city.
Lucas said there’s every indication that Millennia plans to invest heavily in rehabilitating the complex, and that the company has done so across the country with positive results.
But Lucas also said he’s seen cases in some places of new management buying apartments, bringing them up to standard then “unfairly” imposing policies around background checks, housekeeping rules or other requirements.
He said conditions at Forest Cove are deplorable, and rehabilitation is absolutely necessary. But so is a “reset” of sorts between management and residents, to make sure no residents are unnecessarily or inappropriately displaced.
In the meantime, more tenants are getting interested in the tenant association, said Richard Hunsinger, an AmeriCorps Vista and tenant organizer with the Housing Justice League. The campaign is also gaining traction in news reports and on social media.
As tenants marched to deliver their demand letter in July, many more tenants watched from windows and cracked-open doors than marched out in the heat. One of the marchers’ chants went like this:
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
But they haven’t got it yet.