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Georgia residents displaced from affordable housing denied decent places to live

It had seemed like such a blessing.

A single parent living in a homeless shelter, eight months pregnant with her second child, Ayran Tucker was ecstatic when a townhouse opened up in Forest Cove, an affordable housing complex in Southeast Atlanta.

At the 296-unit development on a main bus line, Tucker, now 33, hoped she could build a stable home for her children. Despite her community college degree, Tucker was making just $13 per hour, the demands of parenthood and poverty making it hard for her to find better pay. Subsidized housing seemed to offer her and her kids a chance.

But within months of her move to Forest Cove in 2014, Tucker’s hopes began to unravel. At first, it was what was happening outside her three-bedroom apartment that terrified her – the tat-tat-tat of bullets, the fighting, the shouting between people at the breaking point that had her sleeping fearfully in the same bed with her kids.

Then, the nightmare came into her home.

First, water started seeping in from broken pipes. Soon, black mold began to bloom from behind paint slapped on by the property manager to hide it. 

As Tucker’s family grew – she has four children now – so did the obstacles to keeping them healthy in Forest Cove. Her baby son inhaled the mold. There were trips to the emergency room and nights with him struggling to breathe.

No matter how hard she scrubbed, roaches would creep out of seams in the wall and holes in the floor of her kitchen. And the rats. Chewing through the ceiling. Scampering across the bed. So many rats Tucker said she couldn’t keep up with them even by changing three traps twice every day.

“Injustice would be the logical term” for what her family endured at Forest Cove, said Tucker, one of about 200 families hastily and chaotically relocated out of the complex in 2022, almost a year after the property teeming with rodents and pests was condemned by a municipal judge who demanded all tenants be removed. 

“But what I feel it’s done to my family is a little harsher,” Tucker said. “My family is in a situation where we struggle now, not only because of the financial aspect of it and our health issues, but because Forest Cove has such a bad name. When you put on applications that you lived there, they automatically assume that you are trash because the apartments were trash.”

Acting on behalf of Tucker and other former Forest Cove residents, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Economic Justice litigation team is joining the Housing Justice League (HJL), the Atlanta Economic Justice Program of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and the National Housing Law Project (NHLP) to demand better for hundreds of families. The families first endured deplorable housing conditions caused by years of neglect by city, state and federal agencies, then were unlawfully and chaotically moved out of the subsidized housing complex. The Housing Justice League and American Friends Service Committee have for years worked directly with the Forest Cove families to demand better housing conditions, humane relocation and the opportunity to return to any replacement housing.

In the video: Former residents of the Forest Grove complex in Southeast Atlanta talk about the deteriorating conditions that prompted a judge to condemn the 296-unit affordable housing development and the aftermath of being moved out.

Penalized for poverty

In January, the SPLC and the NHLP sent a demand letter on behalf of themselves, the AFSC and HJL to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the city of Atlanta and the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. After enduring horrific living conditions for far too long, the organizations charge in the letter, Forest Cove families were given little time to move and little support in finding landlords willing to take their vouchers. As a result, most families will either end up in racially concentrated, low-opportunity areas far from quality schools and services or lose their housing assistance altogether. Worse, about 30 former Forest Cove families have been denied any relocation or replacement housing assistance.

The former Forest Cove residents have also been denied the moving assistance and counseling to which they are entitled. The rushed, insufficient housing relocation discriminates against the Forest Cove households on the basis of race and color, in violation of their protections under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the letter charges. The organizations further charge that displaced residents must be given the option to live in higher-opportunity, nonsegregated areas.

In the letter, the organizations demand that HUD help the displaced families find housing to use with their vouchers that is safe, affordable and better located, and give them sufficient time to find housing in Atlanta’s tight rental housing market. The vouchers, a key element of federal housing assistance for decades, are intended to help very low-income families, elderly people and people with disabilities afford decent housing in the private market. But HUD’s initial mandate – that the vouchers be used by early this year – made it excruciatingly difficult for families to find new places to live.

They also demand that HUD, through its relocation contractor, The Leumas Group, provide high-quality mobility housing counseling assistance to the families and fully pay their moving expenses. The organizations are also asking the government agencies to restore housing subsidies to families who moved out of Forest Cove earlier to escape the horrific conditions at the complex. 

“Yes, the people living at Forest Cove had four walls and a roof, but they didn’t have the quality affordable housing the government promised them,” said Jamie Rush, senior staff attorney with the Economic Justice litigation team at the SPLC. “They were exploited by a system that takes our taxpayer money that is supposed to be used to provide affordable housing to people who need it and penalizes them because they couldn’t afford to pay market rent in this city.”

In response to one of the letter’s key demands – that the families in temporary housing be given more time to find housing – HUD announced in February it will extend the allowed time to June. But HUD has yet to inform the affected families, leaving them still scrambling.

“HUD has had every opportunity to protect the Forest Cove families from terrible housing conditions and now has every obligation to protect these families from further harm when they are displaced from their homes,” said Kate Walz, associate director of litigation at the National Housing Law Project.

Outdoor facade of townhouse complex.
After years of neglect, the 296-unit Forest Cove complex was condemned to make way for new residential and commercial development. (Credit: Lamont Baldwin)

Displaced again

For many of the families, this is the second time they have been placed in substandard housing by the city of Atlanta, then kicked out of their homes. The first was in 2010, when a complex near Forest Cove, the 350-unit Thomasville Heights subsidized housing development, was demolished. As would happen later when Forest Cove was condemned, displaced families were given federal housing choice vouchers.

But many landlords do not accept the vouchers. And in a city where rental prices continue to soar, many of the families were forced to move into Forest Cove, even as the problems there – rats, mold, failing plumbing, trash – had begun to emerge.

What followed were what attorneys representing the families allege were years of neglect by Forest Cove’s prior and current owners. Two years ago, the city decided to condemn the complex to make way for ambitious new residential and commercial development of the area – increasingly near to high-priced homes – under what is known as the Thomasville Heights Neighborhood Plan

Eventually, the residents were moved out. Many were told to leave their pest-infested furniture to be replaced by the owners of the complex. They are still waiting. Others were told they would be given moving boxes and other help, but that assistance never came. Tucker and other residents have records of their dozens of unanswered calls and emails to various agencies seeking the help they were promised. Even among those who have been relocated, many find themselves living far from public transportation, stores, services, schools and jobs.

“The fact that the city is just now intervening, when they’ve known about the conditions at Forest Cove for years, is an extraordinary failure,” said Alison Johnson, executive director of the Atlanta-based Housing Justice League. “They have had the power to do exactly what they did in 2022 for years and they didn’t, but that has changed now that the area is a hot commodity.

“They failed the people,” Johnson said. “The people didn’t fail. They didn’t cause these conditions; these conditions were put upon them. Those issues were terrible even before they moved there, but if there’s not enough stable housing, not enough affordable housing, we’re going to continue to have these issues, and not just in Forest Cove, but all over Atlanta.”

Forest Cove is just one example of the shameful stew of problems in subsidized housing in Atlanta, stirred by government inertia and a system that encourages malfeasance. Taking advantage of government rental-assistance programs and tax credits, private equity firms and other absentee investors purchase subsidized housing properties, then hire property management companies to raise rents, defer maintenance and reap growing profits from rising housing costs.

Many, as reported in a 2022 series in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, make cosmetic fixes to the properties to hide structural issues, then flip them. Fueled by a lack of government oversight, the profitmaking has made thousands of affordable housing units in the Atlanta region – overwhelmingly inhabited by people of color – uninhabitable.

“People will blame the tenants, or they will rely on stereotypes, and they totally ignore the role of these absentee landlords,” said Foluke Nunn, community organizer with the Atlanta Economic Justice Program of the American Friends Service Committee. “These companies are responsible not just for mistreating people, but for abusing taxpayer dollars and government funds.”

Affordable housing becomes scarce

The history of affordable housing – and HUD’s housing programs in particular – across the nation is rooted, ironically, in housing for white people. And that fraught history is intrinsically intertwined with the history of Atlanta.

In 1936, downtown Atlanta was the site of the first federally funded, subsidized housing development in the nation. Built as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the construction of Techwood Homes caused the eviction of hundreds of Black families to make way for more than 600 white families to a new neighborhood of apartments, a library and a kindergarten.

Subsidized housing around the nation grew after World War II but remained deeply segregated. Even after the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968, mandating that subsidized housing no longer be used as a tool for segregation, the practice continued. There has been no significant expansion of subsidized housing since the early 1970s, when federal housing policy shifted away from building housing and instead to providing housing vouchers that could be used to subsidize private rentals and, in some cases, homeownership.

In the runup to Atlanta hosting the 1996 Olympics, with its cityscape marred by aging subsidized housing complexes where deferred maintenance had made them hotbeds of crime, the city began tearing down subsidized housing.

But the city did little to replace what it had demolished with other options. As Atlanta has boomed in the years since the Olympics, affordable housing in the city has become increasingly scarce. The National Low Income Housing Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy and research organization, reported in 2022 that among the city’s more than 160,000 households with extremely low incomes, affordable rentals are available to only about 40,000. 

“In Atlanta when we eviscerated public housing, we hurt the people who need it the most,” Johnson said. “Now that we don’t have that safety net here, it makes it that much harder for people to find housing.”

‘Trying to find a better home’

For the Forest Cove families, moving out of the dilapidated complex was not the end to their troubles. Ayran Tucker ended up in temporary housing in Jonesboro, Georgia, more than a half-hour’s drive from Atlanta. She loves the three-bedroom, HUD-subsidized house where she lives. It has a big yard, front and back. Her children can walk to school. 

But the house is also a 4-mile walk to the nearest train station and grocery store. Tucker is working these days at a nearby Smoothie King, making $16 an hour. She said to get a better position, she would have to spend hours walking back and forth from the train station every day. 

And Tucker knows that the safety and relative comfort of this new home is temporary. Somehow between now and June, she has to find another place, a place that will accept her housing voucher. The Leumas Group, the HUD-contracted relocation company, has been unhelpful, she said. She has been moved around between three different case workers in the last six months. 

“I’ve been battling, trying to find a better home, but this never should have happened,” Tucker said. “My children should never have gone through what they had to go through at Forest Cove, because it should have been a decent place to live.”

Photo at top: Latresa Chaney was among hundreds of residents of Forest Cove, an affordable housing complex in Southeast Atlanta, who were relocated after the property was condemned. (Credit: Lamont Baldwin)