Tenants at The Forest at Columbia are battling with their new landlord, Meridian Management Group, to stave off huge rent hikes at the low-income apartment complex in Decatur after Meridian initially tried to evict them.
In the latest salvo, Columbia Forest tenants and organizers delivered a letter to DeKalb County Commissioner Larry Johnson on Sept. 7, urging him to intervene. They are asking Johnson to stand by a promise they say he made over a month ago to help them relocate.
Johnson could not be reached for comment by press time.
Meridian announced after buying the property in May that it would be evicting the roughly 200 tenants by Aug. 31, according to the tenants and organizers from the Party of Socialism and Liberation (PSL).
Sherlonda Mckay, one of the lead organizers for the Columbia Forest tenants association, said they were blindsided by the news. “We just woke up one day and there was a note out,” she said. “Some of these apartments are Section 8. Some of us have no income. Where are we supposed to go?”
Meridian provided no follow-up plan for relocating the 200 families living at Columbia Forest and did not respond to their questions about what it would do with the property, said McKay.
Meridian did not respond to a request for comment.
By July, the tenants formed their own tenants association, the Fighters of Columbia Forest, and started working with the PSL, which calls itself a “multi-racial and anti-racist socialist party,” to push back against Meridian and prevent evictions. They started staging protests and knocking on doors in the neighborhood to drum up community support.
Tenants and organizers confronted Johnson, the DeKalb commissioner, on Aug. 4, when he made a public appearance at an outdoor concert.
They interrupted Johnson’s speech with their protests about their situation and the commissioner soon came off stage to speak to the group, according to Estevan Hernandez, the PSL’s lead organizer with the Columbia Forest tenants.
Johnson and staff from Dekalb’s Community Development Department visited Columbia Forest the next day and pledged to help all of the tenants relocate to affordable housing, according to Hernandez and the tenants.
Soon after, Meridian called off the evictions, which the tenants and organizers attribute to Johnson lobbying on the tenant’s behalf. “We think he put pressure on Meridian because we were putting pressure on him,” said Hernandez.
But their win was short-lived. Meridian announced in August that it would be hiking rent by as much as 50% instead of evicting the tenants, which Hernandez said will price the tenants out anyway. Most tenants have been informed their rent will increase from about $800 per month to about $1,200 per month, he said.
What’s more, Hernandez said, Meridian is now asking the tenants for back rent. The new owner had refused to accept rent for July and August because it expected all the tenants to be out by August 31, he explained, but with mass evictions off the table, Meridian informed tenants at the end of August that they must pay the back rent.
“Nobody here has that kind of money on hand. They’ve already spent it on the stuff they need to live or on rental applications to other places,” he said.
Tenants and organizers said they have tried to contact Meridian and Johnson about the steep rent increases, but haven’t received a response. About half of the 200 tenants at Columbia Forest when Meridian took over are still there, said Hernandez.