City of Atlanta leaders on Tuesday pledged to solve the problems facing many former Forest Cove tenants, who’ve been threatened with evictions from their new apartments and still don’t have the furniture or transportation help that the city promised, over four months after being relocated through a massive city-led effort.
About a dozen renters and advocates chastised Atlanta City Council members and the mayor’s office for bungling the effort to relocate about 200 households from the derelict Southside apartment complex owned by Millennia Housing Management, which was condemned over a year ago, in December, 2021. But it’s still unclear what will happen to the tenants once their current leases expire around the end of the year.
Some have been threatened with eviction because the city-led team, made up of consulting firm APD Urban Planning + Management and a group of nonprofits, hadn’t paid their rent on time, multiple rehoused tenants testified during the Atlanta City Council’s community development and human services committee meeting Tuesday.
APD Urban has been in charge of getting rent checks to the tenants’ respective landlords. At least six tenants had evictions filed against them in January, and several more received warnings in February.
Others said they are sleeping on air mattresses and having trouble getting around town, since the relocation team hasn’t yet provided the guaranteed furnishings or MARTA cards. Still more said their new units are much like their Forest Cove apartments—falling apart and plagued by pests and mold.
“These issues are causing pressure and disappointment for me, as well as my daughter,” former Forest Cove resident Samishia Willis told the council members. “During the relocation process, my own apartment was cleared out before I could move my things out. I lost many of my belongings.”
Another ex-Forest Cove tenant, Tyneka Thomas, said her new apartment was “full of flies” when she first arrived. “I’m not asking for luxury, with a swimming pool and stuff like that—just something that’s comfortable.”
“For every Forest Cove resident here, there are about 15 that couldn’t make it today,” Tim Franzen, a longtime advocate with Housing Justice League and an organizer with the American Friends Service Committee, said at the meeting.
The city and the relocation team in October finished moving just under 200 households out of Forest Cove into new apartments and houses. COVID-19 relief money provided funding—which Millennia is obligated to reimburse to the city—but it still took seven months because of Atlanta’s dearth of affordable housing.
A number of the relocated tenants have received eviction notices or warnings because of a glitch that arose in the payment process, said Joshua Humphries, the director of housing and community development for the mayor’s office. He said many apartment landlords don’t have systems in place to receive rent checks on behalf of multiple residents from a single large entity, and so the city is resolving that problem with the tenants’ many landlords.
The outcry earned the renters and activists an impromptu sit-down after the committee meeting with Humphries and City Councilmembers Jason Winston, who represents the district where Forest Cove is located, and Liliana Bakhtiari. They assured residents that no one would be evicted over the relocation team’s failure to pay their rent timely and said the city and its relocation team would address the other concerns promptly.
Winston said the city will help the renters get furniture and MARTA cards right away.
Bakhtiari added, “I had no idea it had gotten so bad,” before committing to host a fundraiser and supplies drive in their district—which includes parts of affluent neighborhoods such as Cabbagetown, Reynoldstown, and Edgewood—to help the renters. “Just tell me what you need, and I will get it,” they said.
Humphries said after the committee meeting that the city will open a hotline this week for the former Forest Cove renters to call when they have issues with rent payments or anything else. He also gave them his phone number to call.
Humphries also said APD Urban is leaving the relocation team, which also includes the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, and Open Doors Atlanta. Several renters and activists said they hope that will fix the convoluted rent payment process, wherein APD Urban was ultimately responsible for making the payments on behalf of the tenants to their multiple landlords.
APD Urban did not respond to Atlanta Civic Circle’s requests for comment about why residents’ rent payments have been late or why the organization is leaving the Forest Cove resettlement team.
But Frank Fernandez, the Community Foundation’s executive director, said in an email, “It’s pretty straightforward: APD Urban was happy to support the work during the relocation phase, but this next phase—which is focused on helping [Forest Cove] residents to get stabilized in their new homes/situations—is better suited for nonprofits focused on case management, wraparound services, etc.”
APD Urban will still play a role in revitalizing Thomasville Heights, the neighborhood where Forest Cove is located, Fernandez added, so the consultancy will keep “working with residents to finalize the neighborhood plan they want to see adopted for their community.”
The city plans to build new housing on publicly owned land in the area to help ex-Forest Cove tenants return to their neighborhood if they want.
What happens when leases expire?
One lingering question is what will happen to the ex-Forest Cove tenants when their new one-year leases expire near the end of 2023. “We don’t even know where we’re going to be after this year,” said a former Forest Cove resident, Sharon North, on Tuesday.
The relocation team isn’t sure, either. The $9.1 million of federal pandemic relief money the city committed to relocating and paying rent for the 190-plus households extracted from the condemned complex is meant to keep people housed for a year, while property owner Millennia Housing Management tries to rehabilitate the dilapidated complex, which is rife with mold from sewage leaks, rotting flooring, and other issues.
Millennia has applied for tax credits from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) to help finance Forest Cove’s restoration, but the state agency rejected an earlier application over a year ago, citing the condemnation order issued by an Atlanta judge in December 2021.
Humphries, with the mayor’s office, said DCA will decide whether to award Millennia the tax break in the next few weeks.
Millennia’s appeal of the condemnation also goes to a hearing in March, he said, so a lot is still up in the air for the people who’d hoped that finally leaving Forest Cove was the end of their worries.
Councilmember Winston said Millennia has been effectively sidelined during the relocation process, waiting on DCA’s decision. “There’s no love lost,” he said, since many onetime Forest Cove tenants view the property owner, which managed the complex for several years before buying it in 2021 from Global Ministries Foundation, as a main source of their struggles.
“Because of all that, we can’t yet talk about what next year might look like for everyone,” Humphries said, adding that the new hotline should help the residents get their immediate housing problems taken care of in the meantime.
Foluke Nunn, another organizer with the American Friends Service Committee, which has been closely monitoring the relocation process, said Tuesday’s spontaneous meeting with Humphries, Baktiari, and Winston after the committee meeting gave her hope for the former Forest Cove renters.
The overarching promise she heard from city leaders: Better communication with tenants and their advocates.
“I walked in frustrated; I walked in tired; I walked in fed up with the fact that the emails I would send would continuously go unacknowledged,” Nunn said. “I’m happy with how we were received by the council. It was clear they were paying attention to the residents and their stories.”
“I’m grateful for today, but I hope we can keep this energy going,” she said.