Public efforts to house the unhoused have long contended with funding hurdles, apartment shortages, and the stigma that haunts the word “homeless.”
The controversy surrounding a proposal to replace an old, vacant house in Reynoldstown with 42 small studio apartments for people experiencing homelessness has unfolded as a case study on the intersection of those challenges and offers a look at what the city of Atlanta’s nonprofit partner, Partners For Home, faces in its pursuit of helping unhoused people get off the streets.
Housing experts agree that increasing residential density in Atlanta is key to ameliorating the housing affordability crisis, but some neighbors of the proposed three-story apartment project at 111 Moreland Ave. are pushing back. They say they’re worried it’s so dense that it could be unsafe for residents living right on the busy thoroughfare.
The developer, Stryant Investments, is pitching a project where Partners For Home would refer unhoused clients—many living with mental health, substance use, or medical challenges—for residency and provide them with supportive services.
But the Reynoldstown Civic Improvement League told Atlanta Civic Circle last week that the project would have people practically living on top of one another and risking getting hit by cars when they left home. The neighborhood group’s buy-in would help Stryant secure public financing for the complex.
Cathryn Vassell, the head of Partners For Home, said she’s heard these objections before. This is “real NIMBYism,” she said, referring to not-in-my-backyard mindsets, during an Atlanta Regional Housing Forum addressing homelessness on March 9. (The quarterly forums convene affordable housing stakeholders from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.)
For affordable housing complexes, Vassell said, “Some communities love it, particularly when it is integrated—[when] it’s mixed-income affordable.” It’s much easier to get a neighborhood’s blessing for a development with just a few formerly homeless people, she explained.
“When they know that firefighters and teachers and police people are going to be living next to them, [people say], ‘Okay, I can handle the five or so homeless folks that might be in the building as well,’” Vassell said. “But when we go into a neighborhood and we’re talking about 40 people in one building who were experiencing homelessness, we’re dealing with drastically different responses.”
Pushback from neighborhood groups like the Reynoldstown Civic Improvement League, she said, is “cloaked in [worries of] increased traffic and concerns of safety,” or objections that a dense complex like Stryant has proposed, with small studios, shared kitchens and laundry rooms, and common space, “is not dignified because the units are too small.”
“But we know what the real issues are,” Vassell said at the Housing Forum: Many Atlantans don’t want to live near a big group of recently homeless people.
The Reynoldstown Civic Improvement League resents that claim, telling Atlanta Civic Circle in a statement: “‘NIMBYism’ is offensive and dismissive of legitimate concerns. Neighbors from all economic and ethnic backgrounds have raised these issues” about safety.
Vassell is unconvinced safety concerns are the root of the community’s wariness of the project. Many Partners For Home clients are navigating mental health and addiction issues, she said in an interview, so she thinks some Reynoldstown residents fear the area will become “the land of the Walking Dead, with zombies combing the neighborhood who have no clue how to conduct themselves in society.”
Not so, she added: “We’re talking about grown adults who know how to cross the street.”
Homelessness comes in all shapes and sizes, said Miracle Fletcher, who used to be unhoused and now serves on Partners For Home’s community advisory board.
“I’ve been discriminated against because I don’t look like I just came from under a bridge or was just eating out of a garbage can,” she said at the Housing Forum. “People without a lived experience of homelessness … don’t really know what it looks like.”
Those misconceptions and NIMBYism make Partners For Home’s job exceedingly difficult as it grapples with what Vassell says is the nonprofit’s biggest roadblock: “Being able to compete with the market.”
“Rents are going up and occupancy is at an all-time high,” she said, so landlords can choose which tenants they want—and they’re often disinclined to take in homeless people.
Jack Hardin, the board chair for the Gateway Center shelter downtown, said that for every hundred Georgia families earning less than half of the area median income—$48,200 for a four-person household in metro Atlanta—there are only 58 homes available.
“A hundred folks chasing 58 homes,” he said. “Somebody’s not going to be able to sit down in that game of musical houses—and the prices go up.”
The city has allocated $13 million for Partners For Home’s latest housing initiative, LIFT 2.0. Even though it’s well-funded and ready to place people in apartments, Vassell said, “We’re stalled out at the moment … because we can’t find the units.”
The proposed Reynoldstown development would deliver 42 residences for unhoused people in a walkable, urban location that’s good for people who don’t have cars, said Darin Givens, the co-founder of urbanist nonprofit ThreadATL.
“If the pushback is centered around the number of units being built, I hope neighbors can recognize that this project is the right fit for this spot,” he said. “It’s a walkable place near MARTA, so it needs to be more welcoming than others when it comes to housing for people who need transit access.
“There’s a rail station, buses, a pedestrian-friendly street grid, a recreation center, and convenience stores,” Givens added. “This is such a better location for housing for people experiencing homelessness than others I’ve seen, where the urban fabric isn’t so friendly.”
Most people experiencing homelessness don’t have cars, Vassell told Atlanta Civic Circle, so complaints about increased traffic fall flat.
Stryant co-founder Stan Sugarman said in an email that homelessness in Atlanta has worsened because housing has become so unaffordable. “Only by building long-term scattered site developments across the city can we start correcting our housing crisis,” he said.
The Reynoldstown Civic Improvement League is scheduled to vote on the proposal at its Monday meeting.