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An Atlanta Civic Circle investigation last week found that the city of Atlanta relocated over one-quarter—51 out of 188 households—from the southside’s condemned Forest Cove Apartments to what the Atlanta Journal-Constitution calls “dangerous dwellings”—complexes with a history of crime and substandard living conditions.

This finding shows the challenges that Mayor Andre Dickens’ administration faces in trying to decently house the city’s lowest-income residents. Because Atlanta rents are so high, complexes like Forest Cove, which the U.S. Department of Housing (HUD) subsidizes through Section 8 vouchers, are often low-income renters’ only options—and these too are in short supply. When conditions deteriorate, other options are scarce. 

In a 20-minute interview with Atlanta Civic Circle on April 14, Dickens provided an exclusive preview of the city’s launch of the Safe and Secure Housing initiative to crack down on negligent landlords and improve living conditions for tenants—although he and his office did not provide details about how it will help people who have trouble finding or staying in stable housing.

He also said the city will unveil a plan in May to revitalize Thomasville Heights, where Forest Cove is located, by building over 1,000 affordable housing units on city-owned land at the corner of Moreland Avenue and McDonough Boulevard—across the street from the now-shuttered Thomasville Heights Elementary School.

And the mayor addressed how much enforcement leverage the city has with negligent landlords renting to low-income tenants—including Forest Cove’s Ohio-based owner, Millennia Housing Management. Many of the company’s apartment complexes are HUD-subsidized.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Atlanta Civic Circle: Why did Forest Cove fall apart? Joshua Humphries, your senior housing advisor, attributes it to “decades of public and private neglect.” Can you flesh that out?

Andre Dickens: Yes, Forest Cove became a dilapidated property over time, through disinvestment, and a lack of renovation and missed maintenance. The change of ownership was supposed to help with that when it went to Millennia. 

[Ed.: In 2021, HUD forced the previous owner, Global Ministries Foundation, to sell the Forest Cove complex and the rest of its low-income housing portfolio to Millennia, which at the time was the property manager.]

There were some promises made to fix up the units and the grounds—and to have a good-quality landlord—but those things never manifested.

They never manifested? Who allowed Millennia—and Global Ministries before it—to let the place fall into disrepair? Was the city’s code enforcement not tough enough? Or HUD wasn’t? Who’s responsible for the conditions Forest Cove tenants were in?

Between HUD and Millennia, the goal was to make these residents safer and keep them in good conditions. But that wasn’t met. I was a city council member at the time that Millennia took control of the property, and being able to know who’s to blame wasn’t as easy as it is to know how to correct things. At that time, everyone was pointing at each other. 

When I became mayor and saw the conditions—and the judge had just condemned Forest Cove—it wasn’t time to go back and investigate who’s to blame. In December 2021, the city court, the city solicitor—everybody—decided it was time to condemn the property, which was a very strong, necessary step. And then I came into office in January. In February, it was time to act.

Why did you intervene? Did you see Millennia as a slumlord?

Here’s the challenge with that: We have a court date coming up with Millennia on May 10, and we’re trying to make sure we don’t affect the outcome of that by being in the press too much about it.

To address the condemnation order? A city judge condemned Forest Cove in 2021, but Millennia appealed the ruling and is just now getting a court date?

Yes. But, suffice to say, we had to step in and act. We reached out to Millennia to try to get these residents safe and clean housing. And when those conditions weren’t met, we had to move people to better places.

That it took the city about six months to relocate all 188 Forest Cove households spotlights the shortage of apartments in Atlanta that accept government-funded vouchers to help people pay rent. The city council passed legislation last fall that bars apartment complexes receiving public money from discriminating against Section 8 voucher-holders, but most apartment complexes in town can still reject these applicants. So are your hands tied?

I wouldn’t say my hands are tied. It just makes it all more difficult. All this is hard work that we have to do. We have a housing shortage in Atlanta—at all income levels—and we are trying to build our way to 20,000 units to be able to help these families. So construction is one way. Renovation is another. Beyond that, it’s helping these landlords get into good standing [with no code violations]. 

When you see 51 ‘dangerous dwelling’ landlords and property owners [renting to former Forest Cove tenants], all of them aren’t trying to be bad. Some of them need some support and they could be back in decent standing. Some of them need to be taken out, if you will—get violations and then, maybe, we buy out their properties and bring in new [owners] to renovate and bring things up to standards. 

We’re trying to build more housing, preserve the housing that we have, and get these landlords to abide by the standards that we’re setting. And then there are policy levers that we’re trying to utilize around code enforcement and legal support for that.

Tell me about the policy levers. Is the goal to better regulate negligent and predatory landlords? We’re a long way from that, aren’t we?

Well, the landlords hear us. They know we’re coming, because we’re sending actions against them for code enforcement. We didn’t have enough personnel or enough teeth to go out there and follow up on code violations [issued]. We do now, and we have to stay on top of those landlords.

Meanwhile, these 51 properties—if we go out there and start displacing hundreds, if not thousands and thousands of people, and we don’t have anywhere to put them, we’re creating more problems and more work.

We don’t want them staying in the conditions they’re in, and we also don’t want them being out on the street.

Forest Cove has attracted the most headlines, but it is far from the only unsafe apartment complex in town. When the AJC’s Dangerous Dwellings series came out last year, your administration said it would take action against negligent landlords. What have you done?

To address these challenges between landlords and tenants, we’ve created a Safe and Secure Housing initiative to ensure high-quality living conditions for residents in the city. To that end, we’ve brought six additional nuisance actions against landlords and property owners since we started in the fall. 

And we’ve allocated additional resources—financial and personnel—for code enforcement, legal support, staff, and also to work with residents to address these substandard housing conditions—and in very real time. We’ve now got a hotline for our Forest Cove individuals who are experiencing this type of condition.

[Ed.: Dickens’ office said in a follow-up statement that it had hired three “dedicated inspectors to conduct weekly targeted details, and [increased] funding for our Solicitor’s Office to initiate litigation on each and every property that merits legal actions.” For the six additional nuisance actions, it said: “We are still working on finalizing the most recent info with the Solicitor’s Office and will share once we have this ready.”]

Are these recent actions enough to curb problems like Forest Cove residents have dealt with?

We know there’s 50 or so [former Forest Cove tenants] in “dangerous dwellings.” That’s too many people living in those conditions, and it shows that we’re in a very tight housing market, with around 3% vacancy rates. Moving people out and trying to find a place to put them is very tough. 

It took us a whole lot of work to find anywhere to place people from Forest Cove—and still maintain [their HUD] vouchers and have landlords accept the individuals. It’s a heck of a lift, and to do that over and over again is why we have to stand up this Safe and Secure Housing initiative.

That initiative is something you’re announcing in the next couple of weeks, right?

It’s going to be soon. We’re working on it now. 

You’ve said the city plans to develop publicly owned land in Thomasville Heights to provide affordable housing. What’s the latest?

We are working on designing a new community to bring [Forest Cove] folks back to a mixed-income community environment—to bring anybody displaced back into this neighborhood. It will be for a variety of residents—some from Forest Cove, some who qualify for workforce housing price ranges.

We’re internally strategizing on how to best use all this land. We will have our full plan available in May.

Is this hundreds of affordable units? Thousands? How much land is there?

The whole area makes up about 80 acres of vacant or underutilized city-owned land. There will be well over a thousand units brought to the Thomasville Heights neighborhood.

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