A Buckhead church’s decision to cede control of the low-income senior apartment complex it owns to a national senior housing operator has provoked the ire of tenants who have long called it home.
The Cathedral of St. Philip announced plans in July to enact a 99-year lease for National Church Residences to take over Cathedral Towers, a HUD-subsidized, 195-unit complex at 2820 Peachtree Road, neighboring the Episcopal cathedral. The mega-landlord runs senior living facilities for low-income residents in over two dozen states, including 13 in Atlanta.
The residents are pushing back. Fully 150 of the 191 tenants have organized as the Cathedral Towers Residents Association to urge St. Philip’s not to make the management change.
On Tuesday, dozens of Cathedral Towers residents staged a protest of the deal outside their building, as first reported by Rough Draft Atlanta. They say they fear National Church Residences will jeopardize their quality of life by cutting staff and resident services. They’re also concerned about disruptions from the plan for a plans for a “significant renovation.”
National Church Residences did not respond to a request for comment.
Terry Byrne, a spokesperson for the tenants association and a longtime Cathedral Towers resident, told Atlanta Civic Circle he resents that St. Philip’s is making the deal with National Church Residences without input from him or his neighbors.
“They came over in the summer and told us, ‘This is what’s going to happen,’” he said, adding, “I don’t like being given a snow job.”
Calling St. Philip’s a “wonderful organization” that was sold a “false bill of goods” by National Church Residences, Byrne said he hopes the cathedral will heed the concerns of its tenants. Some of them are parishioners, he added.
Byrne said the Cathedral Towers Residents Association plans to hand out flyers at St. Philip’s upcoming church services to inform congregants of their concerns.
The new tenant association has enlisted local nonprofit Housing Justice League (HJL) to help them draw attention to their cause.
It’s an unusual situation, said HJL staff member Graham Kelly, because the Cathedral Towers residents are trying to preserve their current living conditions instead of agitating for improvements.
“We often work in apartment complexes in deplorable conditions,” he said, alluding to problem properties like the Southside’s condemned Forest Cove complex. “But the residents [at Cathedral Towers] are actually very happy with their management.”
National Church Residences would pay St. Philip’s almost $52 million in the transaction, as part of an $85 million redevelopment budget, according to Rough Draft Atlanta. The church has said it will use the proceeds to set up a fund to aid low-income seniors.
The senior home operator, a nonprofit, is seeking a $41 million tax-exempt loan and $1.5 million in housing opportunity bond financing from Invest Atlanta to finance the renovation, along with federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits.
But Kelly and the tenants association worry that National Church Residences is just a profit-seeking mega-landlord.
“This is a nationwide company that is operating their apartment complexes mainly just to make a profit,” Kelly said. “They don’t really have any interest in maintaining a good quality of life—their aim is to do the bare minimum. And whether you’re in Buckhead or Bankhead, that’s not something the HJL wants to see.”
The cathedral’s long-term lease agreement with National Church Residences, expected to be finalized early next year, includes repairs and renovations to the almost 200 Cathedral Tower apartments. Residents raised concerns at the Oct. 17 rally that they will be temporarily uprooted by that.
According to an FAQ that St. Philip’s prepared for the tenants and shared with Atlanta Civic Circle, renovations are expected to begin in early 2025 and won’t require everyone to move out of the building. Instead, tenants will be relocated to vacant “swing units” while their apartments are upgraded.
But that promise hasn’t assuaged the tenants’ and advocates’ concerns.
“Some of the older residents are in their 90s,” Kelly said. “The stress of moving everything out, only to have to move back in, is not something you want to go through at that age.”
At the end of the day, Kelly said, “The church has a reputation to maintain.”
“Some of the residents are also members of the congregation,” he added. “At least one of them has canceled her tithing.”
Uphill battle for tenant unions
Byrne acknowledged that the new Cathedral Towers tenant association faces an uphill battle, since St. Philip’s and National Church Residences are under no legal obligation to take tenants’ concerns over the deal into consideration.
Akin to a labor union, a tenant union gains leverage from organizing a large group of tenants to collectively bargain over rent prices, living conditions, and their treatment by property management. In the work world, companies are legally required to recognize and negotiate with a union, Kelly said, “but with tenant unions, no such protection exists.”
Many states have laws forbidding landlords and property managers from retaliating against tenants who organize or form unions, but few have adopted measures requiring landlords to recognize tenant unions and negotiate with them. Georgia does not have any such laws.
The Housing Justice League has been trying to create a citywide tenant union, and local advocacy group Sol Underground in 2021 formed the ATL Homeless Union. But even those efforts lack teeth unless Georgia lawmakers pass enabling legislation.
Nationally, tenant unions are rare—but some are gaining traction. In Montana, for instance, the Missoula Tenants Union just celebrated one year of helping lower-income residents find affordable housing. It also uses membership dues to hire lawyers for renters fighting evictions in court.