Annie Williams and her husband Woodrow (“like the president,” he notes) have lived in a little brick house along Sisson Avenue in Atlanta’s Kirkwood neighborhood for more than five decades.
Their modest three-bedroom, one-bath residence has been the cornerstone of the Williams family since they first moved here in November 1964.
It’s where they raised their three kids, two daughters and a son, and where Annie Williams still regularly babysits the couple’s great-great granddaughter — still too young for pre-K.
At 84 years old, Annie Williams still seems full of boundless energy, although arthritis has started to slow her some physically.
Much like the couple themselves, the Williamses’ house is aging, and it is getting more expensive for them to stay put.
Kirkwood, which sits on the city’s east side, is quickly gentrifying, like many intown neighborhoods.
Displacement, whether from rising taxes or the need for expensive home repairs, is an issue facing aging homeowners throughout Atlanta, especially elderly black residents.
Annie Williams says she often fields offers on their home. Even though she tells them she’s not interested, that doesn’t keep the phone calls, letters and knocks at the door from coming.
“I'm not interested in selling. I've been here this long and I'll be here until I die,” said Annie Williams, who has lived in the neighborhood her entire life.
A call to action
That kind of pressure on their neighbors is what motivated some Kirkwood residents to get organized a couple years ago, when they started a neighborhood effort called Kirkwood Cares.
Like some other initiatives in surrounding areas such as East Lake, Edgewood and Reynoldstown, Kirkwood Cares raises money from neighbors and businesses to do repairs on houses for elderly residents who can’t afford them and may otherwise be displaced — people such as Mr. and Mrs. Williams.
Since it started as a committee of the Kirkwood Neighbors Organization in 2018, Kirkwood Cares has raised tens of thousands of dollars and done repairs on about 30 houses, ranging from tree removal to new furnaces and a whole-house electrical rewiring.
While the labor is contracted, the effort is organized by volunteers — including Justin Schaeffer.
Schaeffer, who seems to perfectly embody the modern religious leader that he is, is in his early 40s. He has a full beard and dons clear glasses and a black zip-up hoodie as he works on a MacBook in a Kirkwood coffee shop.
He's not from Atlanta, although the preacher talks about the city with a fervor that may lead you to believe otherwise. He’s only lived in the city for about seven years, and in Kirkwood since 2015.
He calls himself a “doer” and a “peacekeeper,” attributes which led him to get involved in the neighborhood — like helping run Kirkwood Cares.
“I'm not rich. I'm not politically connected. I'm not a developer. I just started asking questions about what kind of things can be done,” he said.
A network of neighbors
A recent federal study found that Atlanta was the fourth fastest gentrifying city in the country between 2000 and 2014.
The average cost of a house in Kirkwood was $413,000 in November, according to the real estate company Zillow. In November 2011, that number was $166,000.
Just up the road from the Williamses, some of the traditional Craftsman and bungalow-style homes have been torn down and replaced by more modern, larger houses.
While not officially affiliated, Kirkwood Cares is part of a network of similar groups in the area, including Neighbor in Need, which has done work on the east side since the early 2000s.
In 2018, members of the neighborhood association decided to splinter off and cater specifically to those in Kirkwood.
The group’s first project was at the home of Ruby Pope, an elderly resident whose bathroom floor had sunk in due to a plumbing problem.
Schaeffer recalls not quite knowing what he’d gotten into but feeling thankful to have been welcomed into his neighbors’ home to help. Since then, Schaeffer says the group has raised more than $40,000 for Kirkwood Cares, mostly from businesses in the neighborhood.
They partner with local home repair companies, like Stryant Construction, which often provides supplies and labor at a reduced cost.
At first, most of their referrals came from City Council member Natalyn Archibong, who was hearing from constituents who needed help with repairs to be able to stay in their homes.
Archibong said she often hears from constituents about housing concerns, but notes when there’s a larger conversation about affordable housing it tends to be about acquisition, rather than combating displacement.
She says she’s proud to see efforts from neighbors crop up in her district, including Kirkwood Cares.
“It fills a need for those families and for property owners who are already in the community but aren’t able for financial reasons to repair a roof or fix a porch,” said Archibong, whose district encompasses most of the city’s east side.
No place like home
That “neighbors helping neighbors” network is how Annie Williams first found Kirkwood Cares.
She was watching TV in her bedroom one day when she saw an elderly man on the local news saying he was thankful for the work that volunteers had done on his home.
She started calling her own neighbors to see if something like that was possible for her, knowing she and her husband didn't have the funds needed to repair their roof and sinking kitchen floor.
While most of her neighbors these days are far newer to the street than she is, she’s quick to sing their praises.
“I wouldn’t want better neighbors,” she said.
In 2018, her neighbors connected her with Kirkwood Cares, which eventually installed a new roof, kitchen floor and front porch.
She now shows off the new floor in the small kitchen with pride, pointing out where sinking tile was replaced by wood laminate.
“I know financially there's no way in this world I could have ever done it, but it just means so much to me and I'm grateful and I'm thankful,” she said.
The repairs make it more likely that the couple will be able to stay in their home.
The house is small, but it’s where their family’s roots are. The pink painted walls are lined with artwork and photos. A picture of their daughter Linda, who died six years ago, sits on a table in the front room.
The two have been married since Sept. 2, 1952. As a teenager, Woodrow would come to Atlanta to visit family.
When they began to see each other around the neighborhood, Annie Williams says she wasn’t initially interested.
But he offered her a piece of spearmint gum and so began their enduring romance — the majority of which has played out within these walls along Sisson Avenue.
Through the good and bad of the couple’s life together, this house and the surrounding community, has been their home, which makes the thought of ever leaving seem unbearable, they say.
“You wouldn’t want to live in a better neighborhood in Atlanta,” Woodrow Williams says.
A fight worth fighting
Full of seemingly endless energy, Schaeffer talks quickly about the work he wants to do in the neighborhood, twirling a pen as he does.
Although, he’s quick to acknowledge the irony of him helping to lead this effort — as a newcomer, he’s likely contributed to driving up the prices.
And in many ways, Schaeffer says it feels like they are fighting “a tide and a power” stronger than anything Kirkwood Cares is doing.
He knows that installing a ramp at a neighbor’s house or fixing a roof is only a drop in the bucket.
It won’t stop the forces of displacement and gentrification from playing out here, but he says it’s still a fight worth fighting.
“It's a worthwhile cause to make sure that people are being cared for,” Schaeffer said.
People, of course, like Annie Williams.
Through the years, her circle in this neighborhood has shrunk.
Many of her friends have died or been edged out for financial reasons, but still, she says this is home and she’s glad there are some in Kirkwood who still care.
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