Protesters say DeKalb apartment complex poised to oust 200 residents

John Flournoy sat in a chair outside the DeKalb County government building in Decatur Thursday morning, an umbrella providing minimal relief from the rapidly rising temperatures.

Flanked by activists and more than a dozen fellow residents of the Forest at Columbia Apartments, he took a microphone and made things plain.

“I’ve seen a lot in my life,” he said. “But I’ve never seen anything like this, where people can stick up a poster, more or less, and say you have to be out of here in two months.”

Flournoy has lived at the apartment complex just inside the I-285 and I-20 interchange in southern DeKalb for about four years. Many of his neighbors have lived there much longer. The complex, they say, certainly has its issues: crime, broken pipes, pest infestations, the remnants of a now year-old fire.

But the Forest at Columbia is one of the few relatively affordable options in the area — and now they’re being told to leave, with little notice and little help.

ExploreAJC investigation: Dangerous dwellings
ExploreDeKalb proposal would mandate cameras at convenience stores -- and more

Meridian Management Group, the complex’s management company, could not be reached for comment Thursday. But residents and organizers with the Party for Socialism and Liberation, which helped put together the rally, said that the company late last month informed all 200-plus Forest at Columbia tenants that their leases were being terminated and they needed to vacate the premises by Aug. 31.

The reason? Renovations.

“They only gave us two months to move,” said longtime resident Shernonda McKay. She was joined Thursday by a grandchild and a gaggle of nieces and nephews. “We don’t have money to move like that.”

“Dangerous Dwellings,” a year-long investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, found that more than 250 apartment complexes in the Atlanta metro area were persistently dangerous, beset by violent crime and often horrific living conditions, such as roaches, mold, rats and raw sewage spills.

Many complexes are owned by private equity firms and other investment groups headquartered out of state. Often, they have been sold multiple times in recent years, moving from one investment group to another as property values climb.

Tens of thousands of residents, including at least 13,000 children, live in these apartments in Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties.

The city of Atlanta and Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis are planning crackdowns on these dangerous apartments. DeKalb County officials, meanwhile, recently released a list of high-crime locations that included several apartments identified in the AJC’s investigation.

Credit: NATRICE MILLER

Credit: NATRICE MILLER

The Forest at Columbia Apartments was included among the county’s most frequent locations for violent crime.

Separate data compiled by the AJC showed that, in a five-year span starting in 2017, the complex saw at least 99 “part one” crimes, which include homicides, aggravated assault, rape, robbery and other serious offenses.

There were 35 such incidents — including two homicides, 13 aggravated assaults, two rapes and four robberies — reported in 2021 alone.

During a June 2021 fire at the complex, residents had to jump from second-story windows to escape. Eight people were injured; four of them were hospitalized.

A code enforcement complaint filed the next month claimed there were dangerous and uninhabitable buildings on the property. It was just one of at least 55 code complaints related to the complex over a five-year period.

Other complaints included several for lack of air conditioning and interior and exterior structural problems.

Residents at Thursday’s rally outside the DeKalb government building said the purportedly looming improvements at their complex are much needed — but should be completed for the people who have lived there for years.

Instead, they’re facing imminent displacement.

“Their plan is to let these properties fall apart, make as much money as they can off the poor and working people of this city, and then force them out so they can make more money,” said Monica Johnson, an organizer with the Party for Socialism and Liberation.

Credit: NATRICE MILLER

Credit: NATRICE MILLER

Chanting and carrying signs with slogans like “housing is a human right,” the activists and tenants tried to enter the Manuel J. Maloof Center to present county commissioners with a list of demands. They want officials to, among other things, pressure the management company to reinstate their leases and pay for temporary relocation if renovations are truly going to be completed.

The group was stopped by police officers, who told them no one was available to speak with them. Many DeKalb government buildings are still closed to the public due to the pandemic.

After several tense moments, the crowd dispersed and reconvened on a nearby sidewalk.

“I’ll be back tomorrow,” said Eve Mayo, a nine-year Forest at Columbia resident and single mother of three. “Because me and my children are gonna be homeless.”