Apartments focus of controversy in Dunwoody

Along the busy Peachtree Industrial Boulevard in Dunwoody is a sprawling collection of two-story apartment buildings. The units are worn but relatively kept up. Dozens of children play soccer or run in the parking lots. And numerous vans with ladders atop their roofs indicate a working class clientele.

The buildings and their occupants might be largely unremarkable, but the Dunwoody Glen and Lacota apartment complexes and their 2,000-plus mostly Hispanic residents are now the focus of a controversy that has divided this newly incorporated suburban enclave and led to a federal lawsuit.

In 2011, Dunwoody officials pushed a bond referendum that would raise money to demolish two aging apartment complexes and build a sprawling — and badly needed — park.

Then-Mayor Ken Wright extolled the effort in a press release just before the vote but added that while the city “regrets the need to displace residents (in) 785 apartment units” it would work to relocate those citizens, including the “560 school age children who are in the Dunwoody cluster.”

The fact that those children and the apartment residents were largely minority was not lost on many people. In fact, some say the city didn’t “regret” anything; pushing out the residents, they say, was the plan’s selling point.

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“It was a twofer: Get rid of the apartment people and also get parks,” said Bob Lundsten, a Dunwoody activist who opposed the plan and who works for DeKalb County’s only Republican county commissioner. “I know buzz words and code words when I hear them.”

A federal lawsuit filed by the apartment owners in July alleges the same thing: That Dunwoody violated the Fair Housing Act by waging a campaign to “force the ouster of residents from two apartment complexes,” who “are predominantly members of minority groups including over 500 school age children.”

The suit alleges that after Dunwoody voters defeated the $66 million bond issue, the city besieged the complexes on the eastern edge of the city with hundreds of code violations and unreasonable work deadlines to drive the owners out of business. Pushing the residents out of the affordable housing — rents average about $700 —    would leave many without options for affordable housing nearby, the suit states.

City officials, citing the lawsuit, would not comment for this story. But former city officials and other community leaders say the plan was simply a new city’s effort to improve quality of life by providing green space in a family-oriented suburban area desperate for recreation space.

Robert Wittenstein, a city councilman defeated in the 2011 election when voters shot down the bond issue, said Dunwoody was sincere in wanting to help those in the apartments.

“We understood there was a disruption here; there were loud critics,” he said. “It’s not coded language. It’s us saying we know we have an obligation here and we want to help.”

Apartments are often a lightning rod in local politics, drawing concern and opposition from neighborhood groups and politicians. Wrapped up in the ensuing debate, Lundsten said, is a often a quiet understanding that the term “apartment residents” is a euphemism for low-income people or minorities. The discussion is often peppered with talk about crime, as it was in the Dunwoody referendum.

And it’s not just Dunwoody. The Sandy Springs city council last year spent a good amount of time and effort talking about crime and apartments. The council has supported a redevelopment project on the city’s south border to demolish older apartments and replace them with higher-rent units.

Those involved in such discussions try mightily to avoid terms of class, culture and race. The minutes of a 2012 Sandy Springs city council work session sums up Mayor Eva Galambos’ take on the issue: “One reason for the apartment inspections is the crime rate. Crime is a reflection of too many people living too close to each other, resulting in fights.”

Sandy Springs’ police chief told the council 36 percent of the city’s crime, and 58 percent of its violent offenses, came from the 71 apartment complexes. Census figures show more than half of Sandy Springs’s housing units are “multi-unit.”

Former State Sen. Dan Weber, a leader in Dunwoody’s 2008 incorporation, wrote a letter to the editor before the 2011 election saying the aging apartment complexes had a “disproportionately high percentage” of the city’s gang activity, problems that bled over to local schools. He said 40 percent of the city’s population lives in apartments, adding that research shows property values decline if “a community reaches 50 percent apartments.”

About $19 million from the bond issue was to purchase and demolish the 519-unit Dunwoody Glen apartments and use the 42 acres for a sports complex. The 266-unit Lacota Apartments next door was to be razed and replaced with owner-occupied units.

“The most viable option for these projects seems to be in the minority areas; they often seem to be most expendable,” said Lyonel LaGrone, enforcement director of Metro Fair Housing Services, a non-profit that investigates housing discrimination compaints, but is not a party to the Dunwoody issue.

Wittenstein said Dunwoody’s first proposed boundaries did not include land where those apartments were, but he and others worked to bring them into the new city. The move was both idealistic and realistic, he said.

“We worked to be inclusive; that area had long been ignored by DeKalb,” he said. “We recognized there was a problem with those apartments. They needed to be livable.

“Part of it was a realization that crime doesn’t know boundaries,” Wittenstein said. “It’d be better for us to take responsibility for codes enforcement and police. We didn’t want the blight to spread to surrounding areas.”

Dunwoody officials said Dunwoody Glen has had 424 incidents requiring police reports since April 2009 and Lacota has had 340. Dunwoody Glen has had and 1,331 codes violations and Lacota 1,198.

Kathy Zickert, a zoning attorney who represents the apartment owners, said the city’s effort “is not hidden. They stand up at meetings and say ‘We want to get rid of apartments in the city.’ They’re using (the referendum and codes enforcement) as a tool to get rid of undesirables.

“It’s rare a politician will say, ‘Let’s get rid of the black people.’ You look for code language. You see it here.”

Dunwoody Homeowners Association president Stacey Harris has heard those arguments but doesn’t believe they were the goals of the city or its residents.

“No one ever said they were voting for the bonds to get rid of the apartments. It was, ‘Let’s get something of our own,’ ” she said in an interview from her car as she drove a carpool of kids to gymnastics class 10 miles north to Roswell. “If you have a son or daughter playing sports, you have to drive outside of Dunwoody.”

She said residents like Dunwoody’s “small-town feel,” adding that “parks add a lot to the quality of life.”

Gary Ray Betz, a 20-year resident, was originally for the parks effort but voted against the plan “when I saw they were running people off.”

Betz said he doesn’t know what was in city officials’ minds, so he can’t say chasing off the apartment dwellers was “an institutionalized effort.”

“But it was always my opinion that the city of Dunwoody was established in a wink-wink manner, that ‘We don’t want to share our money with the rest of the county, which was minorities.’ “

A visit to the complex one evening last week found the residents to be mostly Hispanic, with some African American. Interviews found residents working as a nurse, a call center operator, a grant writer, a social worker and a floor installer.

Dunwoody Glen residents were split on their allegiance to the property owners. They like the affordable rents but some complained the complex is slow to maintain broken amenities. (The lawsuit said the owners put $2.8 million in repairs after buying the complex in 2010 and $775,000 to install new windows.)

P. Kaye Gregory and her daughter, Sheremiah, a 10th grader at Dunwoody High, humped bags of garbage a couple blocks through the vast complex to the communal garbage containers.

“I moved her up from Stephenson High (in Stone Mountain) so she could go to Dunwoody; it’s a great location,” said Gregory.

She said that children roam unsupervised in the complex, many street lights don’t work and people have been mugged there. “But if you closed it, there would be a whole lot of families homeless in Dunwoody.”

Told of the lawsuit and the ensuing arguments, Maria Venegas smiled and said, “It’s all kind of rude, isn’t it? Where will all these people go.”

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