Asbestos delays Forest Cove tear-down

A family living in the Forest Cove Apartments walks to their home from the children's bus stop in August 2022. Atlanta completed the relocation of the condemned complex's residents in October of that year. (Arvin Temkar/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

A family living in the Forest Cove Apartments walks to their home from the children's bus stop in August 2022. Atlanta completed the relocation of the condemned complex's residents in October of that year. (Arvin Temkar/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

The city of Atlanta is delaying plans to demolish the vacant Forest Cove apartment complex, citing an environmental assessment that revealed asbestos in all 396 units, a top advisor for Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said this week.

Initially, the city planned to begin razing the 22-acre site by April, according to Atlanta Civic Circle, which first reported the delay. The work will now take longer than expected as the city remediates the site in southeast Atlanta because of the risks associated with tearing down buildings and releasing cancer-causing fibers and particles into the air.

The mayor’s chief policy officer and senior advisor Courtney English told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the city is on course to begin work in the next six weeks and would start by demolishing burnt-out buildings that resulted from several fires at the complex in the last year. But he said it could be late summer before the demolition is complete.

The city is providing ongoing support services to former Forest Cove residents and would be “guided by the law and medical professionals,” English said. “We’re always ready and willing to help, with the caveat that we want to make sure that the folks that put them in this position are ultimately held accountable.”

Previously, English said it could cost as much as $2 million to raze the site to make way for new development. He estimates the asbestos clean-up could add upwards of $270,000 to the final bill.

The AJC’s investigative series “Dangerous Dwellings” revealed perilous conditions at Forest Cove and hundreds of other apartment complexes after years of neglect.

Latresa Chaney, a former Forest Cove resident and tenant organizer, said the discovery of asbestos just confirmed what she already knew about the unsafe conditions at the complex. She remembers finding it hard to breathe when she lived at Forest Cove because of mold in her unit, and said her son struggled with respiratory illness.

“We got generations of families over there just breathing in toxins and living in deplorable conditions,” she said.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, asbestos can be found in building materials, such as wall insulation, vinyl floor tiles and sheet flooring, roofing, siding, and pipes. Until the 1970s, asbestos was commonly used in building products and insulation materials, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Breathing in the fibers may cause lung disease and the rare but aggressive cancer, mesothelioma, although it may be many years after exposure when people are sickened, according to the EPA.

It’s not clear how the findings will impact former Forest Cove residents, or the city’s proposed lawsuit against Millennia Housing Management.

Last households at Forest Cove Apartments move out as city works to restore complex

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Millennia, which owned the Section 8 complex through an entity called Phoenix Ridge and says it owns more than 30,000 apartment units nationwide, has received federal subsidies from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Tenants living at the company’s properties in other states, including Mississippi and Arkansas, have complained of deplorable living conditions. In December, HUD threatened to end all Section 8 contracts with Millennia. The agency put on hold the company’s ability to renew existing agreements or enter into new ones, according to Atlanta Civic Circle.

HUD spokeswoman Shannon S. Watkins noted Forest Cove was built in 1974, at a time when asbestos was readily used in building materials. The last HUD inspection of the complex was in 2018, she added, but the agency does not test for asbestos because it is not considered dangerous unless disturbed during rehab, renovation or demolition.

“If the owner had moved forward with its proposed redevelopment plan for the property, the owner would have had to provide a mitigation/abatement plan for asbestos and any other hazardous conditions,” Watkins wrote in an email.

Phoenix Ridge assumed ownership of the complex in 2021. In a statement, the company accused the city of justifying its “inaction on Forest Cove with fabricated delays and falsehoods.”

“The city has been well aware of the presence of asbestos in the Forest Cove Apartments, as plans and proposals put forth by Phoenix Ridge and approved by the city for the $58 million renovation of the property included abatement of the asbestos,” the statement said.

This past October, Phoenix Ridge filed a lawsuit against the city seeking damages and alleging the city upended its plans to rehab the complex after Atlanta Municipal Court Judge Christopher T. Portis ordered it condemned in late 2021. Dickens evacuated the complex in 2022.

The complaint filed in the federal court in Atlanta suggests there is plenty of blame to go around with Forest Cove “having been allowed to deteriorate for years under the watch of the City of Atlanta and HUD.” Phoenix Ridge claims the city breached an agreement to let the company rehab the property after obtaining a demolition order.

“The city is also aware that had it not breached its agreement with Phoenix Ridge, resulting in the current lawsuit against the city, all rightful residents would be living today in transformed and safe housing, instead of being dispersed across the metro Atlanta area in temporary homes,” the company said in its statement.

Shortly after Phoenix Ridge filed the complaint, Dickens enlisted civil rights lawyer Ben Crump to take legal action against the Forest Cove owner on behalf of residents. English said that the city has made Crump aware of the environmental assessment.

In an AJC editorial board meeting last month, Dickens said he expects the city to file a lawsuit later this year.

Crump’s website is asking Forest Cove residents to join the proposed class action, pointing to terrible conditions at the complex, including, rodent and roach infestations and violent crime. The lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

Laura Colbert, executive director of the health advocacy group Georgians for a Healthy Future, said the city’s findings did not surprise her because asbestos was used in building materials around the time Forest Cove was constructed.

All the same, she said it is important that city officials and affordable housing developers do not repeat the same mistakes.

“We should keep our focus on the folks who used to reside at Forest Cove and ensure that if they are not already in long-term healthy affordable units, that that be a priority,” she said.