Atlanta ends longstanding Peoplestown housing, flooding dispute

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Atlanta’s mayor and City Council approved settlements this week to purchase the remaining three homes in the Peoplestown neighborhood that have been caught up in a yearslong legal saga with the city, effectively ending the complicated and emotional dispute that involved three different mayoral administrations.

The homes are the last remaining structures on a city block in the southeast Atlanta neighborhood that has experienced flooding over the years. The city is now set to own the entire block and move forward with building a sewer infrastructure project.

Back in 2014, then-Mayor Kasim Reed pushed for the city to use eminent domain to take dozens of homes on the block to build a flood prevention park. Several residents refused to take a deal and leave, spurring the city to sue them in 2016. A complicated and contentious legal dispute ensued.

Mayor Andre Dickens’ office said that he was able to negotiate the purchase of the three homes and settle the lawsuits against the city after personally meeting with the homeowners multiple times. Under the settlements, the city is set to pay about $1.98 million to resident Tanya Washington; $1.9 million to Robert and Bertha Darden; and $1.47 million to the estate of Mattie Jackson, who died in 2020 at age 98. She was known as the “Mayor of Summerhill,” and a matriarch in the community.

“From the very beginning, I have believed that we can treat these Atlanta families fairly while delivering this critically needed project to protect the larger community,” Dickens said in a statement. “I have spent this year listening to Peoplestown residents, working directly with the most-impacted families, and charting a course that will allow us to move forward in a way that is in line with our values and fulfills our obligation to alleviate the challenges that have plagued Peoplestown.”

A news release from the city included quotes from each of the three families expressing gratitude toward Dickens for working with them, despite having to leave their homes.

Credit: Phil Skinner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Phil Skinner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“My disappointment is curbed by the respect and integrity Mayor Dickens has shown in how he has dealt with us and this issue he inherited,” Washington said. “We hope our fight will inspire other communities to stand up for themselves and inspire responsible exercise of authority by those in power.”

The mayor’s office says the project will alleviate sewer overflows from the combined sewer system and stormwater flooding that have threatened public health and safety of residents in the Peoplestown neighborhood. It is also the linchpin of sewer infrastructure improvements for the broader Southeast Atlanta neighborhoods in the Custer Avenue sub-basin of the larger Intrenchment Creek Basin, according to the city.

The project is a critical component of Atlanta’s obligations under two federal consent decrees signed in 1998 and 1999 to upgrade sewer infrastructure and improve water quality.

Construction is targeted to begin in 2023.

The city is planning to use money from its Water & Wastewater Revenue Fund, unallocated Citywide Employee Expenses fund, Litigation Expenses account, and Human Resources account to provide payments to the three families and the Evans Law Firm, which represented the residents, according to the council’s resolution.

Dickens said when he was running for mayor that he hoped to find a way to keep the residents in their homes, while addressing the flooding.

Earlier this summer, though, Dickens said the remaining homes were still at risk of flooding and that he wanted the city to buy the homes at a fair market value to build an underground stormwater vault covered by a water retention garden and pond.

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

The council voted in June to approve a settlement to purchase one of the remaining Peoplestown homes, while the mayor’s office continued to negotiate the remaining three.

The Peoplestown issue became an unexpected flashpoint in last year’s mayoral election, when Bertha Darden criticized Reed over his handling of the situation at a public candidate forum. A video of Darden’s remarks quickly spread online.

The day before the Nov. 2 general election, Reed proposed a $1.75 million settlement to be split between three of the families. The homeowners, and the City Council, rejected that proposal.