Atlanta schools, families brace for disruption amid housing renovation

For years, Forest Cove residents have lived in run-down apartments, struggling with mold and heaps of trash at the subsidized housing complex in southeast Atlanta.

Now there’s a pending property sale and plans for a $51 million renovation, but the much-needed upgrades will force hundreds of low-income tenants to move out while the work takes place.

At stake are the futures of about 860 residents of Forest Cove apartments and the intertwined survival of Thomasville Heights Elementary School, whose enrollment could nosedive during the proposed two-year construction project. Student stability is a critical issue for schools, since transiency can set children back academically.

“We’re on the precipice of this title and property ownership change… as well as a major renovation of that property—all good things,” said Frank Fernandez, CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. “However to do that, it entails relocating people temporarily and that is a huge concern to a lot of people.”

The foundation is working with the property manager and developer, school leaders, nonprofits and others to plan for the relocation of residents and their eventual return.

The task is enormous.

It means finding new places for already vulnerable families to live while construction occurs, ensuring their children’s education is not disrupted and that they receive social services, and making sure tenants come back when the work is done.

Add to that a pandemic and an uncertain timeline that hinges on when The Millennia Companies, the prospective developer, finalizes its purchase of the property.

Millennia has managed Forest Cove since 2018 and plans to buy the 396-unit complex from Global Ministries Foundation for an undisclosed price. The purchase is contingent on various federal approvals. Millennia officials said the renovation won’t start until the sale is final.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Conditions at Forest Cove have worsened during the six years Lolita Evans has lived there.

She’s battled mold in her bathroom and had to board up a broken window. Outside, the grass grew so high residents cut it themselves, and trash piled up, she said.

Rumors have swirled that she and her neighbors would be required to move out, but Evans said there’s confusion about what the plan entails.

“I’m thinking it might happen at any time. I just don’t know,” she said. “I would love to see the renovation happen if you can find me a safer and better place to stay… until it’s done.”

Evans has three children who attend Thomasville Heights and one who goes to Price Middle School. She wants her children to stay at those schools, where she said students and parents receive extra support.

“I would like them to finish their time; they had a good experience there,” she said. “I really don’t want them to leave there.”

About three quarters of Thomasville Heights’ 308 students live at Forest Cove. The elementary school feeds into Price Middle School, where about 30% of students live at the complex. At Carver STEAM Academy, nearly a tenth of the high school’s students come from Forest Cove.

Purpose Built Schools Atlanta runs the three schools in exchange for per-pupil funding from Atlanta Public Schools.

The district hired the nonprofit in 2016 as part of a bold and controversial strategy to turn around its lowest-performing schools. The idea is that Purpose Built, which 20 years ago launched the Drew Charter School, can improve student learning by operating with more flexibility than traditional schools.

It’s unknown how many families, once they vacate Forest Cove, will continue to send their children to the same schools.

Retaining them would likely require money to bus students from their temporary homes, where families are expected to live for eight to 18 months. If enrollment dips, more funds may be needed to sustain the schools during the relocation period.

Research has shown that students fall behind and are less likely to graduate on time when they switch schools.

“It is our highest priority to keep Thomasville Heights and Price and Carver open during the redevelopment process at Forest Cove,” said Greg Giornelli, CEO of Purpose Built Schools. “What we are trying to do is maintain continuity and stability in the educational lives of students, and if we can’t figure out how to keep the schools open… there’s guaranteed to be more learning loss.”

APS said it is committed to supporting the schools during the relocation but doesn’t yet know what that might cost.

Millennia is working with partner agencies to identify places for tenants to move. The company would pay for the relocation costs.

Fernandez said the focus is on finding sites as close as possible to the schools. They’re also trying to cluster families near each other.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

A top priority is to make sure the families forced to leave are the ones who move back into the renovated units. Legal protections exist to give tenants the right to return, but the concern persists that some won’t.

Other metro Atlanta public housing projects have uprooted and displaced families, said Monique Nunnally. She leads the education committee for a neighborhood planning unit and has served on Carver’s school governance team.

“You see Forest Cove drowning, and we are just going to watch it drown?” she said. “We need the power players to step in and say, ‘We won’t lose this community like we have the others. This won’t be that moment where these families never ever get to be a part of the success of the future.”

Millennia, which owns and manages more than 275 housing communities in 26 states, initially considered shifting residents within Forest Cove while the renovation occurred. But they ultimately decided it was more efficient and safer to move everyone off-site.

Upon reopening, all units will remain subsidized, said Millennia spokeswoman Valerie Jerome. She said they’re working with partners to ensure relocated residents return.

The $51 million renovation plan is intended to transform the property. Drywall will be removed. Kitchens and bathrooms will be redone. Heating, cooling and electrical upgrades are planned, as well as siding repairs and new roofs, playgrounds and community spaces.

“It is the largest construction project we’ve taken on, and it’s one of the most important projects going on in the nation from our perspective,” said Arthur Krauer, Millennia’s director of public policy and community relations.

If the relocation plan doesn’t go well, if families scatter and never return, it will be a “huge, wasted opportunity,” Fernandez said.

“In both and good and bad ways, the most important and influential and impactful issue or place in Thomasville Heights is really Forest Cove,” he said.

Forest Cove apartments

Years built: 1973-1974

Number of units: 396

Occupied units: 253

Number of residents: 860

Renovation cost: $51 million

Schools by the numbers

Thomasville Heights Elementary School

Enrollment: 308

Students who live at Forest Cove: 229

Price Middle School

Enrollment: 398

Students who live at Forest Cove: 116

Carver STEAM Academy

Enrollment: 439

Students who live at Forest Cove: 41