Forest Cove demolition would force low-income Atlanta residents to find new housing

City officials argue the complex is a blight on the community
Forest Cove resident Lolita Evans is seen in the kitchen of her apartment Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. (Daniel Varnado/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Combined ShapeCaption
Forest Cove resident Lolita Evans is seen in the kitchen of her apartment Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. (Daniel Varnado/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Lolita Evans has endured mold, broken windows and sewage leaks in her Atlanta apartment because it was all she could afford, and her children adored their neighborhood schools.

But now Evans is employed, and her oldest of four will begin high school next year. The property managers at Forest Cove Apartments want to relocate the family and other residents for housing repairs, but a municipal court judge’s order to demolish the complex has jeopardized that plan.

The demolition order could displace about 212 low-income residents, whose rent is anchored at 30% of the head of household’s income through the federal Section 8 program. It comes at a time when the city is struggling to find more affordable housing.

But city officials argue the demolition will remove a hot-spot for crime that has become a blight on the Southeast Atlanta community.

The Millennia Companies, which acquired the property in April 2021 but has managed it since 2017, has appealed the ruling.

“I haven’t heard anything from anybody,” said Evans, 39. “I went to the rent office and asked them what’s up with the moving process, and he kind of covered his face with some paper.”

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

For Forest Cove residents living through decades of squalor, the Thomasville Heights community was cautiously hopeful when a new owner vowed to address the neglect. But just as the company began investing in the property, the city filed a lawsuit to raze the complex.

The city alleged that, since 2017, the complex has piled up at least 231 code violations —including fire damage, rodent infestations, and holes in the buildings, according to the 89-page ruling.

The lawsuit also alleged the property is a breeding ground for crime.

Between 2020 and August, Atlanta police received more than 650 calls for domestic violence, burglary, robbery, and homicide at the property, the lawsuit says.

They shoot every night,” said Evans, who’s lived there for seven years. “I’m glad they want to tear this down because it’s very much needed, but I wish they would help people more than they’re doing.”

Valerie Jerome, a spokeswoman for Millennia Companies, said in a statement the company still wants to rehabilitate Forest Cove after investing $13.7 million into the property since acquiring it.

“Currently, Millennia is focused on the relocation of residents and the execution of a development plan that will bring residents back to a newly transformed community, which will serve as a beacon of hope for the community at large,” the statement said.

‘This is a mess’

About 860 residents once lived at Forest Cove, a 396-unit complex.

The previous owner, Global Ministries Foundation, defaulted on their agreement to receive federal funding by failing to fix the complex’s unsanitary conditions.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) pressured the owner into selling its entire portfolio after lawyers, apartment managers and federal officials discovered unsafe conditions at the foundation’s other low-income properties.

A HUD spokesperson declined to comment because of the litigation.

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Phoenix Ridge, a subsidiary company of the Cleveland-based Millennia, became Forest Cove’s new managers when the property was purchased in April. The city filed suit in October.

Police officers, code enforcement, and then-City Councilwoman Carla Smith testified Millennia was responsible for the property’s crime and conditions since the company began managing the property in 2017, court documents show.

Millennia officials testified the total cost of the renovations is $59.4 million — which is $19.4 million more than property’s current value, documents show. The officials also said they’ve been working on relocating residents since spring 2021, and that demolishing the properties would put their housing voucher eligibility at risk.

Judge Christopher Portis ruled Dec. 27 that he can’t allow residents to continue living in harmful conditions. He ordered the relocation of the remaining residents by March, demolition beginning by April 15, and its completion by Sept. 12, records show.

“Quite frankly, the order coming down right in December was kind of a shock to everybody,” said Jason Winston, the new City Councilmember representing the area.

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Winston said Millennia was planning to spend $9 million to relocate residents, and he’s worried the court order will put everything — and everyone — in limbo. He said he’s already speaking with Mayor Andre Dickens and Atlanta housing officials to ensure the city can help Forest Cove residents if Millennia fails to do so.

“We are monitoring the situation at Forest Cove and assessing how the City can assist the affected families and surrounding community,” a spokesman for Dickens said in a statement.

Concerns about Millennia’s ability to relocate residents stems from the court order jeopardizing the company’s access to housing tax credits from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. Millennia in 2018 applied for that financial support to greenlight the Forest Cove purchase and renovations.

But last month, a DCA director rejected Millennia’s application due to the demolition order, according to emails obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Credit: The Millennia Companies handout

Credit: The Millennia Companies handout

The emails show Millenia officials pleading for the state to accept their proposal.

DCA spokesman Adrion Bell said that due to the demand for land, Millennia must participate in a new construction bid if Forest Cove is demolished.

But Felicia Morris, a 62-year-old Forest Cove resident of 29 years, said she’s lost trust in everyone who’s repeatedly promised to revive their homes.

“Enough is enough. This is a mess,” she said.

Michael Lucas, executive director of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, said he welcomes the accountability brought by the court. However, he said Atlanta can’t lose affordable housing when it’s desperately needed.

“Previous administrations bear plenty of the responsibility for letting it get this bad,” Lucas said. “If the powers that be wanted to salvage this, I assume they could. It’s a real opportunity to bake in more local accountability for the future of the development.”

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Our reporting:

Forest Cove Apartments have been the subject of numerous articles in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, including a 2018 investigation which revealed state and local governments lacked authority to address mold issues in rental units.

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