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Hopeful signs in blighted Atlanta neighborhood

This house, on Simmons Street in Atlanta, is one of the properties owned by Rick Warren’s company R City.
This house, on Simmons Street in Atlanta, is one of the properties owned by Rick Warren’s company R City.

Anti-blight, renewal efforts lead to incremental change.

When a dog died inside a vacant house on D’Alvigney Street more than one year ago, the smell of rot seeped out its busted back door into what was then the neighborhood’s only playground.

Investors had blighted Atlanta’s English Avenue community for years without consequences, and the man who maintained this house seemed to be no different. He wouldn’t send workers to clear the carcass away, and he wouldn’t fix the house.

The bungalow is still crumbling, but Rick Warren, the white Buckhead real estate speculator who ran this and some 150 other properties in and around the historically black neighborhood, has been sentenced to jail for housing code violations. The city spent one year citing and prosecuting him after an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation, and residents are now seeing small signs that give them hope that renewal may be on the way.

Blocks of boarded-up houses still pockmark the neighborhood, but some of the worst have been torn down, and dealers have stopped selling drugs openly on some of Atlanta's most notorious corners.

“We do sense that there is momentum, there is movement towards making positive things happen,” said Rev. Howard Beckham of Integrity Transformations Community Development Corporation, which runs employment programs for residents. “But it’s not going to happen overnight.”

These changes came about through efforts by residents, nonprofits, academics, Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration, federal law enforcement, business leaders and others that began years before Warren became the face of the city’s blight problem. If they result in the revival of English Avenue, then they will have accomplished something that has seemed impossible for decades.

Loud and clear

The Reed administration used the Warren case to send a message.

“That was one of our strategies — to make sure the message is loud and clear that in this administration, blight is not tolerated in our community,” said mayoral aide Michael Sterling, who was assigned by Reed to tackle Warren’s blighted homes.

Residents worried it was all a show. In the early 1990s, city leaders promised to revive the neighborhoods of Vine City and English Avenue with the construction of the nearby Georgia Dome. More recently, they promised funding, jobs and services with the construction of the new $1 billion Falcons stadium, but when neighborhood activists lost their battle to make the plan legally binding, it deepened suspicions that their needs would be ignored.

Early impacts of the plan and other efforts have eased some of their worries. Since the beginning of Reed’s administration, the code enforcement budget has increased threefold from $664,000 to $2.2 million. Jail inmates have cleaned or boarded up 115 blighted properties, according to city figures.

This year, a multi-agency operation spearheaded by Atlanta's U.S. Attorney's Office reduced the number of dealers selling drugs openly on neighborhood street corners, residents said. It also demolished 13 properties. Locals said law enforcement officers earned their trust by soliciting their help and offering jobs and rehab services to minor offenders.

"Is all the drug dealing gone? No. Has the white buying traffic ceased? No. Have drug addiction challenges ceased? No," said Mamie Moore, president of the English Avenue Neighborhood Association. "Has the community taken on the responsibility to take charge of turning our community around in the light of these realities? Yes."

Lifelong resident Lloyd Foster said that unlike any other English Avenue renewal project, this one has changed his life. Because of job training at Westside Works, a program launched by the foundation of Falcons owner Arthur Blank, non-profits and the city, he found work manning a gate at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium construction site.

The efforts to improve English Avenue made his block a better place to live, he said. For years, every house but his was empty. Recently, a married couple moved into a long-vacant house two doors down.

“I feel like we’ll have a beautiful neighborhood,” Foster said.

Buying and bluffing

The city's pilot anti-blight project, which forecloses on deteriorating properties if owners fail to bring them up to code, shows why that beautiful neighborhood may be more than a decade away. It cannot complete proceedings on 16 targeted properties until Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand receives $40,000 from county commissioners to fund its portion of the foreclosure work, he said.

Ferdinand and the city have yet to agree on what to do with the properties once they’re auctioned off on the courthouse steps. Bidders are unlikely because most of the properties are saddled with back taxes and other debts that are valued at far more than the houses are worth.

“Nothing is easy when it comes to taking peoples’ properties, whether it’s blighted or not,” Ferdinand said.

Real estate speculators may make the city’s job tougher. A battered house on Joseph E Boone Boulevard changed hands three times after it entered the program in late 2014. Its current owners promised to demolish it, city spokeswoman Anne Torres said, but for now, it remains one of more than a dozen blighted properties on the street.

After the city started proceedings on the house next door, workers tore out its siding, walls, doors and fixtures as part of the demolition process. Homeless people now sleep inside its skeletal remains, neighbors said.

Investors still seem unwilling to spend enough money to make long-lasting repairs, said Michael Tuggle, a small contractor who said his family has lived in the area for decades.

“People are buying, but they’re bluffing,” he said. “They want cheaper work, cheaper labor.”

Residents wonder whether any of the programs launched in English Avenue will lead to long-term fixes. Over the past 20 years, local nonprofits spent federal redevelopment money on failed apartment complexes and other projects. Eight years ago, residents catalogued broken street lights to advocate for repairs as part of the federal Weed and Seed program, but the effort died when funding dried up.

The streetlights were only fixed this summer. The blight may remain, residents said, but it’s some comfort that at night, they can finally see it.

"Just to have lights is powerful," said resident State Rep. Mable Thomas. "People do things in darkness that they won't do in the light."