Free housing available for some Atlanta police officers

Police officers Jaime and Kevin Wallace have a newly-renovated two-story house and it will cost them nothing to live there.

The appliances and cabinets in the kitchen are new. The walls are painted in designer colors. And the hardwood floors have just been refinished.

The house smells new.

But across the street is a house with boarded windows, an apartment building also with boarded windows and then another house with plywood over the windows and doors. Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway, once notoriously known as Bankhead Highway and a landmark for crime and drug sales, is only a few yards away. And two blocks in the other direction is Neal Street and the house where police shot a 92-year-old woman during a botched drug raid five years ago.

The couple and their children -- three in college and one in high school -- are moving from Mableton to one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Atlanta

"I refuse to be scared anywhere I go in Atlanta," said APD officer Jaime Wallace, who is assigned the the adjoining Zone 1.  "I'm not scared at all. This is the city my husband and I have sworn to protect."

The Wallaces -- Kevin Wallace is on the Georgia State University police force -- were the 61st family to get a house either rent-free or subsidized through an Atlanta Police Foundation program. There could be two more by year's end.

In the Wallaces' case the Lindsay Street Baptist Church bought the house -- which was vacant except for the drug users and homeless who squatted there -- for about $35,000. The church, which is on a corner next to the house, still owns it and will not charge the Wallaces to live there.

And the non-profit Friends of English Avenue spent about $40,000 renovating it, including removing tons of debris, according to John Gordon who runs the organization.

On top of that, the Police Foundation will give the Wallaces a $1,000 relocation bonus to help with moving costs. In some areas, businesses or business groups will match or double the foundation's bonus to police officers moving back into the city; 1,224 out of about 1,900 live outside Atlanta's limits.

Moving officers into houses, condominiums and apartments in the city is one of the focuses of the Police Foundation, a non-profit with a $3 million budget that provides support to APD with hiring and retention programs and fund raising for efforts like Crime Stoppers. The foundation acts as a middle man of sorts, recruiting developers, landlords, churches and businesses to provide  housing and funds for renovations and moving costs.

This is a strategy cities nationwide have used in efforts to make certain areas safer. Detroit, for example, began Project 14 earlier this year, offering police officers houses in the city for as little as $1,000. Santa Fe and Dallas also have incentive housing programs for police officers in an effort to make certain neighborhoods safer just by their presence.

In the case of the Wallaces, Jaime Wallace will park a patrol car, assigned to her, at her house in the English Avenue Community every day after her shift ends.

Dave Wilkinson, president of the Atlanta Police Foundation, said the patrol car and the sight of uniformed officers coming and going from the three-bedroom house may deter crime.

The Wallaces don't think their house will be targeted by the criminal element that does business on the street corners or the folks hanging out Wednesday at the vacant house next door.

Before work began to accommodate the Wallace's, the house had been stripped of copper, there were needles all over and the front door often stood open.  On her first visit there, Jaime Wallace was afraid to go upstairs and sent her husband in her place.

"It didn't look like this," Jaime Wallace said of the renovated house on Wednesday -- burglar bars and all -- after cutting a ribbon with hedge clippers for the benefit of the cameras. "I'm overwhelmed."