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Tenants ordered to leave one of Buckhead's last low-rent complexes

Hundreds of residents in a south Buckhead apartment complex who recently learned they have 60 days to leave due to upcoming renovations are scrambling to find new places to live.

For residents of The Darlington Apartments, who pay some of the lowest rents in one of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the country, this means many or all of them will be forced not just out of their homes, but out of the neighborhood as well. 

The cross-shaped brick building was built for $800,000 in 1951 as the first high-rise in Atlanta after World War II. It is most widely known for its metro Atlanta population sign on Peachtree Road, but has quietly become one of the few apartment buildings in the area affordable for low-income residents.

In 2015, real estate services giant JLL marketed The Darlington and its nearly 7.5 acres of land as prime for investors, with the potential to rehab the building to seek higher rents. Last year the 612-unit complex was sold for $30 million to Atlanta-based Varden Capital Properties, which was founded in 2011 “with the objective of acquiring undervalued real estate, repositioning the asset and creating positive returns for its investors,” its website says.

The company declined to comment despite initially agreeing to an interview.

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In this March 16, 1965 file photo, Mayor Ivan Allen Jr.shows (or rather tries to show) Scott Silvis, 16 months, the new electric sign at the Darlington Apartments, 2025 Peachtree Road, that shows a running count of Atlanta's population.   (Charles Pugh/AJC staff)

Monthly rents at The Darlington today range from $600 to $1,200, a resident said. At the Brookwood Valley apartments next door, a 555-square-foot one-bedroom is $970; a two-bedroom goes for $1,441. Further north, the Alexan Buckhead Village offers a one-bedroom for $1,790 and a two-bedroom plus den — a floorplan called the “Veuve Cliquot” — for $3,015.

“I’ve clearly been priced out,” said Je’ Wesley Day, a tenant who makes a living as a cocktail journalist. Most of the building’s tenants are African-American, veterans, elderly or sick, he said, and many benefit from the proximity to Piedmont Hospital down the street.

During his three years at The Darlington, he has experienced run-ins with management and break-ins to his car and apartment, he said. Despite feeling unsafe, Day said he stayed because of the affordability. 

When tenants were given notice to leave, they were also provided with a list of low-income properties to assist in their search, which included places such as Wheat Street Towers on Auburn Avenue and Maggie Russel Tower Apartments on Ralph McGill Boulevard. Day said many of the places were either in crime-ridden neighborhoods, too expensive or unavailable. 

The Mayor's Office declined to comment, but a spokeswoman confirmed that the Office of Constituent Services is looking into what, if any, assistance can be offered to displaced residents. 

The Darlington Apartments on Sept. 5, 2018. (BECCA J. G. GODWIN/AJC )

One morning this week, a reporter from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution observed many windows flung open in the summer heat, some held open with fans. Residents have complained that the building’s air conditioning hasn’t been working after they were given the Aug. 16 notices to vacate, making it hard even to sleep at night.

Nathan Duffey, who’d said he’d witnessed the building decline over his six years at The Darlington, found a new apartment at Morgan Place in DeKalb County. 

“Rent will be more than I’m paying now, but I can never do this again,” Duffey said, referring to his living conditions.

The freight elevator, transportation crucial for a mass of people needing to move, has been broken for three years, Duffey said. On the 10th floor, a microwave, desk and other abandoned possessions lay at the perpetually closed elevator doors. 

The Darlington Apartments (BECCA J. G. GODWIN)

On most of the 15 floors, smelly trash chutes overflowed. Ceiling tiles were missing and buckets caught drips in quiet, dimly-lit hallways. The pool out back was closed and half-filled with green water, a far cry from many years ago when tenants said bikini-clad women would gather around. 

One wall featured graffiti with an expletive about the building. On another, a flyer advertising a reward for up to $10,000 for arson tips was posted. (Atlanta firefighters went to the building in response to small fires twice last month; one is still an open investigation.)

Atlanta police have received 200 calls and initiated 54 directed patrols or drop-ins to the apartments for various issues this year, officials said. 

The Darlington Apartments on Sept. 5, 2018. (BECCA J. G. GODWIN)

Yet some of the apartment windows offer the kind of Buckhead skyline view — shiny buildings towering above a sea of green treetops — that people have come to pay top dollar for. 

It’s not just residents that must leave. A few retail shops on the bottom floor have also been given the boot. 

Colombian-born designer Joseph Plata has run a fashion studio out of The Darlington since 1996.

“It was better in the beginning because it wasn’t in such a bad state,” he said. “The building has been on a decline, so it’s time to go.”

The mandate to leave is a nerve-wracking inconvenience, he said, because retail rates in Atlanta have gotten so high. If they can’t find a suitable place in time, they’ll have to temporarily work out of their homes. But he’s also excited and optimistic about the future.

Plata and his two full-time employees have gotten to know the tenants over the years. They’d throw birthday parties for the elderly, set up meals on holidays and let young students use their iron.

One of Plata’s employees said working out of The Darlington has made the small crew “better people” — more understanding and empathetic. She looked out the storefront at a man who often acts erratically, though she believes him to be harmless.

“I wonder what’s going to happen to him?” she asked. 

“He’ll go somewhere,” Plata answered. 

“It’s going to be a big shock to him,” the woman said. 

The view from an apartment at The Darlington in south Buckhead on Sept. 5, 2018. (BECCA J. G. GODWIN)

In its almost seven-decade history, The Darlington has changed ownership and undergone multiple renovations. Yet it has been riddled with issues for decades. 

In 1984, the complex was sued over claims minorities weren’t allowed to live above the 11th floor. In 1994 and 2017, outraged tenants made headlines by complaining of no hot water in the units. And in 2016, a decomposing body was found by police who were called there about a separate dead body. (Police said both died of natural causes.)

Through it all, Atlantans and visitors passing by have taken note of the population sign that guards the complex. On Wednesday morning, the sign read 6,760,017; constantly climbing, it had increased by 26 a couple hours later. 

The sign, of course, won’t make any note of the exodus of tenants who must be gone by Oct. 16. Hundreds of people who could once afford to live in Buckhead, though, will no longer be able to make that claim. 

The population sign in front of The Darlington Apartments on Sept. 5, 2018. (BECCA J. G. GODWIN)

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