Sherrod Jefferson installs a motion-activated floodlight in December on an Atlanta home he bought to remodel and resell. (Elijah Nouvelage/Special to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The most-dramatic surge in Atlanta home prices? South of I-20

Atlanta home prices keep climbing steadily. But just south of I-20, they have skyrocketed.

Prices have more than doubled in the past three years in several south Atlanta neighborhoods. Oakland City, up 146%. Pittsburgh, up 275%. Chosewood Park, up 348%.

The areas are changing, even starting to gentrify, as more people look for affordable places to live in the city. That has pushed house prices higher as investors and prospective buyers pour into parts of the city that had been economically depressed for decades.

Like Elizabeth Russell, a 25-year-old software code writer who house hunted with her construction worker boyfriend. After renting in pricey Virginia-Highland, they recently bought a $225,000 four-bedroom house in Venetian Hills that was built in the 1940s and renovated a few years ago.

“Southwest Atlanta is probably the most affordable area close to the city,” she said. “We are just 15 minutes from downtown.”

The median house price in Venetian Hills has soared 277% to $147,000 in three years, according to Redfin, a national real estate brokerage. That’s still far below the median home price in metro Atlanta, which crossed $250,000 this year.

Elizabeth Russell in her home in the Venetian Hills community of Southwest Atlanta in October. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In the 1970s the flow of home buyers - especially first-timers – in metro Atlanta surged north. First to suburbs like Dunwoody, then, as prices kept rising, to Roswell or Alpharetta, then even farther to Forsyth or Cherokee counties.

The decades-long migration made the city less white and the northern suburbs both whiter and more affluent.

With a few exceptions – Grant Park, for example – city neighborhoods south of downtown saw jobs disappear while home values stagnated or dropped. Then came the housing crash and the Great Recession, which throttled sales all over, triggering thousands of foreclosures and decimating home values.

The trend largely reversed as the region emerged from recession. Hiring picked up in the city, especially in tech, drawing thousands of young professionals who didn’t want a long commute from the northern suburbs.

But many can’t afford a house north of downtown, where median prices in some neighborhoods top $500,000 and even $1 million, so the flow has continued southward in search of increasingly elusive affordability. In Oakland City, more than 75% of listings are still below $300,000. In Pittsburgh, it’s 90%, according to a Redfin analysis.

Another magnet is the Atlanta Beltline, a 22-mile walking and biking corridor that is only partly built but eventually will wrap around much of south Atlanta. One already paved segment passes between the Adair Park and Oakland City neighborhoods. Three MARTA stations serve the area, which is marbled with bus routes.

Eugene James, Atlanta-based regional director for Metrostudy (photo contributed)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

That is also reshaping racial demographics as more affluent people, many of them white, buy homes in neighborhoods that have been mainly African American for decades.

“I see it,” said Eugene James, Atlanta-based regional director for Metrostudy, a housing data company. “When I drive the areas that have been predominantly black and I see white mothers pushing baby strollers.”

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The rise of south Atlanta’s real estate prices began in the pain of the housing crash as thousands of residents lost homes to foreclosures. Investors – some with deep pockets – often snapped them up. Some wanted the cash flow of renting them out, and many were ready to sell as prices slowly rose.

Then came “flippers,” buyers looking for a relatively quick profit. Some spent money on renovations, adding to the property’s value and attractiveness.

Kim Wachtel, real estate broker, outside of her newly purchased investment property in the Cascade Road community of Southwest Atlanta in October. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Kim Wachtel, an associate with Re/Max Around Atlanta Realty, paid $189,000 this fall for a 1,330-square-foot, 81-year-old house on Orlando Street in Cascade Road, just north of Venetian Hills. She bought it from an investor who paid $170,000 less than a year before. Wachtel is no flipper; she hopes to rent it for more than $1,500 a month.

Standing on the home’s front steps in a light drizzle on a recent morning, she noted she’s not the only investor on the street.

“There’s your indicator,” she said, pointing at a dumpster in front of a home a few hundred yards away. “That is the sign of a remodel.”

Sharrod Jefferson, a property manager, has purchased four homes in the past few years in the south and west of the city, including the Westwood house that he and his family lives in. It’s clear, he said, that these neighborhoods are good investments after decades of neglect.

“I think there’s a stigma about these areas. But not with me, because I am not from here,” said Jefferson, who grew up in Dallas.

Sherrod Jefferson in front of a home he bought to remodel and resell in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage/Special to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

For longtime residents, the results can be mixed: the possibility of a generous payback when an old house is sold, but also the pressure of rising property taxes that can force someone to sell and move before they want.

Along with other changes in the area: more young people, fewer transients or gang members, more retail options, including coffee shops or bars. More whites, fewer African Americans.

In 2010, whites made up 3.3% of the Pittsburgh neighborhood. By 2017, they made up 8.8%. In Chosewood Park, whites made up 16% of the population in 2010 and 20% in 2017, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission.

With new residents, come new venues. On Lee Street in the West End, for instance, Monday Night Garage offers tap rooms and facilities for weddings and parties in a sprawling property that hugs the Beltline.

Other large developments are taking hold. To the south of Venetian Hills is Fort McPherson, home to Tyler Perry’s sprawling studio complex, which has spawned nearby apartment construction. In Pittsburgh, between Adair Park and the Connector to the east, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and two developers have started work on a 31-acre development aimed at offering shops, homes and up to 1,000 jobs.

Kim Wachtel, real estate broker, in her newly purchased investment property in October as she talks about her hopes for the Cascade Road community’s growth in Southwest Atlanta. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Some longtime residents see mostly upsides to the rejuvenated market.

“So many houses were empty, or were maybe short-term rentals,” said Paul McMurray, who has lived in Chosewood Park for three decades. “Many of them were just unlivable.”

It’s true that taxes have risen the past few years along with values, he said. “But for four or five years, I was paying $50 a year. That’s how bad it was.”

He pays about $750 a year now, roughly what he paid in 2008.

But Ericka Nichols, a Redfin listing agent who does a lot business in south Atlanta, says pressure is growing. Older residents can apply for tax exemptions, but they are not always enough. “A lot of people do feel like they are being forced out of these areas,” said Nichols, who grew up near Oakland City before moving away.

Development in many of the neighborhoods remains uneven. Houses are still boarded up on some streets. Retail options are often limited. Some of the schools have historically struggled.

But in a good sign, home values and crime appear to be moving in opposite directions, according to Atlanta Police Department statistics. Over the past decade, the annual number of reported crimes fell from 588 to 278 in Pittsburgh and from 286 to 194 in Venetian Hills.

Sherrod Jefferson installs recessed LED lighting on a home he bought to remodel and resell in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage/Special to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Some prospective home buyers already worry fast-rising prices in south Atlanta could put their dream house out of reach. In some neighborhoods, prices are threatening to top $300,000, such as Westview, where the most recent median sales price was $290,000.

Amanda Etheridge Ray, a 31-year-old camera assistant in the film industry, has been renting for five years in Grant Park. Recently married, she and her husband are now looking to buy a house farther south that they can afford.

“I’d be open to going out of town,” she said. “My husband, not so much. It takes him 12 minutes to get to his work and he thinks that is astronomically long. So we are not ready for that.”

But the search has been daunting. When they’ve seen houses that they liked and that were in the right price range, they didn’t have enough space or needed expensive renovations.

“Things are changing so fast that we already feel that we are getting priced out,” said Ray.

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