Vanishing Buford Highway? Rising rents, pandemic threaten longtime residents

Along Atlanta’s diverse Buford Highway corridor, bustling restaurants have long provided a steady income for immigrant families and others who call the corridor home, but the pandemic and rising housing costs are making it tough for residents to stay.

Atlanta’s immigrant population is heavily concentrated along the eight-mile stretch of road just north of the city, long famous for international cuisine. The area, which was considered affordable years ago, has seen consistently rising rents over the past few years.

New apartments and condominiums — some costing thousands a month in rent — are changing the residents of Atlanta’s diverse restaurant row, and activists fear the pandemic has only accelerated that process.

Gabriela Duran has seen some of those effects firsthand. Duran, her husband and their five children live in a two bedroom apartment off Buford Highway in Brookhaven. Both native to Mexico, they’ve lived in the U.S. for about 15 years. Over the past few months, they’ve watched neighbors move away.

“Many apartments are empty now because people are moving,” she said. “They have a lot of troubles to pay rent because they don’t have work.”

Duran works at a nonprofit while her husband remains employed doing construction work, but many in her community are not as lucky. Since 2014, her monthly rent has increased by $500, and while Duran’s family has been able to make do, the price has been too steep for others.

201218-Atlanta-Myrtle Goodman, left, and her son Walter talk with neighbors Gabiela Duran her son Derek Duran, 4 outside of their Buford Highway apartment. Goodman has lived in her apartment for more than 20 years and says the complex management hasnÕt repaired many of the issues she has brought to their attention. She said her front door was last paint 10 years ago.  Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

icon to expand image

Credit: Ben Gray

“Part of the domino effect is that while construction and development grows around Buford Highway, the people that are residents are definitely at a high risk of being priced out,” Lily Pabian, the executive director of We Love BuHi, said.

Pabian’s organization, which works to document and archive immigrant stories from the corridor, has been sounding alarm bells about the looming threat of gentrification on Buford Highway. Gentrification occurs when rents and prices rise in an area and wealthier people move in, a process that often displaces current residents.

Marco Palma, president and CEO of Los Vecinos de Buford Highway, a nonprofit that assists immigrants, said the lack of affordable housing risks changing the face of one of metro Atlanta’s most diverse areas.

“People see these condominiums and luxury apartments being built and understand it’s not something that’s being built for them. These people cannot afford to move into a $2,000 apartment,” Palma said. “As much as people enjoy living here, it would be very hard for someone who has lived here for a while now to move into one of those.”

‘Hot real estate’

Buford Highway runs through Brookhaven, Chamblee and Doraville, which are all experiencing a development boom.

Brookhaven and Doraville have multiple mixed-use complexes that are in the works, while Chamblee is developing a new city center. Not every project is along Buford Highway, but many are being built about a mile from the corridor.

“This is hot real estate,” Santiago Marquez, CEO of the Latin American Association, said. “It’s very difficult to stop real estate development.”

According to Zillow home value estimates, Chamblee and Doraville have lower property values than nearby Brookhaven, Dunwoody and north Buckhead. However, the land value for Chamblee and Doraville is increasing at faster rates than the surrounding areas. Doraville’s home values have increased by 9% over the past year, which is double the rate of the other locations.

Rebekah Cohen Morris, a Doraville councilwoman and a co-founder of Los Vecinos, said the city is trying to find a balance between approving the construction for new market-rate and affordable housing.

Doraville established a tax allocation district (TAD), which requires 20% of new housing developments be affordable, meaning that rent cannot exceed 80% of the Area Median Income. The median income is $1,168 per month for a family of four in Doraville, according to federal guidelines. An 840-unit apartment project is in the planning phases within Doraville’s tax district, Morris added.

“If that runs off developers from wanting to build housing in Doraville, we just need to be conscious and continually reflect on if that prevents development,” Morris said. “It’s going to be a continual evaluation process. But right now, nobody has been questioning whether we have the right number.”

Lacking affordability

A Emory University group conducted a housing affordability study over the summer that analyzed a 10-mile stretch of land north of I-85 and just south of Buford Highway. The study determined that the need for lower rent and affordable apartments there is critical.

The study found that there is a dramatic shortage of affordable housing for residents that earn less than $17,500 a year. For every 100 residents in that group, there are only four apartments that are affordable, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s criteria. Given the rising rent prices, the study determined many residents will be priced out of their homes soon.

This chart shows the disparity between the need for affordable housing and the supply for an area between I-85 and Buford Highway, according to an Emory University study. In lower income groups, demand for affordable housing exceeds the availability of rental units, while upper income groups have more units than needed. It was included in a presentation to the Doraville City Council.

Credit: City of Doraville

icon to expand image

Credit: City of Doraville

If this trend continues, more of the (area’s) residents will be priced out of their current homes,” the study said. “This will lead to an outward movement of residents from the area and an influx of wealthier tenants who do not reflect the current Buford Highway community.”

Duran said she’s seen nearly a half-dozen families move out of her apartment complex, the Sierra Gardens Apartments, in December. Duran resigned her lease in November, which included a $100 monthly rent increase. She said she suspects rising rents and shrinking income during the pandemic are behind the departures.

“If the people before this happened could not pay, now without having jobs, how can they pay more? It’s too hard,” she said.

Myrtle Goodman has lived in the same complex for more than 20 years, and she said the apartments are poorly maintained for rent to be increasing at such a quick rate. She added that the apartments are a hot-spot for theft.

“I think they know there’s a lot of immigrant families over here, so they think they won’t call the police,” she said.

A property manager for the complex said the rent increases are required to match the market and stay competitive. The manager, who declined to provide his full name, also disputed claims that maintenance requests are ignored, saying some residents do not take care of their units.

201218-Atlanta-Ana Corpus has repeatedly asked her apartment complex management to repair the crumbling wall in her shower. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

icon to expand image

Credit: Ben Gray

Many activists also claimed some residents have been illegally evicted from apartment complexes along the corridor, despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention enacting an eviction moratorium through Dec. 31. Morris said she encourages residents to contact city leaders if they’re about to be put out of their homes.

“Many times evictions statistics aren’t going to show up as close to reality because the resident won’t actually be handed an eviction,” she said. “They just get the threat from the landlord, and they move.”

Resilience and community

Many immigrants were scraping to get by before the pandemic hit, which led to mass unemployment among the service and hospitality sectors.

Aixa Pascual, managing director of civic engagement and advocacy for the Latin American Association, said the COVID-19 crisis has disproportionately affected Latino communities. Many work in hotels and restaurants, she said. More than half of Doraville’s 10,000 residents are Hispanic, and more than 15% are Asian, according to Census data.

“Stability has become very elusive,” she said. “We see that families are more fragile, they’re less stable and a lot of them still have no jobs or fewer jobs.”

The Latin American Association along with Los Vecinos, shifted most of their efforts this year to rent and utility relief programs for those struggling to find employment. Palma said his nonprofit received more than 200 applications for rent assistance within the first two weeks of the program, which grew to 700 applications by the summer.

DeKalb’s cities also received federal aid, and while there were programs to assist undocumented groups, Pascual said federal criteria blocked those groups from qualifying for many unemployment benefits and programs.

“The safety net that was there for most Americans was not there for a big part of our community, and Georgia tends to have a pretty high number of undocumented related to the number of Latinos,” she said.

Despite the changes and continued challenges, Duran said many of her neighbors will do whatever they can to stay. The diverse community along Buford Highway is where they want to live, work and lay down roots.

“I live on Buford Highway because I have my community near me,” she said. “I want to stay here.”

Follow DeKalb County News on Facebook and Twitter