Opinion: We believe more affordable housing creates better opportunities for all

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

We know that we have to invest more in affordable housing. And we know that we have to stop defining some of our neighbors by the conditions they find themselves in.

A city of opportunity for all. That is our aspiration and commitment. Working together, we want to build an Atlanta that works for all.

Central to this ambition is safe, quality and affordable housing. Housing is bigger than shelter. Homes serve as a hub for opportunity. Where you live significantly shapes where your children go to school, how safe you feel walking down the street, what kinds of jobs you have access to and so much more.

Atlanta is not alone in facing enormous housing challenges. We are committed to taking bold action to rise to the challenge. The city’s housing plan addresses the full spectrum of housing issues, from ensuring that unhoused people have access to services and shelter, to building and preserving 20,000 units of affordable homes so that all can share in Atlanta’s growth.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

One of the areas that requires our urgent attention is that of substandard housing, particularly nuisance and blighted properties that have fallen into disrepair.

The Forest Cove apartment community in Atlanta’s Thomasville Heights neighborhood is instructive. An infamous apartment complex riddled with crime and deplorable living conditions for more than a decade, Forest Cove stood as a glaring example of how we, as a community, failed our neighbors. Forest Cove residents – over 200 families – were living in uninhabitable apartments — dangerous from both a health and safety perspective.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

So, when a Fulton County judge condemned the property in January and ordered that it be closed by September, we knew that we had to act. This was not a property owned by the city, and so we did not have a legal obligation to intervene. But these families were Atlantans, like us, and we were called to serve.

On June 1, the first four families were relocated from Forest Cove. By the end of last month, we had successfully helped all 202 families to relocate from Forest Cove to new homes. This was a monumental effort that was only made possible by the highest levels of cooperation from multiple partner organizations — nonprofits, corporations and public agencies — and through the $9.1 million that the city of Atlanta dedicated to the effort.

We took on the task of finding homes for individuals and families in the tightest rental housing market in decades. Many Forest Cove residents, understandably, were skeptical of this relocation opportunity, given the long history of broken promises and past failed efforts to help them. And trying to convince them to move from the only home many of them had ever known – albeit substandard – while ensuring our partners adhered to HUD’s rigorous requirements, was arduous — both mentally and emotionally.

Our partners worked tirelessly to provide each resident with multiple housing options, as well as comprehensive relocation assistance that included transportation to tour each housing option, furniture, moving supplies, utility connection fees and more. They provided Forest Cove residents with vital supportive services, including camps for children, fresh produce and access to clean shower facilities on various days and weeks throughout the hot summer season.

For us, it is a testament to what is possible when concerned Atlantans work together to help their neighbors. And it underscores that much remains to be done.

While relocating residents from Forest Cove is an important milestone, we know that it is but a first step. Now, with our partners, we begin the necessary, long-term work of helping to stabilize these families in their new homes and communities and providing them with the supports needed to empower them to change the trajectory of their own lives. We also begin the work of redeveloping the Forest Cove property and the 100-plus acres of underutilized publicly owned land throughout Thomasville Heights. Working together, we believe that we can ensure a healthy and thriving future for this neighborhood.

We know that Forest Cove is just one example of where people have been left behind in substandard housing in our city. While this relocation was an enormous lift, it is not the only property that needs addressing in Atlanta. The lessons learned at Forest Cove are beginning to inform our work elsewhere in the city.

We know that we have to invest more in affordable housing. We know that tenants need stronger protections and that landlords need to be held accountable when they do not take care of their properties and residents.

And we know that we have to stop defining some of our neighbors by the conditions they find themselves in. Rather, we need to question and reform the institutions and systems that allow substandard conditions to occur.

As another great Atlantan, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. noted, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Ours is a shared destiny.

We are committed to building a more-equitable Atlanta where all residents have quality housing and a fair shot at a decent life. A city of opportunity for all.

Andre Dickens is Atlanta’s mayor and Frank Fernandez is president and CEO, Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta.