Atlanta tenants expose Millennia Housing’s dangerous trend of negligence

FILE: Broken windows and missing siding are a common site at the Forest Cove apartment complex seen Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. (Daniel Varnado/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

FILE: Broken windows and missing siding are a common site at the Forest Cove apartment complex seen Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. (Daniel Varnado/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

With snakes and rats infesting kitchen cabinets, asbestos-filled floors suddenly collapsing on children, and lifelong medical conditions caused by preventable mold exposure, not many former residents of Atlanta’s notorious Forest Cove apartments are sad to see the complex torn down.

“My son had asthma, so the mold made a bad thing get a lot worse,” said Keshonda Lomnick, a former resident of Forest Cove. “It got to the point where he would start having seizures … I wasn’t quite sure what it was until I took him to the hospital. They told me it was seizures caused by the mold.”

Without a real plan from the city outlining its redevelopment plans, Atlanta’s low-income tenants are worried they will be stuck living in poor conditions for the foreseeable future.

The Forest Cove apartment complex, located in southeast Atlanta, gained a reputation for its issues with management, poor construction and frequent crime. Forest Cove and other Section 8 properties expose the issues of unsafe affordable housing options.

Section 8, also known as the Housing Choice Voucher Program, was originally created by the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974. Funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the program assists low-income tenants by keeping their rent payments affordable in qualifying living spaces. The program also incentivizes private property owners and landlords to rent to those with a lower income.

Whose responsibility was Forest Cove?

Forest Cove was owned and operated by Millennia Companies under the name Phoenix Ridge. Millennia is one of the largest affordable housing providers in the United States, managing more than 30,000 units in 26 states. It was recently ranked the 38th largest landlord in the country by the National Multifamily Housing Council.

Millennia assumed ownership of the property in April 2021 from Global Ministries, another affordable housing provider that sold its entire portfolio that year due to pressure from HUD. Unsafe conditions plagued many properties formerly under Global Ministries’ management, including Forest Cove.

In the late 1960s, the federal government donated 96 acres of former prison land to Atlanta. The highlighted region above marks the location of the property which would one day become Forest Cove. (Courtesy of the Ivan Allen Digital Archive/Georgia Tech)

Credit: Ivan Allen Digital Archive/Georgia Tech

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Credit: Ivan Allen Digital Archive/Georgia Tech

“When Millennia acquired the Global Ministries portfolio, it did kind of bite off a lot more than it could chew because a lot of those properties were in just horrible condition,” said Foluke Nunn, a community organizer with the Atlanta Economic Justice Program (AEJP). “There was no reason why one landlord should have taken all of that on in the first place. The issues involved with that transfer have been a big part of why we’re in the situation we’re in now with Millennia.”

In March 2024, HUD suspended Millennia and its chief executive from seeking new government contracts or renewing existing ones for the next five years. The company cannot renew its Section 8 rent voucher agreements under the suspension.

"This is a victory for tenants across the country," Nunn stated in a press release. "Millennia abuses taxpayer dollars by leaving properties in disrepair and endangering the tens of thousands of tenants living in its complexes."

Conditions in Millennia-owned housing

In dozens of Millennia-owned properties across the country, not just Forest Cove, tenants report living in abysmal conditions and receiving no help from management.

Nunn worked directly with Forest Cove residents for years, even after the city condemned the complex in early 2021. She said the biggest issues tenants faced there were high crime rates, air quality issues, unstable construction and pest infestations.

Nunn said residents experienced, “seeing people get killed in front of them or their children, hearing gunshots all throughout the night, sometimes being targeted by people and getting jumped in the complex.”

Forest Cove’s management would not maintain the lawns, Nunn said, further contributing to the pest problems. Tenants found their apartments infested with rats, cockroaches and snakes.

Even the complex’s foundations could not be trusted, with structures so unstable that residents regularly fell through their floors. Nunn said she personally knew at least three people who had it happen to them or their children.

Keshonda Lomnick moved into a Forest Cove apartment with her children during the summer of 2011. For five years, Lomnick said her family experienced horrible conditions until they were relocated when the city condemned their unit in 2016.

“We saw, like, three people get killed right there by my building,” she said. “It was just a horrible thing.”

Lomnick said she and her children dealt with a rodent problem and did not have air conditioning for a significant period of time. However, a severe mold infestation caused the most trouble for the family. To this day, Lomnick said, her son still gets dizzy spells and passes out due to effects from the mold exposure.

Millennia Resistance Campaign and tenants organizing

Foluke Nunn works as a community organizer with the AEJP, a nonprofit advocating for socioeconomic justice for Atlanta tenants. Nunn works with tenants and partner organizations to launch campaigns demanding housing justice.

One of those campaigns is the Millennia Resistance Campaign, a group dedicated to exposing Millennia's behavior and urging the federal government to hold Millennia, and all similar landlords, accountable to their tenants.

Nunn said tenant organizing played a major role in getting Global Ministries to sell its properties years ago. However, those tenants were disappointed when HUD transferred Global’s properties over to Millennia.

“Those folks did not have a say in bringing Millennia to the table, they just wanted to get Global Ministries out of the picture,” she said. “A lot of them are very frustrated that now they have to turn around and do the same thing [again.]”

Keshonda Lomnick got involved with the Millennia Resistance Campaign during her time living in Forest Cove. Lomnick said she diligently attended meetings and coordinated with Nunn to speak with reporters to get word out about the situation at Forest Cove.

“I feel like if more of the tenants were to come together and speak out about the conditions we were in or are currently in, it would get a lot more resolved,” she said. “But by them not speaking up … they think it’s everyone for themselves, we’re not getting any help.”

Nunn said the current goal of the Millennia Resistance Campaign is to facilitate a smooth transfer of the Millennia portfolio to reputable landlords.

Millennia Companies v. Atlanta

In October 2023, civil rights attorney Ben Crump announced his law firm will represent former Forest Cove residents in a class-action lawsuit against Millennia. The suit accuses the company of depriving low-income tenants of safe housing. The city of Atlanta is also developing its own case against the landlord.

A judge condemned the Forest Cove complex in January 2021 due to numerous safety concerns. Atlanta helped residents find other housing options in late 2022 while the property awaited demolition. Demolition officially began on Forest Cove over three years later, in March 2024.

The Millennia Companies published the following in a statement when demolition began at Forest Cove:

“The City’s demolition of this community is not a result of management by Phoenix Ridge, but the City’s actions to block the planned rehabilitation in breach of its obligations under the Consent Agreement so that it could build a park and unsubsidized housing with a developer hand-picked by the mayor. Despite what Mayor Dickens may claim, today is a sad day for Atlanta and the Forest Cove residents who will never return to their community and continue to languish in temporary housing across the Metro area.”

Unfortunately, the long-awaited demolition was halted by the discovery of asbestos in “nearly every unit,” Courtney English, Mayor Andre Dickens’ chief policy advisor said.

The dangers of asbestos

Asbestos is a mineral often used in building materials like cement and insulation, until the 1990s, when various regulations caused companies to phase out its use. Asbestos is a carcinogen, a substance which may cause cancer.

Forest Cove, like many other dwellings built in the 1970s, used materials full of asbestos. Walls, pipes, floor tiles and textured paint are all common apartment features found to contain asbestos.

"At one point in time, asbestos was in over 3,600 different building materials," said Matt Moree, co-owner of BioRestore Asbestos & Mold. "The reason why it was in so many of those materials is because it's basically indestructible. That's also what makes it so dangerous once it gets into our bodies."

He said asbestos is most dangerous when the particles are airborne, which happens during demolition and construction. It can even happen in older apartments due to average wear and tear.

“Once it gets into our [lungs], our bodies will try to form scar tissue around it, but it can’t destroy it … then abnormalities [develop] in the cell structure of the lung tissue, which in the end produces cancer,” Moree said. “It causes lung cancer and it kills you.”

Asbestos exposure is very dangerous over time. Mesothelioma, a rare tissue cancer, is primarily caused by asbestos exposure, according to the Mayo Clinic.

What’s next for Forest Cove’s former residents?

Hundreds of tenants are displaced following Forest Cove’s condemnation. Although the city helped relocate families into other affordable housing options, the problem is not solved, said Nunn.

She said because people’s Section 8 subsidies are tied to their property, they lose the assistance when relocated. Sometimes they will move in with family or friends, but some end up homeless, said Nunn. The evacuation of Forest Cove displaced approximately 200 families.

“Because the complex was so big, Atlanta stood to lose hundreds of units of affordable housing,” Nunn said. “Those units are essentially gone until the city agrees to give residents a right to return to Thomasville Heights, or to replace those units via their development of Thomasville Heights. Atlanta already has a shortage of affordable housing and now we’re short 400 [units].”

Georgia’s population living under the poverty line far exceeds affordable housing availability. Over 1 million people in the state qualify for Section 8, but there are only about 137,000 units of Section 8 housing available, according to the 2023 HUD Census on assisted housing. Thomasville Heights, the neighborhood where Forest Cove once stood, is an important source of affordable housing in Atlanta.

“Unless [Atlanta] actually commits to replacing the 400 units that they condemned, they’ve worsened the affordable housing shortage, and I think their intervention came too late for a lot of folks,” Nunn said. “The city and the city council members were aware of this for a long time … and it’s unclear why nothing was done.”

Although the city claims all families were moved into safe housing and will be allowed to return to Thomasville Heights when new units are built, Nunn said none of those promises are official.

“How can we get a written and enforceable right of return from the city of Atlanta to their Thomasville Heights development?” Nunn said. “Because they’re doing a lot of lip service right now and they’re patting themselves on the back for Forest Cove, but what we’re saying is, ‘Hey, you all aren’t done.’”

She also pointed out how many of the families moved out of Forest Cove ended up in properties that were just as unsafe. In fact, Nunn said a quarter of them now live in properties on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's list of dangerous dwellings. Tenants had "no choice but to stay there," she said, because the city gave them limited time to find other options.

One of those tenants goes by the name “Ms. Peaches.” Felicia Morris, better known by her nickname, is an outspoken advocate for Forest Cove’s residents. Mayor Dickens gave her the Phoenix Award last spring, an honor recognizing her for outstanding service to Atlanta. She lived in Forest Cove for over 20 years.

However, this spring, Ms. Peaches finds herself stuck in a failing apartment complex no better than what she experienced in Forest Cove.

“She was [moved to] one of those complexes on the dangerous dwellings list,” Nunn said. “She was one of the residents who felt like she had to settle for that complex because she didn’t have enough time to look for places. She kept reaching out to other landlords, then she said that none of them were willing to accept her voucher.”

Nunn said HUD and Atlanta need to take steps to resolve the issues. Former tenants need documentation from the city assuring their vouchers will still apply, even after relocating. HUD needs to force Millennia to transfer its portfolio to dependable landlords who listen to tenant demands, not another single purchaser. Finally, the Millennia Resistance Campaign called for HUD to investigate Millennia and other landlords who fail to maintain safe, affordable housing units.

“[One former tenant] talks a lot about how residents need reparations for what they endured in Forest Cove,” Nunn said. “They need that and more because it’s really horrendous what folks went through living there.”

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