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The Human Cost of Atlanta’s Lack of Affordable Housing

This guest post was written by Michael Lucas, who serves as Deputy Director of Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation.

The affordable housing crisis and the related eviction crisis in Atlanta have been getting attention from the media, from policy makers, and the general public. As an advocate for low-income tenants for two decades – first as a social worker and now as a lawyer – I am encouraged by this attention.

What is still underappreciated by many, I think, is the full extent of the human impact of this crisis. As the largest provider of tenant legal representation in Fulton County, the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (AVLF) sees first-hand how the lack of quality, responsibly-managed affordable housing plays out in the lives of our neighbors. In a city with so much exciting new development – and with all the resources and opportunities that can create – none of what we see should be okay to anyone.

Landlords of ill-maintained properties: Atlanta’s de facto affordable-housing providers

Let’s be clear: there is affordable housing in Atlanta. The problem is that…

  • absent an adequate amount of quality, responsibly-managed affordable housing
  • absent sensible eligibility policies that don’t restrict access to subsidies to deserving tenants with, for example, very old criminal records
  • absent adequate funding for those subsidy programs (the Trump administration has considered more than $6 billion in cuts at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to preliminary budget documents obtained by The Washington Post)

…the de facto affordable housing providers in Atlanta are landlords like the much-publicized English Avenue investor-landlord Rick Warren who so poorly maintained his rental properties that he faced jail time as a result.

Rick Warren

Many low-income renters cycle through bouts of homelessness or – as an attention-grabbing billboard on I-285 accurately warns – simply get pushed out of Atlanta. Some can find places to live within the city limits, but they’re often infested with roaches, rats, bedbugs, mold, sewage, crime, or all of the above.

These places sometimes have only an open oven door for a working “heating system” in the dead of winter. Meanwhile the landlords, who might be known only by their first name or a nickname, will stop by once a month to pick up rent while doing absolutely no maintenance or repair.

I couldn’t make this stuff up. We’ve helped tenants who knew their landlord only as “Mr. T.” We’ve helped tenants whose “landlords” were nothing but con artists with no legal connection to the unit at all. We’ve helped tenants whose walls literally turned black with mold after two weeks when the landlord’s pre-move-in paint job gave way.

You might question the decision making of those tenants, but the real take-away should be the level of desperation that led them to move into that home – a level of desperation that is created by our affordable housing crisis.

We create a market for slumlords through lack of better options

English Avenue apartments
English Avenue apartments

In short, the lack of truly affordable housing means there is a market for the homes that slumlords provide. When I say “truly affordable,” I mean not just workforce housing, which is typically pegged at 80% of the area median income (about $54,000), but homes for folks living at or near the poverty line. In truth, even families living at multiples of the federal poverty line of $24,300 for a family of four can struggle to find housing in Atlanta.

As long as there is a lack of options, tenants will choose renting from slumlords like Rick Warren over homelessness. They will tolerate years of callous neglect and abuse from their landlords. Because a leaky roof – even one that causes asthma-exacerbating mold – is better than no roof at all.

Atlanta’s lack of affordability drives our nation-leading eviction rates

In discussing deplorable conditions, I have highlighted just one aspect of the serious harm that results from the lack of truly affordable housing in Atlanta. There are many others. Lack of affordability drives nation-leading eviction rates. In 2015, an average of 107 eviction notices were filed each day in Fulton County, over 20 percent of all rental households received an eviction notice, and up to 12.2 percent of all households were forcibly displaced (in some zip codes over 40 percent of all rental households received an eviction notice and over 15 percent of all households were evicted).

Evictions can lead to homelessness (according to multiple studies, eviction is a leading cause of homelessness, especially for families with children). If households are able to find another home after an eviction, the scramble to secure a need as basic as shelter, often with short notice, compels households to accept more dangerous environments with less opportunity. Eviction also causes families to accept substandard housing conditions – and dissatisfaction with the poor living conditions often leads to another move.

Moreover, evictions are not just a consequence of poverty, they can also be a cause of poverty – as is well documented in Matthew Desmond’s widely-acclaimed book, “Evicted.” As has also been well documented in academic literature, evictions – and what is sometimes referred to as hyper-mobility – can destroy academic performance and even graduation rates. Hypermobility makes it harder to seek and maintain medical treatment – from keeping up with immunization schedules to, ironically, getting treatment for conditions exacerbated by poor housing such as asthma.

The consequences are further reaching still. Renters who experience the stressful and time-consuming process of a forced move are more likely to lose their jobs. Evicted mothers experience higher levels of parenting stress, depression, and poorer physical health in addition to greater material hardship. Studies have shown that these effects continue for years after the eviction. The stress associated with evictions has even led to suicides. These consequences hurt not only these families directly, but all of us. They drag our city down.

Finding room for empathy in a city of economic contrasts

I draw on my role as a parent to two young daughters when I want to make sure I am putting myself in the shoes of the Atlantans AVLF tries to help. The contrast between my daughters’ housing reality when they wake up to get ready for school, on the one hand, and that of far too many of Atlanta’s low-income children on the other is a dramatic gut punch. Imagine knowing the walls of your apartment are literally making your child sick, but fearing that the alternative will be having everything you own thrown out on the curb if you complain – and then homelessness.

Imagine worrying that the rats will again make their way up to your daughters’ bed, making their nightmares come true. Imagine what that does to you as a parent. Imagine having no other option. That is the true human cost of our affordable housing crisis. And it is not okay.

That the seriousness of this issue is becoming better understood is encouraging. If, however, it leads only to more workforce housing or meager set-asides – to the exclusion of adequate affordable housing development much further down on the affordability scale – the de facto affordable housing for far too many of our neighbors will continue to be shadowy slumlords – and our city’s potential to thrive will continue to be dragged down by those same mold-infested conditions that keep our children from thriving.

The Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, Inc. (AVLF) is a pro bono legal services for the Atlanta region. Their volunteer attorneys provide education, advocacy, and representation at no charge to low-income families with basic civil legal needs. Programs include services for domestic violence survivors, landlord/tenant disputes, evictions, unpaid wages, and probate issues.

One of the ThreadATL’s principles is “Improve equity through housing opportunities: We have a lack of choices when it comes to housing types for individuals and families throughout our city, as well as affordability. Many of our historic neighborhoods are filled primarily with single family housing stock. And the majority of our new developments in the city are made up of “luxury” condos that are priced well out of reach of middle income residents.