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Atlanta Street development leads to hundreds losing homes
Renovation highlights lack of affordable options in Gainesville
Shirley Harris listens Monday afternoon during a meeting of Green Hunter Homes residents and representatives of the Georgia Legal Services Prorgam to discusss possible major changes at the Atlanta Street apartments.

Deafening chatter bounced off the walls inside the sparse community center as dozens of Atlanta Street residents gathered Monday afternoon to learn about plans to redevelop the Green Hunter Homes.

Those plans call for relocating hundreds of residents as early as next year so that Gainesville’s largest housing project can be demolished.

“We want you all to be successful in this transition,” said Beth Brown, executive director of the Gainesville Housing Authority. “The more information you have ... the easier this will be.”

But change is hard. And it appears inevitable for the mostly African-American and Latina women attending the meeting with young children pulling at

their sides.

The current units, built in the 1950s, are physically obsolete and would cost more to renovate than tear down and rebuild, according to Brown.

New construction will include 252 apartments, an increase in capacity, but many of the units will be priced at market rates or for tenants who receive affordable housing tax credits.

Brown said the new community will be aimed at seniors, working-class families, students and professionals.

And that means the loss of about 100 government-subsidized public housing units in a city that lacks an adequate supply of affordable housing.

“We really have to be careful about it,” said Wendy Glasbrenner, managing attorney for the Gainesville regional office of the Georgia Legal Services Program, a

nonprofit law firm that provides free services to eligible low-income residents. “People could be dumped out there with a voucher with no place to rent.”

Demand outweighs supply

The city already has a cap on the number of public housing units allowed, set at 500, and private developers and landlords are being eyed to fill the inventory gap for affordable units.

The state Department of Community Affairs is soliciting comments about barriers to fair and affordable housing, and it has already identified a lack of supply as a major impediment on par with predatory lending, discriminatory zoning laws and inadequate health and safety codes.

Chris Davis, Gainesville’s housing manager, said the redevelopment plans are in the best interests of residents and the wider community, but challenges remain.

“We have to start somewhere, and we are trying to work together to make things better for the community,” Davis said. “We are certainly looking into other ways to fund affordable housing development.”

Davis said he also understands the hesitation some residents have about moving away from the social and cultural heartbeat of their lives.

“Of course, you’ve got to be cautious and try to protect the tenants,” he said. “Sometimes people hear you, but they aren’t listening.”

To build and manage the new complex, the Housing Authority has partnered with Walton Communities LLC, which has developed similar housing projects in other Georgia cities.

This coincides with a push by the federal government and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to generate private partnerships.

“They’re trying to get rid of public housing,” Brown said. 

Moving forward on the Atlanta Street redevelopment hinges on receiving a demolition permit and tax credits to help generate capital for construction, according to Brown, and a decision is likely before the end of the year.

The good, the bad, the ugly

Atlanta Street has long been a magnet for drug dealing, loitering around places like Peppers Market and violent, gang-related crime.

So, for some, relocating means finally getting a piece of the pie.

All residents will be given vouchers to cover a portion of their rents with private landlords, and will receive relocation assistance, including financial support for utility reconnection fees.

“We’ll be moving on up, like the Jeffersons,” said Shirley Harris, an elderly African-American woman who has called Atlanta Street home since the 1970s. “I want to see a change ...”

For others, moving out is rife with a sense of helplessness about the financial toll it might take.

Sanjuana Reyes, a Latina mother who has lived here for the past five years with her young son and daughter, said her biggest concern is moving somewhere that lacks easy access to health clinics, schools and work.

It’s a fear shared by others as they face the possibility of having to move outside the city limits, or away from public transit.

Speaking through a translator, Reyes said she relies on public transportation to get to work at a local poultry plant and having to take a taxi would kill her babysitting budget.

The fact low-income residents are dependent on living in urban cores with ready access to public services makes the voucher program much more complicated to manage.

While the vouchers have fewer requirements — for example, public housing recipients must complete community service hours — they also offer fewer protections for tenants.

For example, those with a voucher who move to a privately owned and managed apartment complex, which is likely the case for most Atlanta Street residents, are given only 12 months before they can be evicted for business reasons.

Each and every move is costly, and more so for low-income families, said Tim Aldridge, a white man and retired Marine who lives with his wife at the Green Hunter Homes. 

Despite the voucher program, which covers a portion of rent costs, some residents will likely pay more out of pocket when they relocate.

The DCA identifies rates for apartments in every Georgia county as part of its rental assistance division.

In Hall, for example, a one-bedroom goes for $691, a two-bedroom for $824 and a three-bedroom for $1,069.

Any rate above that stipulated by the DCA also comes out of residents’ pockets.

Moreover, while Atlanta Street has its problems, the units also have more amenities than other public housing units in the city, and better access to essential services, Aldridge said.

“Can we move back to Atlanta Street?” was a common refrain among attendees Monday.

The simple answer is yes. The more likely answer is no.

Brown said residents can certainly apply, but they will not be given priority or special consideration. 

“I just think as a community, what we really need to do is make sure we’re educating them about the difference in the two kinds of housing,” Glasbrenner said. “It’s not a blue sky kind of thing. It really has to be closely monitored because that’s a big loss of public housing, and public housing provides tenants with a lot more protection than the section 8 voucher program.”

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