The last family to leave the Atlanta Street public housing complex in Gainesville is struggling with the same challenges that the first family to relocate encountered: a lack of affordable housing in the city.
“I spoke with a number of Atlanta Street tenants while they were searching for housing, and they all reported difficulty finding housing with their voucher,” said Chad McCranie, staff attorney for the Housing Preservation Project with the Georgia Legal Services Program.
For two years, Julio Albaladejo, 43, his wife Damarais, 37, and his son Christian, 13, carved out a hardscrabble life at the Green Hunter Homes near downtown.
“Everyday it was something different,” Albaladejo said. “You hear noises, people fighting. Typical projects, I guess.”
For a week in October they were the only residents left, save for a few squatters, living at the decades-old, red-brick complex.
“It was a ghost town,” Albaladejo said.
The family eventually had to vacate because the public housing complex is scheduled for demolition before the end of the year.
Built in the early 1950s, the complex’s 131 units will be redeveloped into a mixed-income space with subsidized, senior and market-rate apartments.
The Gainesville Housing Authority has partnered with Walton Communities LLC to redevelop the property with the help of $10 million received through a tax credit program.
Move-in dates for the new complex are likely to come in 2018.
At first, Albaladejo thought the opportunity to leave Atlanta Street was a blessing.
“We thought we could find a place, something better ... but that didn’t happen,” he added.
Atlanta Street residents were either transferred to other public housing units in the city or given vouchers for subsidized housing in the private market.
Albaladejo said he received a list of places that might be affordable, but security deposits and other upfront costs proved prohibitive and too expensive to absorb on his earnings alone.
Then, according to the family, their $900-a-month voucher was taken away because Damarais began cleaning rooms at a local hotel at a maximum pay of $45 a day but failed to report her new income.
“To me, it wasn’t fair that we were losing housing because my wife started working,” Albaladejo said, adding that work had become a disincentive in securing affordable, stable housing.
Albaladejo also said the family owed several hundred dollars in past due bills on their Atlanta Street home, which likely contributed to the loss of their voucher.
“I worked to get out information to tenants before they moved, but I want Atlanta Street tenants to know that we can also assist them if they have issues with their voucher,” McCranie said.
Without assistance, it became near impossible for the family to find somewhere to live in the city.
“Quality, affordable rental housing is already difficult to find in Gainesville, and Atlanta Street tenants faced a number of extra challenges on top of that,” McCranie said.
This included the fact that not every landlord or property manager is willing to accept a voucher, and the influx of some 130 families into the local rental market over the last six months means competition for what little space is available has been extremely tight.
Some Atlanta Street tenants eventually had to leave Gainesville in order to find affordable housing, landing in places like Oakwood, Athens and Gwinnett County.
But that’s a prospect that simply doesn’t suit Albaladejo.
He said it’s important to keep his family in Gainesville.
“I like Gainesville,” he said, “Compared to everywhere else that I’ve lived, it’s quiet. My son loves everything here.”
Albaladejo works at a local poultry plant making less than $11 an hour. But it’s a good job he doesn’t want to lose.
The family has laid roots, too. Christian attends Gainesville Middle School and excels at sports and making friends.
And from the church to a network of friends to the availability of public services like transportation and housing assistance, Gainesville feels like a good home for the working-class family, Albaladejo said.
And so the family was about to take extreme measures to stay put in the city.
They had secured a single-family home with a rent of just $350 a month when Will Campbell, principal of the Fair Street elementary school in Gainesville, showed up to help them move.
But a wasp infestation, no sinks or tubs or kitchen appliances, collapsing roofs, leaky floors and bad lighting, as well as no electricity or running water, made it untenable to inhabit this home.
Campbell described the conditions of the home as “deplorable” and he wouldn’t stand for it.
“It just wasn’t livable,” he said.
Campbell grew up in poverty in Philadelphia. He’s seen it all.
But he said he had never seen any family subjected to these living conditions.
“Their only choice is the worst possible scenario,” he added.
So Campbell and his friend moved the family into a motel for about a week, and then into his own home in a nice subdivision in town.
Campbell, while giving a recent prayer for Albaladejo's family, spoke to God with these words: “The intent is not to expose anyone. The intent is to open up and ask, ‘What can we do to take care of our people?’”
After making some calls, Campbell was successful in helping secure another voucher for the family, he said, and a two-bedroom apartment off Park Hill Drive was located for them to move into.
Still, it could take weeks for an inspection of the unit to be complete, which means the family may need another extension on its housing voucher.
Campbell said the family has embraced learning how to better budget its money and improve its quality of life independent of government assistance, marking an opportunity for the family to start anew and grow from the experience.
Albaladejo said he would soon be certified to operate a forklift on the job, which means higher pay and better opportunities for advancement.
“We forget there are people in the middle of it,” Campbell said.