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Minority neighborhoods exist along clear lines in Hall
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Day laborers wait for work in the parking lot of the La Flor de Jalisco on Atlanta Highway.

Home in hard places

A series on affordable housing issues in Hall County and Gainesville. See more stories, interactive maps and videos at the above link.

The streets are narrow in some of Gainesville’s poorest neighborhoods. There are no traffic lights there, only stop signs and railroad crossings and dump trucks rumbling through.

The abandoned homes are easy to spot — windows broken or boarded up, front porch crumbling. At night they might become a shelter for squatters.

Then there are the actual homeless shelters, the poultry processing plants and mills bellowing smoke, the bus station and railroad terminal, Flat Creek, industrial businesses, laundromats, small churches, one-story ranches and public housing.

Chickens in the yard and dogs in the street are not uncommon sights.

On either side of E.E. Butler and Queen City parkways, from Browns Bridge Road and Jesse Jewell Parkway east to Interstate 985, and up and down Atlanta Highway, the pockmarked streets are where minorities and low-income families primarily reside.

It’s a gritty scene in these neighborhoods. One might say they have a lot of “character.” But the hardships hardly define the working-class families who call these places home.

Some things haven’t changed since the Beat author Jack Kerouac came to town in the mid-1950s.

“In Gainesville I thought I’d sleep by the railroad tracks awhile but they were about a mile away,” he wrote in The Dharma Bums, before giving up on the idea with cops watching and returning to the luncheonettes of downtown. “So I slept in a four-dollar room in a hotel and showered and rested well. But what feelings of homelessness …”

In Kerouac’s day, residential segregation by race and class would have been expected.

Today, however, the city's lack of integration is something Arturo Corso, a Gainesville criminal defense attorney, finds surprising.

“There is still a very clear delineation of where immigrants live,” Corso said, and many African-Americans reside “literally on the other side of the railroad tracks.”

A Supreme Court ruling last year targeted this very issue when it affirmed the value of the Fair Housing Act’s consideration of unintended discrimination, or disparate impact, when local governments determine where to locate affordable housing.

“Decades of unequal residential zoning decisions enforced segregated housing patterns resulting in socially separated communities,” said Rose Johnson, executive director of the Newtown Florist Club, a civil rights organization in Gainesville.

Access to schools, jobs, churches, medical care, groceries and other services are particular concerns for many low-income families who rely on public transportation, Johnson said.

Some of the poorest neighborhoods in Gainesville are the most disconnected and distant from city services. But so, too, are some of the wealthiest subdivisions.

The high court’s ruling presents a difficult balancing act for local governments — fighting the stigma of public and affordable housing in higher-income neighborhoods and ensuring that new development of affordable homes remains centrally located to the urban core.

The state Department of Community Affairs, working with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, surveys local governments, private developers, residents and other participants to determine other major impediments to fair and affordable housing that exist in Gainesville, Hall County and across Georgia.

Predatory lending, discriminatory zoning laws, inadequate health and safety codes and tenant screening requirements are common barriers that wind up segregating races and classes.

“Current housing trends reveal new patterns of residential segregation,” particularly among low-income blacks and Latinos, Johnson said.

For example, DCA and HUD surveys have found that minorities are more likely to be denied loans, even among their white counterparts at similar income levels.

And, according to HUD, between 2004 and 2014, most housing complaints were based on perceived racial discrimination, followed by disability.

Phillippa Lewis Moss, director of the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center, said seniors have unique challenges when it comes to finding affordable housing and adequate living conditions.

And this contributes to the kind of segregation that places minorities and low-income residents on one side of Jesse Jewell Parkway and Browns Bridge Road in Gainesville, and wealthier, predominantly white professionals on the other.

“So you ended up having ... concentration of poor individuals,” Moss said. “And so they just get lost in the system.”

Housing laws, similar to nondiscrimination employment laws that protected races and classes of individuals, are designed to ensure access to affordable living units for all.

A new HUD policy issued after the high court ruling aims to better calculate violations of the act and impediments to housing based on more extensive and detailed demographic data.

One of the overarching goals is to highlight where concentrations of minorities and poverty are located.

Though residential segregation by race and class can limit educational and employment opportunities, it also has the effect of uniting disadvantaged communities.

“Although socially segregated into deplorable living conditions, African-American communities became centers of cultural and familial cohesiveness,” Johnson said.

And the values passed from generation to generation by way of family and church has kept these communities together “despite our living conditions,” she added.

Rosetta King, for example, has lived at the Atlanta Street projects in Gainesville for about 40 years.

These public housing units will soon be demolished and replaced with both affordable and market-rate apartments.

Though the renovations are designed to help clean up a place fractured in ways by violent crime and drug abuse, King said the generational roots and bonds that families have developed here will be lost in the process.

“A lot of the folks here won’t be back,” she said.

King said she will meet this week with representatives from the housing authority to determine where she will relocate.

The uncertainty has King nervous about what will come of her life.

“It’ll be hard to move,” she said. “I feel left out.”

The connections that sustained poor families in African-American neighborhoods can also be seen in immigrant Latino neighborhoods, Corso said. And these working-class residents help keep Gainesville attractive to business and industry.

During his annual real estate forecast, Frank Norton Jr., president and CEO of The Norton Agency firm in Gainesville, spoke to an audience about the importance of these communities to the local economy.

Norton said Gainesville is best served “admitting the realities of our diversity and embracing them.”

“Because of this economic engine composite and the concentration of rental housing, Hall has become the Hispanic trade and job epicenter for an entire region,” he added. “These folks are here, gainfully employed, creating a new life for themselves and their families. They are, as a labor force and consumers, the backbone of our economy.”

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