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John Ruch Posted by on April 14, 2017.

As Sandy Springs rents rise, a working-class ‘exodus’ begins

Ayanna Souffrant moved to Sandy Springs 10 years ago for reasons many people do: to live in a safe community with good jobs and schools. Employed at the Perimeter Mall Chick-fil-A to support her two children, she’s one of the service workers who keep Perimeter Center in business.

She’s also one of the many lower-income residents being priced out by skyrocketing rents and a lack of affordable housing programs.

Michelle Alexander, the city’s community development director, discusses housing challenges with residents during the April 4 meeting at the Community Assistance Center. (John Ruch)

“I’m on my way out of Sandy Springs,” Souffrant says. “I’m going back to Rockdale County.”

She was speaking at an April 4 meeting where city officials sought lower-income residents’ input on housing accessibility as part of a process for renewing a federal Community Development Block Grant the city receives. Only five residents attended, but all had stories of struggling with rising rents. And, at least for now, city officials had no answers for them.

CDBG funds can be used to directly support affordable housing, but the city chooses to spend it solely on building Roswell Road sidewalks.

The city is working on a program to establish “workforce,” or middle-income, units in new developments, but it has no such plan for low-income housing. In fact, the city’s main workforce housing strategy involves tearing down apartment complexes like the one where Souffrant lives, and replacing them with more expensive, and largely ownership, housing.

The April 4 meeting was held at the Sandy Springs headquarters of the Community Assistance Center, a nonprofit aimed at preventing hunger and homelessness. Tamara Carrera, the CAC’s chief executive officer, said the city needs a program of mixed-income housing or it will face an “exodus” of thousands of lower-income, blue-collar residents.

“It should be mixed housing,” Carrera said at the meeting. “And the city can do it.”

In a later interview, she said more than 13,000 Sandy Springs residents have incomes below the federal poverty rate, and more who are above that rate are still low-income.

“That’s an awful lot of families who would have to move because they have no place to go,” Carrera said. “It’s going to be an exodus.”

That exodus is already gearing up, residents said at the meeting. They complained of the lack of affordable options and the county’s 10-year wait list for federal subsidized housing vouchers. All of the residents were long-term residents — seven to 19 years — and most said they are working mothers.

One resident said she just got a job in Sandy Springs and likes living near work. But she worries about her apartment complex being redeveloped into something unaffordable. “I don’t want to be pushed out,” she said.

Ronnesha Wade, a 10-year resident living at the Ecco Apartments, is a food service worker at Emory who likes living here so her kids have a good school system. She said her one-bedroom unit’s rent has risen from $439 a month to over $800. “I pray to God my income increases,” she said.

Souffrant said she’s being forced to move by rent that’s at $924 a month and climbing. She said she’ll look for work in Rockdale County, but meanwhile will make the commute to the Chick-fil-A to hold onto her job.

The meeting was led by Michelle Alexander, the city’s community development director, who is hosting various such meetings at nonprofits and apartment complexes.

Such input, known as a “Fair Housing Assessment,” is required for CDBG funding, but Alexander pushed the City Council to do a larger process than mandated. As she told the residents, while the meeting was basically about sidewalk money, it was also “an opportunity to have conversations that can be kind of hard” about the city’s affordability challenges and growing diversity.

But the most basic input from residents was that they want lower-income-affordable housing, and the most basic answer is that the city has no such program or plan — a tension underlying the process.

At the Feb. 21 City Council meeting where Alexander got an informal thumbs-up for the additional CDBG outreach, Mayor Rusty Paul said that citizens frequently ask him about “apartments disappearing … [and] are we trying to push out poor people. And that is not the case.” He said that caring for the “least, lost and left behind” is “part of our moral and ethical code as a community.”

The mayor said he hoped more proactive outreach would assure residents of the city’s good intentions, but he and other officials made no mention of actual new programs. Paul has previously said the city is essentially powerless to do anything about low-income affordability and that he expects such residents will inevitably be priced out.

Carrera has a different viewpoint. “It is not a hopeless cause,” she said.

Carrera believes the city could use incentives or regulations to create housing with a mix of units affordable to all income ranges, and with some handicapped-accessible units, as it is currently planning to do so for middle-income units. And while the sidewalks built with CDBG money are indeed a benefit to local low-income communities, she said, she’d also like the city to direct some of those funds to “human services” like hers.

“I think, honestly, the politicians are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” she said, describing practical and political obstacles to low-income affordability.

Most currently affordable apartments are that way because they’re old and some are hazardous and need redevelopment, Carrera said. The federal government isn’t offering subsidizes for mixed-income housing and no one here wants segregated, low-income-only housing, she said.

And, she added, elected officials have a voting base that only wants “housing for people who are easier to live with, put it that way.”

As with many metro Atlanta issues, another problem is the lack of a regional affordable housing strategy, said Carrera. Instead, the city of Atlanta has displaced residents into the suburbs, which displaces them even farther out, and so on.

She said political will must eventually come from “a moral question — how far do you push people [out] and for how long? … The next city, next city, next city. When do they stop pushing?”

13 Responses to As Sandy Springs rents rise, a working-class ‘exodus’ begins

  1. Kevin Warren

    April 14, 2017 at 11:32 am

    Ms Carrera,

    You’re not alone and even some of us who’ve been lucky, are at the top of the income bracket, are leaving. We are one of three on our street going elsewhere.

    The politicians aren’t handcuffed they’re making choices. One choice is using the top, most expensive income qualification under HUD guidelines as the base for those new developments going up. Then they rationalize the next development as more affordable even though it’s beyond a living wage worker, like yourselves, real affordability. You’re being “indexed” out of living here.

    Those in our situation aren’t being forced out we’re deciding that our tax dollars are better off where community matters more than economic isolation.

  2. martha

    April 14, 2017 at 1:17 pm

    Kevin said it best. The information in this article shows evidence that talk is cheap “Officials made no mention of actual new programs.”

    When a rent goes from $439 to $800 a month, that is just plain abusive. Spare me the spin.

    I just wonder how come the CDBG was not asked to give a reason for:”CDBG funds can be used to directly support affordable housing, but the city chooses to spend it solely on building Roswell Road sidewalks.”
    What’s the rationale?

    • Kevin Warren

      April 14, 2017 at 2:45 pm

      Martha,

      You and Ms. Carrera ask great questions that should have been included in this article and answered.

      I challenge ole Rusty to tell us what he has done for the “least, lost and left behind” in Sandy Springs beyond forcing them out?

  3. Jena W

    April 14, 2017 at 2:26 pm

    Anyone who even vaguely believes that the Sandy Springs government officials give a crap about the lower or even middle class resident, is truly living in a dream world. ‘Our’ Mayor spouts creative word play –

    “Mayor Rusty Paul said that citizens frequently ask him about “apartments disappearing … [and] are we trying to push out poor people. And that is not the case.” He said that caring for the “least, lost and left behind” is “part of our moral and ethical code as a community.”

    and then does the exact opposite. This city government will do ANYTHING FOR MONEY – anything that is except any kind of change to the western section of Sandy Springs where the real money lives.

    Look at what they’ve done to the eastern section of the city. There isn’t a spot of open land that some developer wants to build on that they won’t approve. Even land that is already developed they’ve approved to cram more buildings on that will just go ‘up’ and not around. Have you seen the monstrosity of signage they approved & built on the corner of Mount Vernon & Perimeter Center?!!!!! Downtown Atlanta doesn’t have such massive street level eyesores!!!!! But our officials made a BOATLOAD of money off that. They care NOTHING about the abysmal traffic conditions that already exist and that every decision they make only makes worse. Why should they? They don’t work in those areas nor have to deal with them on a daily basis. All they have to do is mouth a few words that they don’t mean and then approve it all and pocket the money.

    I moved to Sandy Springs over 10 years ago when it was much like Dunwoody. I now regret not actually choosing Dunwoody. Dunwoody officials actually desire to keep the charm of their city and not make it into another mid-town Atlanta.

    Face it, our officials would rather not have anyone living in the city who doesn’t make at least $100,000 and even that income level they think of as ‘middle class’ who can live in the congested eastern section of the city and pay huge taxes for the convenience of the endless construction, horrible roads & spending 45 minutes to drive 2 miles. All they want is more money and if you’re willing to pay up – You’re Approved for anything!

    • martha

      April 14, 2017 at 7:05 pm

      Kevin,
      I’m gratified that you noticed the article left questions unanswered for us as readers.

      In addition to the unanswered questions already mentioned, there is the question of why do we need lower income housing at all. Well, because we have lower wages. Today, in Atlanta, wages for lower middle class white collar jobs are either the same or lower than they were 27 years ago.

  4. Ben Hendry

    April 14, 2017 at 3:08 pm

    Great article, John. When I see the high prices attached to all the new housing I wonder about the lack of creative building of affordable homes that are very small, trading less interior size for lower prices. Could the tiny home movement work in some places here?

  5. martha

    April 14, 2017 at 6:34 pm

    Ben, size does not matter. Whether housing is small or large is not the problem. The issue is that officials are tearing down affordable housing in Sandy Springs and building expensive housing. By doing so folks with lower income (including seniors, and poor children) are having to leave their communities to go somewhere else. That is a loss of a way of life and that is the significant issue, not the size of the dwelling. The officials involved in this issue appear not to be interested in creative ideas, only in prompting an exodus.

    This article left questions unanswered for me as a reader, such as why are they more interested in building sidewalks? It doesn’t matter that sidewalks are needed and a great idea. That is not the point. The point is why are they spending all their resources in sidewalks instead of finding a balance between sidewalks and preserving some affordable dwelling? Scarcity of affordable dwelling carries the risk of homelessness. This is another consequence that was not addressed in the article. It seems to me that we (as a society) continue to ignore how Greed permeates our decisions (not as individuals, but as a whole).

  6. MJ

    April 14, 2017 at 9:06 pm

    In general I agree with all these comments. I would like to point out rents are increasing at ridiculous rates all over the Atlanta area. In modtown, an 800SF studio apt is $1300/month. We, too, are looking to leave Sandy Springs because of the direction our ‘leaders’ are taking the city. We had better outcomes battling with Fulton County. This is what happens when we have lobbyists and those with higher political aspirations building campaign war chests in charge.

  7. Concerned resident

    April 15, 2017 at 1:56 am

    At long last, this topic has surfaced. Deepest gratitude, Mr. Ruch and The Reporter.

    Let’s state what is happening here as it is.

    In 2005, when a certain political window of opportunity opened, Sandy Springs’ (very) wealthy elite finally succeeded in securing leadership of the area from Fulton Co. When you become a city, much tax money stays local. And Sandy Springs has a disproportionate number of wealthy residents, so this is a lot of money. As an independent municipality, the city is also entitled to additional funds from various sources.

    Next step, use all this money to:

    1. Do everything possible to improve, clean up and beautify the area. Increase police force size to slash crime. Create parks, sidewalks and enticing venues. Launch cultural activities. In short, do everything to make the area as attractive as possible.

    2. Lobby very hard for companies to move their operations to the city. But not just any companies; rather, those with highly-paid employees. Big money goes a long way towards enticing big business. Employees prefer to live closer to work, i.e. in the city.

    What happens when an area becomes very attractive, and many affluent residents move there ? Property values rise sharply. When this happens, rents and mortgages also rise sharply. This forces lower-income residents out of the city. A disproportionate number of low-income residents are non-white. As these residents move out, their domiciles are demolished and replaced with higher-income housing, which attracts more affluent residents, which raises property values higher still, and so forth.

    End result: Sandy Springs becomes an exclusive “sanctuary”, or “reserve”, or “island” community of wealthy, white people. (In a region where non-whites outnumber whites). This is the ultimate, tacit goal / vision of the mayor, city council and their supporters. This is the reason they campaigned hard for many years to incorporate Sandy Springs as an independent city. Do not be misled by polished rhetoric.

    At first there had been `white flight’ to the suburbs but then lower income people followed. In this country one cannot legally discriminate against people based on race, but one can easily discriminate against them based on income. This is what’s happening here: you don’t clean out minorities etc., you clean out lower income residents who are disproportionately non-white. In the process you also banish low-income whites who don’t belong among the affluent culturally. Similar scenarios occur throughout the country; Sandy Springs is not unique.

    Note the exceedingly vitriolic hostility of Tibby DeJulio, Gabriel Sterling and others to apartment residents. (Do they know any personally ?) They describe them routinely as robbers, drug addicts, pimps and other miscreants. They blame them for all the city’s crime and many other woes. They allege that they don’t truly care about the community. They refer to apartment complexes as “old” and “blighted” though many are neither. (Quite a few are actually younger than many single-family houses in the city). They wage an unrelenting, ruthless crusade against them. It would take an entire article to demonstrate – very easily – the faulty logic and factual inaccuracies here.

    Legal action and a massive media campaign are required to counteract the systematic, deliberate, premeditated gentrification of Sandy Springs (see below). But the wealthy are masters of both techniques while lower-income citizens are far less versed in litigation and public campaigning. They also cannot afford them and typically don’t know how to raise the requisite funds. The wealthy are aware of this.

    I am a white, middle class Sandy Springer who moved here in 1989. I have graduate school education and work in information technology. I live in an apartment complex, and have for years, in order to save money. My neighbors next door, across and next level are all white and middle class too. One is a college student. The other three are quiet, clean, polite, friendly, hard-working black folks. Wonderful people. No criminals here. Such demographic composition is not exceptional in local apartment complexes. We all contribute to the city economically and otherwise. And we care deeply about it.

    Sandy Springs’ transformation has been intensely painful. It used to be a friendly, welcoming, attractive, quiet, safe, well-priced suburb. It has transmogrified into an elitistic, unwelcoming, micro-managed, inconvenient (rampant and unrelenting construction, traffic congestion), expensive, hyperactive, police-everywhere city. (And no, I have no criminal record whatsoever. And can attest firsthand that Sandy Springs was safe prior to 2005 also).

    The city’s non-wealthy residents may organize, reach out to groups and public officials (local and nationwide) friendly to such causes, coordinate a massive, unwavering media and social media campaigns, converse in good faith with homeowner associations, attend city meetings to voice their perspective, request meetings with city officials and other community leaders (e.g. rotary club), raise funds and take legal action to secure their place in Sandy Springs. Otherwise, prepare for exile in the Next Ten. It is all too easy to bemoan one’s fate – but what are we doing about it ?

    Thank you. Looking forward to continuing coverage and discussion of this issue.

    • ted

      April 16, 2017 at 10:20 am

      Thank you for this write up. Couldn’t have expressed it better myself. This same thing is happening in Marietta and there is going to be a serious alteration to the demographic. Rents have gone up traumatically. Blame some of that on that Braves stadium. They are building EVERYWHERE. Greenspace being destroyed. Time to find a new home. I doubt anyone really cares for those that can not afford these Rents.

  8. Don McAdam

    April 15, 2017 at 7:29 am

    Tamara Carrera of the Community Action Center is a true champion of the hard working, under paid people of Sandy Springs.

    Also, this is possibly the best article I’ve ever read in our local papers on this issue.

    As someone already pointed out. To better afford rents, we have to substantially raise the minimum wage. But, our local politicians never advocate for that. State law currently prohibits localities from raising the wage. So instead of being vocal advocates for raising the wage, our mayor and city council say and do nothing.

    Elections for mayor and city council are later this year. Now is the time to organize.

  9. Ralph

    April 15, 2017 at 7:50 am

    Here’s a great idea: don’t vote for these politicians again. What can a politician say that wants to run for reelection? I’ve made Sandy Springs a worse place to live because I pleased the developers, not the citizens. Not one politician listens to its citizens when it comes to development. Truly, a sad situation for all.

  10. SS Lifer

    April 20, 2017 at 9:09 pm

    Ben Hendry — your comment about the tiny house movement is interesting but I don’t see how it would go to fruition from an Econ101/market forces perspective.

    Savvy investors currently pounce on any lot that opens up because just the mere DIRT under any 0.4 acre or larger plot (esp. if west of Roswell and South of Abernathy) makes it an obvious tear-down unless it was built 1990 or newer, to be used for a new custom home of $1.3M or more. Fact is, the raw dirt of 0.4+ acres is physically worth $300-500K depending on layout of lot.

    Market forces would mean having to have 7 tiny houses on that same lot for the (older, often retiring) person selling to make the same profit. Which is not allowed under the 1-for-1 protected neighborhood classification in our new Land Use Plan for the Next10. (Not necessarily that it should be…traffic from 1 house is better than 7 and we’re drowning in cars as it is!) Hard to fix that basic situation.

    Right now Abernathy is the dividing line for that developer-is-gonna-pounce craziness. I expect it to grow north to Dalrymple 5 years from now.

    When a worker who works in Perimeter area compares living in Kennesaw for 10 years vs. Sandy Springs…the sheer prospect of saving 6,000 hours behind the wheel during that decade makes the premium price in SS make a lot of sense. Time is money. Who wouldn’t trade an extra $X to not miss out on 6000 hours of their kids’ childhoods?