The young men grunted as they maneuvered a large armoire down the narrow staircase from Apartment F-3 to the lot below. There, a U-Haul truck was parked, surrounded by liquor boxes wrapped in red tape, a laundry basket filled with purses, several large black plastic bags packed tight and metal bed frames leaning against the pile.
“We did nothing wrong,” Melinda Ward said tearfully as she watched the Brookhaven Presbyterian Church volunteers load her belongings. “We paid our bills. We never paid our rent late.”
Ward is one of dozens of people forced to move out of the Park Villa Apartment Homes on Coosawattee Drive at the intersection of North Cliff Valley Way and just a short distance from Buford Highway.
Developer Taylor Morrison recently purchased the property with plans to raze the apartment buildings to construct luxury townhomes priced in the high $400,000 range. The developer originally notified residents in late June that they would have to move and allowed them 30 days to leave, but Mayor John Ernst negotiated with Taylor Morrison to give residents until Aug. 21.
On a sweltering Saturday afternoon, about 10 volunteers were helping Ward and her 13-year-old daughter, Angelina, move out of their apartment.
Another moving truck could be seen in the complex being loaded with furniture. Several vehicles remained in the parking lot, but a wall of empty mailboxes symbolized the recent exodus of people, many of them immigrants and some who were undocumented.
“It’s been a little hard. This makes me nervous about everything,” Angelina said of moving out of the building that had been her home for the past three years. “It’s a little hard packing with just two people.”
The Ward’s dachshund, Scooby, watched nervously from his crate as Angelina showed the volunteers which boxes and bags were ready to go.
“We were already planning on moving, but didn’t think it would be so soon,” Angelina said. “We knew we couldn’t stay in this area … because they are making it a really rich area. They’re going to tear everything down. There’s nothing we can do unless we have millions of dollars.”
Angelina said she knows her mother does not have much money. Before the move, her mother, who has a back injury and lives on a fixed income, had purchased a new pair of shoes for Angelina to wear to school, but extra school supplies from last year will have to be used for this year.
“We’re kind of struggling this year,” Angelina said. “We have no money for movers. Thank God these people are here. We obviously couldn’t do this by ourselves.”
Ward said she initially wanted to relocate to an apartment along Buford Highway, but the complexes are filled. Instead, she moved to the Estuary Apartment Homes in Tucker.
She said she expects to see more and more of the complexes along and near Buford Highway being torn down as new development comes to the area.
“I’m pretty sure they’ll all be gone in two years,” she said. “That’s why I went further out, so we will not be put in this situation again.”
Ward said she eventually wants to buy a house, but the inheritance her parents left her is now gone, much used to pay for moving costs, she said. The three-bedroom apartment she lived in at Park Villa with her daughter’s godfather cost $750 a month; the new three-bedroom apartment she is also sharing with her daughter’s godfather rents for $1,265 a month.
Ward said she lived nine years in Brookhaven. Before moving to Park Villa, she lived in the Tempo Cabana Apartments, now named the Marquis Crossing Apartments, on Curtis Drive near Buford Highway.
“The reason why I’m so sad about moving is because my daughter’s whole life has been in that area,” Ward said. Angelina regularly attended the Boys & Girls Club on North Druid Hills Road and knew many of the Brookhaven Presbyterian Church volunteers helping her move because they also volunteered at the club.
“This has been stressful on all of us,” Angelina said.
Rebekah Morris, who organized members of her church to help Melinda and Angelina Ward move, said Los Vecinos de Buford Highway, a community organization seeking to empower those living in apartments on Buford Highway to have a voice in their future, is keeping a watchful eye on what is happening to apartment residents.
“We’re working on a displacement response tool kit with best practices on how to support the community, such as having an updated list of apartments in the area, providing assistance with moving, trying to help students transition to new schools,” she said.
One goal the group has is to find some way to preserve the current stock of affordable apartments in the area and perhaps one day to hold a panel discussion with apartment owners and property managers about ways to improve aging complexes and still make a profit without selling the land to developers to build pricey residences.
“We know we can’t keep rents at the $600- to $700-a-month per unit [rate],” she said, “but maybe they can make renovations and raise the rent, but [at a rate that] is still affordable to those who live there, [and] not be forced to sell because they can’t keep up with maintenance.”
The group also is looking for a more transparent public process. When officials in a city know an apartment complex is being sold, residents should be notified so they will have at least 60 or 90 days to move out, members of the group argue.
The most important goal is to make sure people living in apartments are treated humanely, she said.
“We’d like to develop a stronger relationship with landlords along Buford Highway … and, if the property is going to be sold and be demolished, we want to make sure people are treated with decency and respect and honor them through the process,” she said.