Myrtle Goodman grew up in Blakely, a small town of slightly more than 5,000 people in the southwest corner of Georgia near the Alabama border. Her father managed a local furniture store and her mother stayed home to care for her and her seven brothers and sisters.
She married a man from Columbus, Ga., where her son, Walter, was born. When her son was 3, she divorced her husband, becoming a single mom at the onset of the 1980s.
Since 2000, the two have lived on Buford Highway, watching the area rapidly change around them. Now they fear they will be forced out.
Myrtle is on disability. Walter, now 41, is currently unemployed. Her current income is $1,206 a month. She pays $1,015 in rent, including utilities. She’s been told her rent will go up next month to $1,200 a month, not including utilities.
“I’ve been asking since April for them to let me continue paying what I’m paying now,” she said seated at the dining room table with a wood-framed heart hanging on the wall behind her. “I’m afraid of having nowhere to go.”
Over the years, Goodman, 73, supported herself and her son through various jobs, including overseeing inventory control and purchasing inventory at a tire company. But she mostly worked for insurance companies, she said, in the policy holding departments and in licensing and contracting.
She eventually became an apartment manager at a Chamblee complex and lived there with Walter for nearly 20 years. In 2000, she resigned from that job and moved to Buford Highway in what is now Brookhaven, so she could live in an apartment with central air conditioning.
She said she resigned after being put on disability due to a severe back injury she received when a van ran over her in 1972 while she and her sister lounged on Daytona Beach. She also has heart problems and diabetes.
She and Walter live in the complex at 3649 Buford Highway, formerly known as Brookstone Gardens and now under new ownership. Her lease expires July 31 and she’s been told rent could go up to as much as $1,200 a month, plus utilities.
The “them” she said she has been talking to about her rent are representatives from Strategic Holdings, a real estate investment company based in California.
The real estate investment company in October purchased the complex the Goodmans live in and the adjacent complex, for $16.9 million, according to their website. The new names are Sierra Gardens and Sierra Station and they have 194 units together.
Walter also spends time trying to talk to representatives from Strategic Holdings but said they don’t see their residents as actual people. He graduated from Cross Keys High School in 1995 and then attended DeKalb Technical College in Clarkston. For the past 10 years he’s worked with a small group of friends repairing computers out of the apartment. This job allowed him to make some money while also caring for his ailing mother full-time.
He hasn’t found computer work for some time, however, and recently applied for a job at a food processing plant. He found a help wanted ad on Craigslist for a staffing agency in Forest Park in Clayton County. But when he got there he was told all the jobs were filled. Because he does not have a car, he relies on MARTA to get around.
Strategic Holdings states the “pro forma value” of the apartment complex where the Goodmans live is more than $23 million. The company states on its website it intends to spend $1.4 million upgrading the apartments, built in the 1970s. The company estimates investors will receive a $4.9 million profit, according to the website.
Strategic Holdings in 2016 purchased for $11.4 million the apartments at 3547 Buford Highway, now known as Sierra Terrace. The complex, formerly known as Brookstone Terrace, has 135 units and was at full occupancy when purchased, according the company website.
“Our investment strategy is to buy commercial properties at what we identify as deep discounts,” the company states on its website.
Susan Levine, the national property manager for Strategic Holdings, was recently in the leasing office of the Buford Highway complex where the Goodmans live.
“We’re renovating all the units as everybody moves out,” she said. When asked if they speak to residents about what is occurring at the complex, she said, “Yeah, when they come in to pay rent.”
When asked about raising rents, Levine said simply, “Whatever the market dictates.”
She added that Strategic Holdings wants to fix up the complex and make the area a “better neighborhood.”
And she acknowledged she knew Buford Highway was a corridor ripe for redevelopment.
“I read an article that this is where it is heading,” she said. “It will be interesting to see what the city allows.”
What the city will allow remains to be seen, but City Councilmember Joe Gebbia, whose district includes Buford Highway, constantly refers to the corridor renowned for its international restaurants and businesses as the city’s “diamond in the rough.” His visions for Buford Highway include a performing arts center and city welcome center.
He also has said he wants to find some way to help the people who will be displaced as the area gentrifies. But there is no known plan to do so.
The City Council recently purchased a shuttered QuikTrip at 3292 Buford Highway for $1.7 million to gain a foothold on the development they know is coming. The City Council has also tried to lure the DeKalb County School District with financial incentives to build its new Cross Keys High School on Buford Highway.
Several Buford Highway apartment complexes were among the sites considered by the school district to buy and then raze to make way for the new Cross Keys High School, but in a 4-3 vote the board decided to build it on property it already owns in unincorporated DeKalb County.
The city is also going through a zoning rewrite that will include a Buford Highway Overlay District. But what that district entails also remains to be seen.
While the wheeling and dealing takes place on Buford Highway, the people who live there and created communities there, continue to be forced out.
Myrtle said she has paid her rent on time every month for 18 years. She said she calls the leasing office nearly daily about maintenance repairs she needs for a leaking ceiling or rust in the dishwasher. She’s now on a first-name basis with the city’s code enforcement officer who she praises for helping her and her neighbors get the repairs they need.
Lately, she calls the leasing office daily, asking for someone to help her keep her rent the same.
“It’s very stressful,” she said of the constant worrying.
The two-bedroom apartment she and her son share is spacious but sparsely decorated. Low light comes from one lamp in the living room. A coffee table is covered with papers — a red folder from Grady Hospital where she takes a MARTA shuttle for regular doctor appointments. An AT&T phone bill.
She receives food stamps and Medicare.
What Walter wants most is for his mom to be able to stop worrying about where she is going to live.
“These companies don’t care about people, they’re just about satisfying their investors,” he said. The constant “flipping” of the complexes and viewing the residents living there as expendable is what angers him the most, he said.
“They want to change the community,” he said. “Then they can get rid of their businesses.”