The real estate firm that displaced hundreds of Buckhead’s Darlington Apartments tenants for a “luxury lifestyle” renovation should pay the five-figure tab for social service workers who gave emergency assistance to tenants, a local nonprofit says. Meanwhile, the firm’s management division is a direct partner of another nonprofit that helps tenants — including those at the Darlington — avoid homelessness, in what the group’s director calls the “double-edged sword” of real estate companies’ charity sometimes being directed at problems they helped create.
Buckhead Christian Ministry was hit with roughly $100,000 to $150,000 in unbudgeted costs to help more than three-dozen Darlington tenants, according to president and CEO Keeva Kase, who said that figure will rise with ongoing assistance. A couple of big donations from Piedmont Hospital and the Waterfall Foundation helped, he said, but not enough.
“Thankfully, Buckhead has got resources,” Kase said. “But even still, the community shouldn’t be paying for these guys’ profits. Our churches, hospitals [and] nonprofits are subsidizing these … investment firms who are sucking money out of our community and displacing people in our back yards.”
The 50-year-old Darlington tower at 2025 Peachtree Road is famous for its “Atlanta Population Now” sign and was long known as one of the few affordable rental options in Buckhead. In 2017, it was bought for $30 million by Sandy Springs-based Varden Capital Properties, which is known for acquiring and renovating lower-rent apartment complexes around the South. Varden’s property management arm, Hammond Residential Group, last year began vacating the Darlington, culminating in mass evictions that triggered a public protest in September.
Varden and Hammond have not responded to phone calls and their plans and timeline for the Darlington remain unclear. The tower’s website now pitches it as a “luxury lifestyle” complex, while advertised rental rates for the small units remain relatively affordable at $641 to $792.
While John Marti, Hammond’s vice president of operations, carried out the Darlington displacement, he also continued to serve as a founding board member of Open Doors, a Decatur-based nonprofit that connects people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness with landlords who are willing to lower barriers to signing leases.
Open Doors Executive Director Matt Hurd said his group has worked with Marti and Hammond since 2013 to find apartments for “hundreds” of tenants — including in the Darlington. And, Hurd said, Marti had made him aware of the Darlington displacement plan from the start, 18 months ago.
“We had discussed it, and we were part of the initiative to relocate remaining tenants that needed assistance,” Hurd said.
Asked about the situation of working with a partner company to mitigate a displacement it was itself conducting, Hurd said, “I think that’s the reality across the board. … Our property partners are our bread and butter, but they’re also in business.”
“It’s a double-edged sword,” he said of the nonprofit’s work with real estate firms, but added that rising rents are reality across today’s market, and affordability is a complex challenge.
“What I can say with confidence is, groups like Hammond and all of our real estate partners … [are active] in trying to make sure affordability is a reality, especially [for] people exiting homelessness,” Hurd said. “Hammond’s really worked well with us in not only lowering those barriers, but sometimes lowering rents. … Partners like Hammond are just absolutely essential.”
For Kase at the Buckhead Christian Ministry, however, Varden and Hammond have taken a big bite out of the budget for its own work helping people with homelessness. And, he says, the displacement has disrupted a community and a local workforce.
As of early December, Kase said, his group had aided 37 Darlington tenants with moving expenses, rental deposits on new apartments and similar issues. That cost $35,000 to $45,000 in direct cash and more in staff time and other costs, he said. And he expects those costs to rise, as the group continues to help tenants, including with rent assistance in new housing that in most cases costs more.
“We’re just not done with the Darlington. These folks are clients of ours now,” Kase said. “I expect we’ll be supplying those folks with clothing, food and rent into the future.”
Among the assistance Buckhead Christian Ministry itself received was a $25,000 donation from neighboring Piedmont Hospital, according to Kase. The hospital did not respond to questions.
Part of the reason for that donation was that many Darlington tenants worked at the hospital, Kase said. The displacement also disrupted the complex’s own sense of community, he said.
“They had a church at the Darlington. They met in the lobby on Sunday,” Kase said he was told by a former tenant. “That’s really special.”
Records of where 32 Darlington tenants assisted by Buckhead Christian Ministry now live show that only a few were able to stay in Buckhead and all were scattered around the metro area. Some ended up as far as 12 miles away. Several now live in other cities, including Clarkston, Smyrna, College Park, Decatur and Doraville.
“Hopefully, Varden will do the right thing and make the ministry and community whole,” Kase said. “More importantly, I hope the community will take steps to make displacement events like the one at the Darlington more humane, thoughtful, and for the benefit and betterment of our community.”