ATLANTA — On the staircase outside his apartment at Summerdale Commons, Damien Small, 23, sat watching his 4-year-old son ride a green bicycle with training wheels up and down the sidewalk. Small works in maintenance at Fairfield Inn & Suites near Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, a few miles south of this apartment complex in southwest Atlanta.
In April he moved here from Stone Mountain, Ga., an Atlanta suburb, to share a two-bedroom apartment with his girlfriend.
He’d heard Summerdale Commons was in a high-crime area, but he hasn’t seen any crime. What he has seen are some changes in the place over the summer.
“It’s a dramatic change in appearance” because the debris and litter is gone, he said. “They got somebody to actually pick it up. It could also be that the people who make the mess no longer live here.”
Across the complex, graffiti written on the sidewalk had been partially removed. But the faint outline of “F—k the haters” could still be read.
Tiffany Humphrey, 38, has lived in the complex for 10 years. Her two youngest kids, ages 5 and 7, go to the new free after-school program provided at Summerdale Commons. She said the complex is safer than it used to be.
“Now these kids can come out [and play] without being scared,” she said.
Bought in June by TriStar Real Estate Investment, the complex was being reshaped to TriStar’s business model for socially responsible low-income housing: Get rid of crime, keep the rent stable, maintain the place and provide free after-school care. Residents also get connected to health care providers through the Morehouse School of Medicine.
The company’s idea is that combined, those practices reduce the high move-in and move-out rate common in apartments serving low-income residents. But ironically, the first step by the new landlord could cause one-fifth of the residents to move out.
Surveillance and arrests
Melissa Gamble, who runs the leasing office, stands outside and points to a newly installed security camera at the top of a tall pole at the entrance. Three had been added to the property. The cameras are monitored by the Atlanta Police Department.
The company had met with the Atlanta Police Department and pulled any existing police reports on residents. The goal was to identify the “bad elements,” Gamble said, and move out some of the drug activity.
Criminal activity is a violation of the lease agreement and tenants can be removed, she said. Music that’s too loud and having too many people coming and going are also violations, she said.
Under TriStar management, some tenants move out voluntarily.
“They get it together or move out,” she said. “A lot of the people don’t like the changes. They don’t like a new sheriff in town. You might lose 20 percent of residents.”
In an era of high incarceration, some might question a wholesale effort to arrest tenants with outstanding warrants.
The practice is nothing new, said Deirdre Oakley, professor of sociology and affiliated faculty member at the Urban Studies Institute of Georgia State University. “The [public] housing authority was doing this sort of thing,” she said.
“As an owner, you do have the right to work with the police,” she said. But she has conflicting feelings about it.
The trouble with arresting people
While some arrest warrants are probably for major offenses, others are for minor ones.
“It means the residents get displaced,” she said. “That’s not good. It’s sort of a double-edged sword. You don’t know how many were affecting the complex.”
On the other hand, the practice is another way of stabilizing life for residents who remain, she said. “The drug dealers and prostitutes leave and go someplace else,” she said.
Fear of crime goes down, children can play outside and the well-being of the residents increases, she said.
Another consideration is that drug dealers and prostitutes may also have children who need a stable place to live.
But stability has a surprising upside.
“The landlord benefits because the residents stay on the property,” said Audrea Rease, vice president, asset management for TriStar and executive director of its associated nonprofit organization, Star-C. Costs associated with vacant units and getting new tenants are kept down.
Summerdale Commons has 100 units of two- and three-bedroom apartments with an average rent of $776 per month. The adjacent Springview complex, bought by TriStar in the summer and now being renovated, has 595 units.
“We try to make sure the rents stay affordable,” Gamble said.
When tenants are going in and out, it changes the children’s grades, she said. “If we can stabilize your home environment, we can affect your school.”
Poverty, eviction and high mobility
Mobility among renters in poverty is startlingly high. In one year’s time, about 10 percent of Americans move, but more than 20 percent of those in poverty move, according to Robin Phinney, a University of Minnesota political scientist, in a 2013 article in Social Services Review. Families with children who receive welfare assistance moved at a much higher rate, with 65 to 70 percent relocating within a three-year period, according to Phinney. Parents can easily fall behind on rent if an extra expense occurs such as a car breakdown or a medical bill. Those paying $800 in rent and working two jobs at $10 to $12 an hour could easily be tripped up financially and forced to look for a cheaper place to live.
But high mobility among low-income families is also driven by a landlord practice that until recently has been largely overlooked — rampant eviction of tenants for the slightest reason.
An eviction notice was filed for more than 20 percent of Fulton County’s rental houses in 2015, and 15 percent of households got evicted, according to a 2016 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. While the report focused on single-family houses, it said eviction rates at apartment complexes are even higher.
Large corporate landlords — 8 percent more likely to file eviction notices than small landlords — are driving the problem, according to the report.
And specific corporate landlords are frequent evictors. Some evict one-third of their rental households each year, the report said. Housing instability among their renters is 18 percent higher than among others.
This slumlord practice has a big impact on schools, and it’s part of what landlord Marjy Stagmeier of TriStar is trying to reverse.
School held accountable for a problem outside their walls
“School officials have absolutely no control on students being mobile, yet they are being held accountable for ensuring that all students graduate from high school and that the school reaches the acceptable graduation rate,” said Russell Rumberger, professor emeritus in the school of education at the University of California at Santa Barbara
“What can a school do if it has a highly mobile, transient population living in poverty?” he asked.
Children living at Summerdale Commons make up 10 percent of the students at Cleveland Avenue Elementary School, Stagmeier said. She expects another 10 percent of the student population will be from the adjacent Springview complex after it is renovated.
“Once we get that up and running with the after-school program, we’re going to see the school start to thrive,” Stagmeier said with confidence.
Stable rent, an after-school program and affordable health care are the ingredients — in that order, she said.
Kids after school
When school began in August, Kristin Hemingway began an after-school program for fewer than 20 children housed in a small room behind the Summerdale Commons leasing office. A copier and folding chairs were crowded into a storage closet. But Hemingway had put colorful pillows on the floor and taped up bright posters on the wall with encouraging slogans: “The best way to predict your future is to create it” and “If you dream it you can do it.”
Part of her job has been to make a strong connection with the school. She visits kids’ classrooms, checks in with their teachers and has even been welcomed into staff meetings. She sees herself as a partner with the parents and sometimes as a liaison between them and the teachers.
Stagmeier’s goal is to help the residents who remain Summerdale Commons and Springview thrive, and in turn, help the school thrive. And it is within the power of landlords to do it, she believes.