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| 4 minutes read

Putting a Face Upon Atlanta's Working Poor Families!

If you did not live in the Bankhead neighborhood of northwest Atlanta ten years ago, there was little reason to go there.  Very few outsiders did then. Very few still do now.  Just 2 miles from downtown, the neighborhood offers outsiders nothing. There are no no grocery stores, no shopping malls, no office buildings, no restaurants, no schools, no child care, no playgrounds.  The area remains littered with half filled or abandoned apartment buildings.  Most of the buildings were built in the 1960’s and suffer from neglect and disrepair.  Yet, this is where many of Atlanta’s working poor still live and often die.  It is a land lost and forgotten.  [See, "Putting a Face on our Homeless Veterans", posted  4/5/23 and "Putting a Face on Single Moms Battling Aggressive Cancers", posted 2/8/23]..

In the Spring of 2013, Michael Lucas, of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (AVLF) requested my team (former paralegal Bob McKemie, and his wife, my current paralegal, Tamela McKemie) to assist a group of working poor families who occupied one of these dilapidated apartment complexes. The complex at issue, contained 216 units, 184 of which were abandoned due to urban blight, orders of condemnation, or fire damage.  Each of these abandoned units were either boarded up and vacant, left unsecured, or were occupied by trash, rodents, crack addicts, or vagrants.  The remaining 32 units were occupied by working poor families. 

Many of the units occupied by working poor suffered one or move housing code violations, including no heat, no air conditioning, broken plumbing, or faulty electrical wiring. All of the occupied units were infested by roaches, bed bugs and rodents.  Most of the occupied units were missing smoke detectors and all were replete with roof leaks, broken doors or windows, and holes in walls, floors or ceilings. The exterior conditions of the 26 buildings on the complex were equally abhorrent with missing fire escapes, sagging stairs, broken railings, graffiti laden walls, stolen cars, and raw sewage oozing from broken sewer lines across paved areas.  

The working poor families we were asked to assist did not choose to live under such conditions. The lack of affordable housing in Atlanta gave them no choice.   Living in today's society is  expensive. Choosing where to live is a luxury not available to everyone!  The working poor can not  afford to pay rents and utility bills, buy food, clothes, medicine, and pay for for public transportation.  Once these unavoidable expenses are paid, nothing is left for car payments, insurance of any kind, repairs to their units, much less savings to move elsewhere. The ongoing reluctance and/or inability of the City of Atlanta to enforce housing code violations only adds to the misery of working poor families having to live under such conditions.  [See, "Should Atlanta do a Better Job Enforcing Housing Code Violations at Substandard Rental Properties", posted 3/8/23].  

One of the working poor families we were asked to assist consisted of an elderly grandmother, retired after 40 years as a cafeteria worker, raising her teenage grandson.  She suffered from severe asthma, made far worse by mold and mildew in her unit, caused by moisture invading her living space via roof leaks, faulty plumbing and broken doors and windows. She received approximately $800 per month from social security, $500 of which went to rent and utilities.  Her teenage grandson suffered from headaches and constant respiratory problems.

Another working poor family we assisted consisted of a married couple with 3 very young children. The father worked at a fast-food chain earning minimum wage (about $320/week before taxes).  His wife was a stay-at-home mom.  They paid $800 for rent and utilities.  Their young children suffered from constant coughs, runny noses, and respiratory conditions.  The mother was afraid her young children would suffer serious injury or illness from the hazardous conditions at the complex.  The father was terrified every time he left for work, that his wife and/or children would fall victim to crime, possibly even abducted, raped, or murdered by a crack addict living in one of the many unsecured, vacant units. Each of the working poor families we came to assist dreamt of a better life for themselves and their families, but their financial situations forced them to endure these unthinkable living conditions. Many of the working poor families had lived in the complex for years and had no idea how they could break through this systematic victimization at the hands of the slumlord owner. 

As with many problems in life, the solution for each of these families, simply required clear thinking and a coordinated "plan of attack".  Our first task was to defeat the eviction proceedings the slumlord owner has filed against seven of the working poor families.  Although the living conditions at this dilapidated apartment complex were abhorrent, some place, any place for that matter, was better than living out on the streets. The slumlord claimed each of the families should be evicted because they had withheld rent monies to fund repairs within their individual units. Our first solution came far quicker and easier than anyone could have guessed.  We discovered the slumlord who collected rents and sought to evict the families did not even own the abandoned complex.  He was a fraud, and the real owner was an LLC, based in Las Vegas, that had long since been disbanded.  Moreover, the property taxes and water-sewer bills for the property had not been paid in years and exceeded $1M dollars. The eviction proceedings were summarily dismissed by an astute Judge based upon lack of standing.

The second solution was aided by the fact it was an election year for the Mayor of Atlanta and both we and the AVLF had the ear of local news agencies.  Neither the sitting mayor, nor the candidates, desired publicity over working poor families living under such squalid conditions.  Not to mention the uproar amongst the citizen to discover a commercial property owner had gotten away with unpaid taxes and water-sewer bills in excess of $1M dollars.  So quickly, quietly, and without fanfare the City placed each of the working poor families into low income housing within the metropolitan Atlanta area. 

My team has since helped the AVLF and many other working poor families to escape similar "horrific" living conditions imposed by "unscrupulous" slum lords who seek money over all else.  The working poor are all around us, we just don't see them, and quite frequently many are too proud to be seen. So, next time you go out to your favorite restaurant or fill your car with gas, give some thought as to where and under what conditions the dishwashers, gas attendants and other working poor who make minimum wages live?  Available options for the working poor to afford housing in Atlanta are disappearing fast. 


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