Forest at Columbia residents, including Sydney Clark (center), confront DeKalb County Commissioner Larry Johnson during a surprise protest at an outdoor event in Decatur on Aug. 4. (Courtesy of Fighters of Forest at Columbia Tenant Association)

Freshly packed and stacked cardboard boxes formed a pile in front of the wall-mounted television inside Cynthia Arnold’s living room. The 68-year-old grandmother had “Sanford and Son” on the tube, but it was harder than usual for her to watch with medical gauze taped over her lacerated right eye.

It’s an injury Arnold said she sustained from a past abusive relationship, but preparing to move this month — against her will — has taken an additional toll.

“I’ve been so depressed,” Arnold said. “My eye, right now, is burning because I’ve been crying and stuff. I don’t know where I’m going.”

Arnold, known as “Ms. Meatball” by her neighbors, is scheduled to have eye surgery later this month. 

She re-aggravated her injury recently after bumping her head while packing that pile of boxes. — The packing started after Arnold received a letter saying she and her fellow Forest at Columbia residents must vacate their homes by the end of August.

Forest at Columbia is a 55-year-old apartment complex located in Panthersville, about 6 miles southeast of Decatur. It includes more than a dozen two-story, multi-unit buildings that residents say are badly damaged and plagued with violent crime. At least 19 homicides have been investigated there since 2009.

Multiple buildings inside the complex have been condemned. Some have leaks, roofing issues, and plumbing problems. Others have broken windows and trash littering common indoor walkways. But rent prices for one to three-bedroom apartments were $1,000 or less per month earlier this year, according to tenants.

Residents said ownership of the complex has changed hands several times in recent years. On June 28, the complex’s latest owner, Meridian Management Group, sent letters to the estimated 200 families living there informing them that they will need to find new places to live so the company can begin renovating the property’s dilapidated buildings on Sept. 1. 

“Please be advised gas, water and electricity will be shut off to all buildings for renovations on August 31,” stated a copy of the lease termination notice obtained by Capital B Atlanta.

Meridian Management hasn’t responded to requests for comment. Some Forest at Columbia residents suspect they’re being illegally evicted and that the veiled threat to cut off their utilities was an intimidation tactic to get them to move out voluntarily with less hassle.

Mart McKenzie, 32, said his family has lived in the complex almost 20 years. “I told my auntie she ain’t gotta move, only thing she gotta do is prepare for what’s to come,” he said. “If you’re going to come over here and try to clean up, clean up right. Don’t just come over here and try to force people that’s been here out they environment.”

Arnold has resided in the complex for the past 14 years. She’s unemployed and lives off the estimated $2,000 a month she receives for her disability and Social Security.

The reason she doesn’t know where she’s going to move is because the rising cost of rent in metro Atlanta has limited relocation options for her and other Forest at Columbia tenants. She’s considering moving into a local homeless shelter.

“You go apply for an apartment, it’s $1,400 to $1,500 a month now,” Arnold said. “You’ve got to make twice as much to move in. It’s just me by myself. I’m one person. I don’t know what to do.”

Arnold’s 70-year-old disabled neighbor, Peggy Barnes, has lived in the complex for five years. Barnes also lives on a fixed income that includes Section 8 rental assistance from the federal government. She can’t afford to move, but also isn’t willing to wait until the end of the month to call Meridian Management’s bluff.

“I’m trying to beg my folks to let me stay a week here and a week there and a week there until I can find me something,” Barnes said. “I’ll move back to the damn country because that’s what they want you to do anyway. I can’t find nothing in no damn [30] days because they [metro Atlanta apartment complexes] got a waiting list and half of the folks is not taking Section 8.”

At least 25 Forest at Columbia residents formed an advocacy group this week to fight back against the move, which organizers say is an attempt to gentrify their majority-Black, low-income community.

The newly created Fighters of Forest at Columbia Tenant Association was founded with the help of activists from the Party for Socialism and Liberation, a progressive advocacy organization.

Some of the complex’s renters said an unidentified on-site property manager previously told them they wouldn’t be receiving their security deposits after moving out. Residents also said they were told Meridian Management will file for eviction in court if tenants don’t vacate the complex voluntarily by the end of the month.

Some want management to let them remain in their homes while renovations take place or to provide them with the means to relocate elsewhere. Others suspect Meridian Management is only fixing up the property so it can dramatically increase rent prices.

Kowanda Durden, 42, said she has lived in Forest at Columbia since 2019. Her three children and granddaughter also live with her in the family’s three-bedroom apartment. In March, Durden signed a one-year lease. It raised her monthly rent from about $700 to $950.

The new lease was set to take effect on May 1. In late June, however, Durden received one of Meridian Management’s lease termination letters. The company also gave her the option to sign a new one-year lease for $1,710 a month, nearly double what she was already paying.

“$1,710? For this? They lost they mind,” Durden said while standing inside her apartment.

Spikes in rent prices have been a pattern in metro Atlanta apartment complexes where often low-income Black residents have been displaced and replaced, according to Party for Socialism and Liberation activist Estevan Hernandez.

“If this keeps happening, there’s not going to be an Atlanta anymore,” he said. “It’ll be something else.”

Durden, too, suspects that Meridian’s perceived threats to cut off utilities are illegal, but she’s tired of the violent crime and poor upkeep at the complex, so she plans to move out as soon as possible.

A recent shooting, she said, left bullet holes inside the bedroom where her grandchild sleeps.

“I’ve gotta get up out of here,” Durden said. “Just give me my money back from when I renewed my lease in March all the way up until you terminated our leases in June, when I just paid you my rent. That’s all I want.”

Fellow Forest at Columbia resident Sydney Clark, 23, was among the group of tenants who participated in a protest outside the DeKalb County Commissioner’s office on July 28.

Clark works as a cashier at a local Burger King. She was also one of the renters who tried to present a list of demands to a property manager outside Forest at Columbia’s rental office on Aug 3. Those demands include the right for renters to remain in their homes, a demand that terminated leases be reinstated, and the right to negotiate changes being made at the complex.

Clark said the property manager on duty refused to accept the group’s letter and fled the scene in his vehicle before security called police to break up their demonstration. She said no one was arrested or injured.

“The majority of us don’t have anywhere else to go,” Clark said. “Some people don’t have money saved, most of us don’t, to just up and move someplace else. … We don’t know who to call, and they [Meridian Management] don’t care.”

Lindsey Siegel is the director of housing advocacy at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, a nonprofit that provides free civil legal services to those who can’t afford an attorney. She said her office has received several calls from Forest at Columbia residents in recent weeks, and it appears the property owner’s actions are indeed illegal.

“We are very concerned about what’s going on at the apartment complex and the notices that people received,” Siegel said.

All tenants in Georgia have a right to a legal eviction process, according to Siegel, who said Forest at Columbia residents can’t be pressured out of their homes without a court order. Since the pandemic began, the local court eviction proceedings have been slower than usual and can take several months to complete, she said.

“While that process is pending, the landlord has no right to do things to force the tenants to move,” Siegel added. “It concerns me that the landlord has threatened to turn off the utilities at the end of August because that would be considered an illegal eviction.”

Forest at Columbia is part of the DeKalb County District 3 territory managed by county Commissioner Larry Johnson. Clark said she and other residents demonstrated outside the commissioners board office last week after Johnson didn’t respond to multiple calls and emails requesting help with their situation.

The office hasn’t responded to phone calls requesting comment. Johnson’s office didn’t immediately respond to a Capital B Atlanta phone call requesting comment.

Clark said she and other Forest at Columbia residents are planning future demonstrations until Johnson addresses their concerns. 

“I’m not afraid to speak and I’m not afraid to tell the truth, and I don’t care who likes it,” she said.

Chauncey Alcorn is Capital B Atlanta's state and local politics reporter.