Grove Park residents are accusing a faith-based, affordable housing nonprofit of hindering Black homeownership in their community by buying up houses, refusing to sell them, and turning them into substandard apartments for rent.
Grove Park Renewal’s stated mission is to “empower neighbors through quality, dignified housing.” Helping renters from the majority-Black, northwest Atlanta neighborhood become homeowners was part of that mission, according to a former board member and a 2020 blog post on the group’s website. It launched in 2013 as a for-profit company, aiming to turn dilapidated and vacant houses into newly renovated, but affordable, homes.
“Gentrification — with Justice” was the vision.
But Grove Park Renewal’s relationship has soured with some of the neighborhood’s residents, who say the organization has been turning houses into leased duplexes, triplexes, and quadruplexes, in violation of the area’s zoning for single-family housing. The units are often tiny, and some don’t come with full-size stoves.
But the city, so far, has been supportive of Grove Park Renewal and determined the group’s actions are legal. And for some of the properties’ residents, the units provide adequate, necessary housing.
The growing conflict underscores the dire need for more affordable housing across Atlanta and how that need at times clashes with legacy residents’ desire to promote Black homeownership and maintain their single-family home lifestyle.
Grove Park resident LaTonya Gates resigned from the nonprofit’s board of directors in November because she no longer agrees with what the organization is doing in her community.
“Looking at those duplexes and hearing the complaints from some of the residents, I’m like, ‘I can no longer do this. I can’t be a part of this,’” she said.
Members of Grove Park Renewal’s board of directors have declined repeated requests for comment.
Gates is a close friend of Grove Park Renewal co-founder Chuck Johnston, who stepped down from his leadership role by early 2016, according to his memoir website.
Johnston has not responded to requests for comment. Gates said helping neighborhood residents become homeowners was a key part of Johnston’s original vision for Grove Park Renewal. That changed, she said, after Johnston decided someone with more real estate and community development experience should helm the company.
Grove Park Renewal officially became a nonprofit in 2018.
“At the time, they were saying the people they wanted to serve were not ready to purchase a home, but they could assist them in affordable living,” Gates said of Grove Park Renewal’s leaders.
Hip-Hop artist R. Swift said he moved from Atlanta’s West End into one of Grove Park Renewal’s rental properties in 2016 because he “just wanted a dope community that I could raise my family in.”
He moved out last year, he said, after leaders of the nonprofit refused to let him buy the house he was renting. He said the organization’s leaders told him that “Grove Park Renewal is not in the business of selling houses.”
“They said that’s not in their new mission statement as a nonprofit organization,” Swift stated. He said he eventually purchased a home elsewhere.
Atlanta’s single-family zoning battle
After explicitly racist zoning codes were outlawed in the mid-20th century, white communities adopted more subtle approaches like single-family zoning to make their neighborhoods financially inaccessible to Black families.
Residents argue that single-family zoning is necessary to promote upward mobility in the community, which is 90% Black. Some of Gates’ neighbors have struggled for years to acquire single-family homes and get away from renting apartments in public housing facilities and other multiunit housing complexes, she said.
“They fought for this neighborhood to have single-family homes,” Gates said. “I personally feel like that’s what’s needed. We need to build stronger Black communities.”
Architect Eric Kronberg is the co-founder of Kronberg Urbanists + Architects, the firm that designs affordable housing units for Grove Park Renewal and other nonprofits throughout the Southeast.
The self-described “zoning whisperer” said that in order to avoid the types of dwellings groups like Grove Park Renewal are developing, Atlanta residents need to change their neighborhood zoning laws to let individuals and developers build more affordable home types for sale, such as duplexes and triplexes.
“We would love to help Grove Park Renewal deliver more for-sale housing in Grove Park,” Kronberg said. “We gotta have different zoning.”
Jahnee Prince, commissioner of the Atlanta Department of City Planning, agreed with Kronberg that zoning changes are needed in some parts of the city.
“We don’t have enough places for triplexes and quadruplexes and small-scale apartment buildings,” Prince said. “I’m not saying we want to get rid of our single-family zoning. You know we don’t. But we do need more places for affordable housing, and we are actively working on that.”
The city has shown support for Grove Park Renewal’s efforts, which has frustrated some in the neighborhood who fear the standard of living for low-to-middle income Black Atlanta residents is declining as rental units get smaller and the number of available homes for purchase also shrinks.
Last year, Atlanta City Council approved giving Grove Park Renewal a $500,000 donation from the city’s affordable housing trust fund to construct 40 housing units on 10 lots. Kronberg said his firm has worked on “20 or 30” similar projects, primarily on the west and south sides of Atlanta.
Grove Park Neighborhood Association Vice President Samantha Watkins doesn’t feel like folks in the neighborhood and across the city are fully informed about the changes being approved to their communities.
“This is so much bigger than Grove Park,” Watkins said. “This is some fucked-up shit that the City Council is allowing and the mayor is allowing to happen, if you want to be point-blank and honest.”
Community concerns about Grove Park Renewal’s focus not only on its reliance on rentals, but also the size of and amenities in its rental units.
That’s because many of the rentals Grove Park Renewal has created are classified in the city’s housing code as accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and “servants’ quarters,” also known as guest houses. These rental units are much smaller than what many Atlantans are accustomed to.
Atlanta had the largest average apartment size in the nation in 2016, with typical one-bedroom units containing 786 square feet of living space and two bedrooms having 1,125 square feet, according to a RentCafé study released the same year. City law requires ADUs be limited to 750 square feet. Servants’ quarters must be limited to 30% the size of the primary dwelling.
Some of Grove Park Renewal’s units have hot plates instead of conventional stoves because Atlanta’s zoning code bars servants’ quarters from having full kitchens.
The size of the average Atlanta apartment has shrunk dramatically over the course of the past seven years in response to rising costs, Kronberg said. He said 350-square-foot studios and 400-square-foot one-bedrooms are “the new normal.” Two bedrooms are often 650 square feet to 700 square feet, he said.
“That’s what everybody’s designing because you’re designing to the rents developers think everybody can afford,” Kronberg said.
Grove Park Renewal’s use of servants’ quarters prompted a heated exchange at a neighborhood association meeting in June attended by members of the nonprofit’s board. Some Black neighborhood residents were upset by the terminology and lack of amenities in the undersized units.
“As a Christian organization, you think it’s right to put us in servant quarters and not give us a stove?” A Black Grove Park resident asked at the gathering.
“I think it’s a step up from not having a house,” a white neighbor responded, igniting a chorus of groans from others in the room.
Former Executive Director Justin Bleeker, who — like Grove Park Renewal’s founders — is white, came under added fire for not showing up to the meeting to address residents’ concerns about the organization’s practices.
Erika Brown, chair of the nonprofit’s majority-Black board of directors, and fellow board member Imani Swoope appeared in his place, saying they asked him not to attend.
The organization announced Bleeker’s resignation earlier this month, following months of neighborhood residents’ criticism of his leadership.
Grove Park Renewal said in an emailed statement that its next leader “will work closely with the Board and staff to uphold the organization’s values and maintain the momentum of its important work.”
“We recognize that the community’s voice is integral to the success of our organization, and we value the insights and perspectives that community members can provide,” the nonprofit said in the statement.
While Grove Park Renewal’s renovated housing units are a nuisance to some legacy residents, they’ve been a blessing to some low-income tenants who’ve moved into them.
The nonprofit’s affordable rental program offers qualifying individuals and families a chance to live in one of its properties at an income-adjusted rate.
Loretta Hayes, 68, lives in a small Grove Park Renewal unit that she says only has one door to enter and exit the dwelling and limited kitchen facilities.
“I can cook right here,” Hayes said while gesturing toward a hot plate burner sitting on her countertop, which stands only a few feet away from the bed where she sleeps.
Hayes previously worked in housekeeping for JW Marriott in Buckhead before moving into her current home, which she said is smaller than her previous home — a rented house on Madrona Street in Grove Park — but also better. She said her last place was condemned after she moved out.
“The owner wasn’t keeping it up,” Hayes said. “They’re keeping it up here. … It suits me for my purposes.”
Some Grove Park Renewal rental units don’t have separate electricity meters, forcing tenants in connected units to split the cost of a single electric bill.
Grove Park Renewal tenant Tracie Hendricks doesn’t mind.
“Everybody pays a portion,” she told Capital B Atlanta of her and her neighbors during a visit to her home in July. “I’m good with it. I’m a very simple person. I don’t complain much when it comes to whatever. I’m just more grateful because we have really good neighbors.”
Hendricks, 50, said she and her 13-year-old son previously lived in Tennessee and were homeless for about eight months before they applied for Grove Park Renewal’s affordable rental program.
“I’m more grateful to, one, have a place; two, have neighbors that I know if something happens to me or whatever, my child can go right up there and tell them. They’re going to come straight down,” Hendricks said. “To me, that’s bigger than splitting electricity.”
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