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Boom means bust for low-income families

Good economy, intown renaissance shove poor to wayside

Kandi Thomas stands like a queen, regal and proud, in her doorway, despite the desperate situation she faces. She apologizes for having to stand in the freezing rain to talk, but her home is full of packed cardboard boxes. Thomas and her five children are being forced out of McClendon Gardens, a subsidized Section 8 apartment complex in Lake Claire and the Thomases' home for 10 years.
McClendon Gardens is going upscale. The original owner sold out to a developer who's building a new residential community of townhouses and single-family homes. The 90 or so families at McClendon Gardens had until Oct. 31 to leave. The Thomases are the last to go.
The first apartment Thomas found needed some work. She and her future landlord laid down new linoleum in the kitchen, tidied up the place and arranged for the natural gas to be turned on. But the renter changed her mind at the last minute, leaving Thomas scrambling. That was in early October. She's found — and then lost out on — two other apartments since then.
Now the Thomas family has McClendon Gardens all to themselves. They're the last occupants in a ghost town decorated with the trash and furniture left behind by people who barely had time to pause in their doorways and take mental pictures before they said goodbye to home.
And the Thomases are running out of time. Their gas was cut off Monday, Nov. 20, the day before temperatures were expected to plunge into the 20s.
Some of the other units are already being prepped for destruction. Buildings less than 200 yards from Thomas' apartment are wrapped in red tape to warn passersby about asbestos removal underway. Signs warn of "lung cancer hazard" in the area.
Thomas knows she can't stay here much longer. A complex in Cobb County has an opening, but an inspector has to make sure it's fit for occupancy. "I was encouraged that I found a place until I saw where it was. It's a ghetto, a very undesirable place to raise children," she says. "I wouldn't move there unless I was in these dire straits."
Atlanta City Councilmember Cathy Woolard says the McClendon Gardens situation is a tragic one, but there's little anyone can do about it. The owner and the developer cleared all the legal hurdles before the eviction notices went out. "It's just what happens when the high cost of land creates these scenarios," Woolard says.
Thomas has a different take. "It's like a conspiracy going around to get all the black people out of the city, with all these lofts and new homes going up everywhere for white people. It's an effort to try to change the racial composition of the city."
Would that be gentrification?
"See, I knew it was a process, but I didn't know it had a name. I thought it had to have a name though," she says.
McClendon Gardens stood out in Lake Claire, which is undergoing a "revitalization" like ones in Grant Park, Castleberry Hills, Cabbage Town and East Atlanta. The complex is surrounded by well-kept single-family homes, some three and four stories high.
The people of McClendon Gardens, almost all African-American, stood out too. The departure of those residents has some Lake Claire folks mourning the loss of "diversity" in the neighborhood.
The Atlanta City Council has acknowledged that gentrification has some less-than-sunny side effects. It created a gentrification task force in April, and that group picked its leader, Georgia Tech professor Larry Keating, Nov. 15.
The 10-12 member group is supposed to figure out ways to maintain economic growth without destroying low-income housing. One solution — have the city build low-income units for every one claimed by gentrification.
In McClendon Gardens, gentrification has a domino effect. At Mary Lin Elementary School, the number of students is dwindling because of the exodus from McClendon Gardens. "They trickled out slowly — it's a very heart-wrenching process," Principal Cindy Smith says. "One little boy, a kindergartner I formed a close attachment with, left [two Fridays ago]. I cried. We both cried."
Fifty students who lived at McClendon Gardens no longer attend Mary Lin, leaving enrollment there at about 385. Thirty more are expected to leave before 2001.
Fewer students means a cut in Mary Lin's budget. With the eviction of the McClendon Gardens tenants, the school is facing a 20 percent funding decrease. Losing that funding means two or three teachers could lose their jobs.
"That's a possibility," Smith says. "We'll have to look at the projected enrollment when we take a count on how many students we have." She'll find out in February how much of the budget will be cut.
Thomas, on the other hand, is still searching for a new home, so she can make way for the bulldozers and cement trucks, and the SUVs and BMWs that will follow.
Kevin Griffis contributed to this article.