Cover Story: The high price of hope
Angel Poventud is rebuilding a house in Southwest Atlanta. Why is everyone making that so insanely difficult?
Last October, when Angel Poventud purchased a home on Lexington Avenue in Southwest Atlanta, he didn't invest in a property so much as he invested in a vision. Eventually, the wide dirt path that forms a trench abutting his deep, formerly kudzu-covered backyard will be a paved portion of the Atlanta Beltline, a project he's long championed. Just beyond the Beltline corridor, a vast expanse of grassy land is slated to become a multi-acre organic urban farm. And, someday, the 1,200-square-foot shell of a structure that stands on his property will be a two-bedroom, one-bathroom historic bungalow with a wide front porch and a view of Adair Park.
That's the plan, anyway.
At this point, it's really less a house and more the possibility of a house. It was vacant for years before Poventud bought it, and the structure nearly had to be taken down to the studs before it would again be habitable. There are no windows or walls. A lot of the wood flooring is intact, but gaping holes throughout the house give way to beams and the dirt crawlspace. Slabs of siding are missing, and half the roof is covered with a blue tarp to keep the rain out. But the bones of the house, built in the '20s, are solid. Walking (carefully) though the structure on a recent morning — $6,000 blueprints in hand — Poventud paints a nice picture of what it could look like when it's completed. But his optimism is occasionally overtaken by reality. Work on the house has stalled while the bank decides whether to extend a loan for construction. Depending on its decision, there is a possibility that the work he has put in thus far was all for nothing. "Six months from now I could be doing cartwheels around here," Poventud says, standing in what could eventually be a living room. "Or six months from now I could still be waiting for the bank to give me permission on a loan and fighting with the code enforcement."
Everything about the purchase seemed right. The still-shaky state of the real estate market in Southwest Atlanta made it possible for Poventud to buy a home on a large lot in a historic district, directly on the Beltline, for the bargain price of $14,000 — meaning he could theoretically own a home for less than he's currently paying for his Midtown apartment each month. As a bonus, Poventud was doing something good for a neighborhood he'd always liked. Adair Park wasn't hit quite as hard by mortgage fraud and the subsequent foreclosure crisis as adjacent neighborhoods like Pittsburgh, but it contains a lot of vacant homes that need to be purchased, fixed up, and reoccupied if the neighborhood is going to rebound. It was an investment in a vision and an investment in the future of Adair Park.
But a few months after the sale went through — with the first stages of work in full swing — code compliance officials issued a notice for a number of violations, several of which had been on file since before Poventud even bought the home. Neighbors came to his defense, and city councilman Michael Julian Bond intervened on his behalf. The department is off his case for now, but Poventud assumes it's only a matter of time until they return. Currently, he's dealing with stringent Urban Development Corporation guidelines that would require him to spend as much on historically accurate windows for his modest home as he spent on the entire house. And there won't be money for windows of any kind if the bank decides loaning someone money to fix up a home in Southwest Atlanta presents too big a risk.
Were Poventud an investor — someone with the capital to buy and fix up the house quickly and without the help of a bank — none of these things would be an issue. Adair Park residents don't have anything against investors, per se, but owner-occupiers like Poventud are ideal. Jay Melton, president of the neighborhood association Adair Park Today, told CL, "Angel is exactly the person we want to move here. Someone who's going to come in and meet his neighbors and engage with them. Investors are great, but the bad ones just sit on the homes." But as Poventud's predicament demonstrates, it can be tough for individuals of regular means to take advantage of rock-bottom home prices on fixer-uppers. With the system operating as it is on several levels, well-intentioned people run the risk of being shut out of Southwest Atlanta when Southwest Atlanta needs them most.
Apart from his work on behalf of the Beltline, Poventud is probably best known as the guy you'll occasionally see rollerblading around town in a form-fitting, lime green, A-line dress. It's his "thing." By trade, he's a train conductor currently in training to become a freight train engineer. He's also an exceptionally pleasant human being. In 2009, when he was temporarily out of work on the railroad, Poventud was profiled in a CL piece that asked particularly happy Atlantans why, exactly, they were so happy. Poventud said, "My personal motto is, 'No one can pay you what your free time is worth.' When you find yourself with free time, try to embrace it and not be afraid of it."
Until recently, most of what little free time he had was spent at the Adair Park house, clearing the backyard of kudzu, boarding up windows, and dismantling the house to a point where it could be put back together. Poventud was essentially recruited into the neighborhood. He'd previously been looking at homes in Old Fourth Ward, but was priced out when Fourth Ward Park opened up last year. "It didn't matter what neighborhood I ended up in," he says, "as long as it meant being next to this project that I had been volunteering with for seven years." The condition of the house itself was, perhaps, a bit of an afterthought.
The first general contractor he worked with — a guy a family member met at Home Depot who had more than a couple Better Business Bureau complaints associated with his name — estimated the renovations would cost somewhere between $70,000 and $120,000. Turns out, that estimate was a little optimistic; his current contractor recently quoted him a more realistic $146,000. Firing the contractor and hiring a new one set him back about a month, but that frustration was secondary to what he was going through with code enforcement at the time.
In December, Poventud received a call from Atlanta Code Compliance alerting him to several of the property's pretty obvious deficiencies, ones that existed well before he bought the place. They said the paint was peeling when, really, the exterior paint is pretty much non-existent. They said the roof needed to be repaired — the roof that was draped with an enormous tarp to cover the holes. He found the call almost funny. "I said to them, 'Have you been to my house? Have you seen this place?" Poventud recalls. According to Poventud, the officer said she hadn't, but the violations had been on file for some time, and she would send a notice.
About a month later, the notice arrived. To replace siding, scrape and paint the whole house, and replace the roof, Poventud was given two weeks.
He and his friends had made a valiant effort to clean up a property that had been derelict for a long time, but he simply couldn't make any major repairs until he received a bank loan. And banks have been wary about issuing loans associated with residences in the financially hard-hit 30310 ZIP code.
For the next several weeks, Poventud says he called code compliance three to five times a day to explain his circumstances and get an extension. According to the notice, he could have been fined as much as $1,000 per violation for noncompliance, money he simply didn't have. Eventually, he was granted an extension — an additional 10 days.
It took the intervention of at-large councilman Michael Julian Bond to get code compliance off Poventud's back. Neighbors sent letters to several city officials to request clemency on Poventud's behalf, and Bond was one of only a couple who responded. "I was glad to help him out," Bond says. "He's trying to make an investment there. How does that neighborhood ever rebound if there aren't policies in place that allow them to grow?"
It's a good question. Poventud also wonders why a city councilman's involvement was necessary to get code compliance to do something as simple as listen to his concerns and weigh them against the benefit his efforts could bring about. He worries about what becomes of homebuyers who aren't as well connected as he is. "Our government is a disaster," he says. "I volunteer for the city, but I've actually never dealt with our city government. If I am going to go through this, what about the poor SOB who doesn't even know where City Hall is, and doesn't have a Facebook core who know to call Bond's office for help?"
Code compliance's renewed interest in taking violators to task presents something of a catch-22 for residents of Adair Park. The code compliance department was poorly run and almost nonresponsive for years. Burned-out shells of houses and dilapidated properties all over Atlanta — but particularly in Southwest Atlanta — were allowed to deteriorate, and their derelict owners were confronted with often laissez-faire enforcement when they were confronted at all. Code compliance was recently whipped into shape by Lt. C.J. Davis, a former APD Internal Affairs officer, and complaints and violations that hadn't been acted upon for years are suddenly being dealt with. But the department's sudden zeal, in an area like Adair Park, can be as much a curse as it is a blessing. Adair Park Today president Jay Melton says, "It's, like, holy crap, they're doing things, but now they're just trying to clear a backlog, moving forward on complaints from the past, and not listening to residents that are trying to communicate with them. So, it's a mixed bag." (Davis did not respond to CL's calls for comment.)
Another challenge: Since 1994, Adair Park has been a historic district. This ensures that the housing stock conforms to certain architectural standards, preserving the look and feel of what's really a charming neighborhood. However, the standards can be restrictive, expensive, and prevent people from making their homes more energy efficient. Derrick Duckworth, an Adair Park resident and real estate agent whose Beltline Team focuses on selling properties near the project — and who sold Poventud his home — says, "It's been a thought that it prevents people from buying a property. They might choose to go to a different neighborhood."
Poventud, a champion of historic preservation, wasn't deterred by the designation. But he might have been had he known how much it was going to cost to buy and install windows that conform to historic standards, which are overseen by the city's Urban Design Commission. "Apparently," Poventud says, "we have one of the most restrictive window codes in the city. If I replaced all 22 windows with the windows required, I would end up spending more than I paid for the house on windows alone." Thus far, he's had trouble communicating this to the UDC. He says they're currently engaged in a "words war" about "repairing" versus "replacing" the windows — he's trying to explain that there's nothing to repair, so they have to be replaced.
Of Poventud's dilemma, Duckworth says, "There has to be a rhyme to the reason. Common sense needs to come into play. Say it's a $50,000 house and if you do great work it can be a $100,000 house — but you have to put $150,000 into it? It's ridiculous." He suggests the neighborhood and its residents should have more say in the matter. "I can say from my experience, from my time in the neighborhood, when you talk about historic guidelines, dealing with the policy, it seems like there would be some kind of advisory board. So, Angel bought this house, let's rubberstamp him getting windows that are comparable — not million-dollar windows."
Essentially, it would mean dealing with homebuyers based on their unique circumstances. Councilman Bond thinks a similar strategy could be employed when dealing with code compliance cases as well as broader real estate issues, like the extension of bank loans. "These things are going to have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis," he says. "You don't know who you're dealing with really — it could be someone like Angel or a remote investor from out of the state or out of the city. There ought to be a concerted effort to incentivize people to do what Angel is doing. To become homeowners. There ought to be a layering on every level — state, city, and national — so folks can invest in these homes and build these neighborhoods."
In order to purchase the property in Adair Park, Poventud took out a loan against his 401(k). That was $14,000. The blueprints he had drawn up by an architect — so he could hire a general contractor and get a renovations estimate to submit to the bank — cost him $6,000. He spent $500 to rent a dumpster during the interior demolition phase. And he estimates he's spent roughly another $3,000 on miscellanea: ladders, yard debris bags, garbage bags, and wheelbarrows.
The fate of his investment — the money, the time, the aggravation — currently rests in the hands of an appraiser from the bank, who'll decide if the home could ever be worth the $146,000 it's going to cost to fix it up. A few weeks ago, the depressing reality finally got to a notoriously cheerful Poventud, and he wept. "The reason I broke down in tears is I realized that after six months of this, I could potentially have to sell this property for a loss. The $6,000 I spent for the architect, the $14,000 I paid for the lot, the five or six months of amazingly hard work that I, my friends, and the neighborhood did — I could lose all of that."
Banks have been particularly gun-shy about loans associated with homes in the 30310 ZIP code. "I get it. They fucked up five years ago," Poventud says. "They're trying not to do it again, but the pendulum has swung so hard to the other side that they're making it impossible for people." Even if the appraiser does decide that once it's been renovated, the home could be sold for $146,000, there's also the issue of the state of the entire market — whether it's "declining" or "severely declining." That determination will affect the percentage he'll have to put down on the loan. If the appraiser says it's "severely declining," it could require Poventud to put down as much as 25 percent of the $146,000 — and he simply might not be able to afford it.
"I don't know how anyone expects us to repopulate this city if every person is going to have to go through what I am going through right now," Poventud says, framed in the doorway of a house that may or may not eventually be his home. "That's really the last line of the story: At this point, we are never going to repopulate this city."