When the landlord’s letter came in July, Janaya Keaton knew her life was about to be upended: The rent on her 1920s bungalow in Adair Park, where the special needs educator and divorcee had lived with her two young sons since 2011, would be increasing $400 to $1,500. Keaton could either pay or leave by August 22. Unable to afford the increased rent, Keaton says she opted for the latter, and the scurry began.
The family landed 19 miles away, in a 500-square-foot studio at an extended stay hotel in Sandy Springs, where the hallways were pungent one recent afternoon with the scent of marijuana smoke, which Keaton tells her sons is evergreen potpourri.
One of Keaton’s children has a disability that includes a lingering brain lesion and pancreatitis, which has precluded her from holding a full-time job since last year but qualified her—after years of trying—for an Atlanta Housing Authority voucher. But that subsidy, she says, wouldn’t cover the new rent. Keaton tells her story to illuminate the importance of affordable housing options, the struggles many longtime Atlantans are facing, and the underlying friction born of change.
The most taxing part of it for me is that this is the first time either of my children have really moved. We’d been in that house seven years, since my oldest son was three. It was a pretty cool house for boys; they could run down a hallway, cut through a room, do it all over again. The house was 2,100 square feet. This [hotel room] is not even a quarter of that. It’s okay if I’m in here alone; it’s difficult when we’re here at one time. I am actively still looking for somewhere, trying to hash out the business of when I can see a house. But it’s stifling. I think I have a gray streak that’s popped up in my hair in the last week or so.
With my sons in here, we can kind of chill out in the bed and make it a fun thing. We can cook—a crockpot, frozen foods, a full refrigerator. However, I can reach the walls if I open my arms. It’s about $314 a week. I think it’s wearing thin. But they are adapting—children are resilient. And I’m very transparent as to what’s going on.
You know, when you have to, in an impromptu manner, find somewhere to live, you start looking at the basics of survival. Which is, cleanliness and safety. That was my top two issues. I wasn’t concerned with the traffic or how far it was away from the children’s school. This was the only [hotel chain] location that had no reports of bedbugs—and, in fact, the reviews spoke to the fact they didn’t have bedbugs. Every other review I read, for every other location, there were infestations, people going to the hospital. I already have a child with a disability, who’s prone to all of this, and who just actually had a facial infection.
I came to Atlanta originally in 1989, from New York. I came back, after college [MA in education, Louisiana Southern University], in 2001. But it’s never been the place for me because it’s so unstable. I’ve watched so many areas of the city vanquished, and then revamped, and torn down, down to the senior citizen homes. This is literally a who-has-the-most-money city.
Adair Park [in the mid-20thcentury] was where the railroad workers, steel plant workers, the steamfitters lived—the black men who literally had a good job, that got a pension, and could buy a house or build a small home. That became their little neighborhood, a working-class African-American neighborhood.
You look up the history of Adair Park, it was full of African-Americans who owned homes, who owned businesses, wrought with social and civil injustices. There’s legendary stories about Adair Park because that is where people stood their ground. And I’m not one to say this is a black neighborhood. I don’t believe in that. I believe in community. What I say is people of [similar] means built that community, and then they passed the houses down. The houses that are being rented are the houses that were lost … the eighties were really bad with crack. Metropolitan Avenue was a drug and prostitute haven. And now the grandchildren have the houses. In that respect, I think Adair Park is very unique, and now it is being stripped. What’s going on now is going to kill what Atlanta represented to many people.
I think Techwood [Homes] was the first projects that were actually rebuilt, and that was when I noticed what was actually happening. They offered everyone in these areas housing vouchers, but they were not for Atlanta—they were for suburban places. The outskirts. These people were just displaced across the board. The apartments they built, the prices were hiked up so high, no one could afford it besides professionals, or individuals making two or three times the rent. As it trickled down and caught on … it affected Adair Park.
Before the Beltline, before these green spaces around the railroads, the railroad areas were typically undesirable. It was low-income. Many property owners let their homes become derelict, didn’t maintain them, but still rented them out. The neighborhoods were a little seedy, at best.
Adair Park is the beginning of the [Beltline’s] Westside Trail. That’s the selling point. They’re bringing people in [on home tours in recent years], and they have maps, and if you’re renting, your house could be on there. They’re doing this like a swap meet. They’re inviting people in to walk up and down the blocks, and they have bullhorns. I saw three tours [total].
I actually did an interview with some of [the tour patrons], a video snippet. I asked them to stop, since they were invading my privacy, and my children’s. I asked what they were doing. I said, “How would you feel if I loaded up everyone I know, and I came on your street, and I got my pen and my pad out, and I just started walking up and down, looking into your yards and your windows, at the bones of your home—how would you feel about that?” Some people were taken aback by my candidness, but I just felt it was important. It was the first inkling when I was finding out that maybe I won’t be living there very much longer.
You started seeing people get evicted. But before they were evicted, you saw their rents getting astronomically raised. There was a push in the neighborhoods to just weed and seed everyone who wasn’t making a particular amount of money. And it worked. But it was very low-key. It didn’t really look to be a systematic thing, in the beginning. Because what are three or four people really going to say?
I think I’m one of the last of the Mohicans that had a housing voucher that was still in Adair Park. But it’s not like the individuals were just some type of leech on the community. They had pensions, jobs. We work. Right now, I know three elderly people that were forced to move so quick, and their homes are still sitting empty. They won’t be rented to people with vouchers—or to regular folks with jobs making $10 or $11 an hour.
Animosity is absolutely the right word. There’s so much contention. As a renter, I’m the outsider, the one that doesn’t belong.
We love our neighborhood. Our neighbors love us. We literally shed tears. It’s sad to even think now. We were a community. They could call me, “Hey, could you pick up Layla from daycare, I’m in traffic. Hey, I need some sugar. Why didn’t you tell me you needed gas money—here’s gas money. You go ahead in the house, I’ll unload these groceries from the truck.” This is the lifestyle we had. There was a row of us. Three houses. I can’t say what the true impact is, because we won’t know until we get into a home, and we won’t have that same relationship with our neighbors.
There are plenty of homeowners, like my neighbors, who don’t want to sell, neither one of them. But their taxes are increasing. They have no recourse. And it’s obsolete to try to rent in Adair Park at this point, because it’s gone up over 50 percent.
Now that this is no longer a renter’s market, these landlords are making it so difficult. They don’t care if you have housing [vouchers] and can guarantee the money. Now they have so many options, so many market-rate tenants applying to their housing. They don’t have to rent to me with a housing voucher, and they’re very biased. And if you have a situation like mine, with this kid [who has periodic medical emergencies, including surgeries, requiring her to stay home from work for extended periods], it doesn’t translate well. Right now, I’m in limbo.
The immediate future? It’s hoping that this guy calls me back and says he’s approving me [to rent a] townhome off Pryor [Street], and I can start the process. That’s the best-case scenario. It’s not an area I want to be in, but it’s being gentrified, so that means it’ll get better. And it’s sad that’s what that means, but that’s how the people in these neighborhoods who are affected see it: When the area starts getting gentrified, oh, it changes, and it becomes nice, but no longer can we be there.
Keaton’s story marks the third installment of “My Atlanta,” a first-person series that shares the experiences of Atlantans—of all ages and backgrounds—who have unique, compelling perspectives on the city. Email suggestions for future subjects to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please use the subject line “MY ATLANTA.”