Dear Decaturish – Decatur is failing its oldest residents
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I am writing this specifically to be used as a preface to any recommendations made to the City Commissioners from the most recent Affordable Housing Task Force.
This narrative is an attempt to help commissioners and others understand the grave circumstances dealt to long term Decatur residents, who are being shuttled aside and forced out by wealthy new residents.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
This seems to be the response from almost everyone who is engaged in the process of understanding the affordable housing needs for the City. While some staff appear to recognize the issue, most residents stare blankly at any attempt I make to explain that we are being forced out. Even those engaged in the task force to address affordable housing are focused primarily on developing “new units” for new residents or most especially the workforce. Hearing that repeatedly appears self-serving at best. We want teachers to live here, workers, etc…yes of course. But there are those of us still here who deserve to stay. No one seems to care much about that. Even the talk for workforce housing and other income ranges seems to be cloaked in pity at times and other times obligation. And while the Affordable Housing Task Force has a committee to address “naturally occurring affordable units” the suggestions are focused primarily on helping landlords retain affordable apartments. It is no surprise, since few “original” residents remain in this city and those on this iteration of the Task Force were of course, hand-picked. Very few, if anyone seems to understand that a few of us, who built this city are still here and deserve to stay. Everyone knows that Elizabeth Wilson has been talking about this issue for decades. Very few seemed to listen to her. No one is listening now either. When I raised this issue with great passion in my task force committee meeting, I was met with “We heard you,” as a method of silencing me. No one, other than Decatur Planning and Economic Development Director Angela Threadgill and Intern, Kristen, seemed to understand. The Decatur I once knew was better than this.
We matter because we did the hard work of building a safe community where wealthy people now want to live. In the mid 1980’s and early 1990’s Oakhurst was nothing like it is today. There was no village. There were no streetlights. It wasn’t referred to as Oakhurst. It was simply called South Decatur. By the late 1980’s some African American widows and a few single white women banded together to address the problems. Key leaders were Miss Mary Whitehead and Robinette Kennedy from Second Avenue, Miss Gussy Lowe from Third Avenue, and me. We started by going door to door. We organized cleanups, Thanksgiving potlucks and meetings, meetings, meetings.
We lived through drug crimes, murders, break-ins and more, with an unresponsive city and police who seemed unprepared for the crime. Not only would no one here today consider living in such a neighborhood, I doubt anyone would even drive through the area. If you wanted to walk through Oakhurst Park, you would certainly never do it at dusk or dark. And any time you did, you would see drug dealers, gambling and prostitutes. You would never see children. And you certainly would never see anyone using the tennis courts or ball fields. Every morning I would go outside my home on Third Avenue to pick up needles and used condoms. Every night, I sat in front of the fireplace so I wouldn’t be killed by bullets through the windows. Within the first six months of moving here, in 1988, my home was burglarized twice. The second time my insurance company said I would be dropped if I made another claim. A locked car was stolen from my driveway. A stolen car was deposited in my front yard. A stabbing occurred in my front yard. A bullet hole was in my bedroom window. The entire 500 block of East Lake Drive was comprised of crack dealers. My neighbor was bludgeoned to death in her house. My neighbor on the other side was overtaken by her drug addicted grandchildren and went without heat.
Our little band of women did great things. When we recognized that the city was not going to help us, we turned to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). While it wasn’t safe for us to confront drug dealers, members of the SCLC did not live here. They organized protests every Friday night in front of the crack houses. This scared away the customers and put them out of business. Eventually they were all arrested. We celebrated. We continued. We used a phone tree to call each other before we called police so that we could stick together if no one came, because frequently, no one did. We continued cleanups and the tree lighting in the village. We planted a few daffodils and a scraggly little tree in the village, and we asked the city if they would water it. We were told “no.” So we asked the fire station to help water it. That scraggly little tree is the one all the children climb today. Eventually with leadership of Caroline Leach, Harmony Park was developed.
As the neighborhood improved, we happily saw our property value go up and paid the increased taxes. And then the onslaught began. Try to imagine being so connected to your community, your neighbors, your home and then basically being told, “You need to move out. Wealthy people want your land.”
Surely, a community needs more than one demographic. Surely a community benefits from generational difference and people who see it as their lifetime home. The health of a community depends on diversity, including social and economic diversity.
There are very few original homeowners left. This is our home, this is our family, this is our land. We feel very differently about our community than do our new neighbors who repeatedly list the number of years until their child is out of school and they can move out of Decatur. Very few new residents feel this is a permanent home for them. It is simply the place they stay while their children take advantage of the community and schools we built.
WHO ARE WE?
There are only a handful of residents remaining who owned homes here in the 1980’s and 90’s. From data I have seen, it hovers around 700 people or households. That sounds about right. But whenever the issue of older residents is discussed, the solutions seem to be focused on helping these poor people find a way to pay their taxes. Please understand, first and foremost, we were never poor! We were solidly middle class and upper middle class. At the end of my career, I earned a higher than average salary. When I bought this house as a young woman, part of my plan was to age in place here, as it is perfect for an older person. My old neighbors and I had resources, retirement plans and intended to live out our lives here. Yet now we are pitied at best and seen as someone to be removed at worst. We are not looking for pity, handouts, grants or “help.” We are looking to be treated fairly and with respect. Decatur is only what it is because of us.
PRESSURE TO LEAVE
The pressure to leave our homes is enormous. It is not simply the developers who call, text, email and write to us, telling us how easy the sale will be. It is waking up every day to sound of another house coming down, another 200-year-old oak being removed for a large residence, the feelings of pity from new residents and the loss and breakups of extended family and friends who have been “forced” out. Rarely do we land in better circumstances.
And the very worst pressure is that of the unbearable, unfair tax burden. Again, we are not poor! We are not to be pitied. Most of us planned well for our retirement, have healthy savings, and resources. Yet none of us planned for our property values to rise more than tenfold because wealthy people live next door. I never imagined that I would experience housing insecurity at this point in my life. I cannot even describe how that feels. No one should have to feel like that, particularly when it is through no fault of your own.
WHAT IS THE RIGHT THING?
Decatur has had plenty of time and multiple opportunities to address the inequities in this city. Solutions are not that complicated as some make them. But they do require leadership. When enormous, out-of-scale housing was being built, Decatur did nothing. When it was obviously becoming a problem, Decatur shuttled it to “resident” discussions, like the one now being repeated in the Affordable Housing Task Force. This is a problem to be addressed by LEADERSHIP, not residents. And Leadership must be bold and willing to lose possible re-election in favor of doing the right thing. The first obvious step to take would have been to reign in the size of these houses, stop the clear-cutting of old growth trees and do more to protect the senior homeowners.
The right thing to do is obvious yet all discussion I hear or see about older residents is somehow seen as charity. MLK day is touted as the big way to help us older residents. Now the discussion is about doing it more often. Charity is not an answer at this point. The clear answer is a MEANINGFUL tax reduction that fits our place in this city. Decatur’s current exemptions of value are being revoked as they sunset and there is little hope for renewal at this point. Setting income limits to access reduced taxes makes sense, but income limits at annual earnings of $10,000 or $25,000 are a cruel joke. Instead of preserving our neighborhoods and trees, the city’s leaders have opted to sit quietly. The “best” ideas seem to be to develop more, not preserve.
I have repeatedly heard from the few neighbors left that, “developers run this city.” Indeed, three developers are on the Affordable Housing Task Force’s committee for zoning and policy. Clearly, the City Commission has never met a development they didn’t like; never appeared to demand affordable housing and have not acted on a meaningful tax reduction for the few of us remaining. People who have owned their home and have lived here for 25 years should not be paying one dime in school taxes. Other obvious actions to save this community would be to end the mass destruction of the old growth trees in favor of large houses and return to the “normal” sized homes. One of Decatur’s greatest assets is being casually destroyed. We have all seen the ads touting Decatur’s leafy neighborhoods. That is soon history.
While Decatur, like many cities, struggles to house its workforce and others, there must be a stronger voice and heavy focus on those of us who built this city for you. At the very least, before anything else is done, we should be allowed to stay.
– Sherry Siclair