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For Some Longtime Old Fourth Ward Residents, Redevelopment Has Its Price

Derrick Parker lives between a Citgo and a new apartment building, where developers are looking to buy him out of his home, with some offers close to double his single-story house's value. But after more than 30 years in the Old Fourth Ward, Parker said he is not about to give up on his property.

“It's a home. Nothing spectacular about it," Parker said.

Old Fourth Ward resident Katherine Parker, who works with her father at their home-based alarm business off North Avenue, said the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood has changed rapidly.

Parker, 66, said his home at 495 North Ave. means everything to him. The nearly 2,500 SF cottage is both his house and the base for his alarm business, which he started in the 1980s. Selling and leaving the Old Fourth Ward is the last thing he wants to do, he said, even as his property value and taxes escalate from the ripple effects of the area's redevelopment boom.

Parker is among some longtime residents of the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood who are attempting to stay as the neighborhood goes through a transformation around them.

“It's kind of raised the property values to the point … to where it's unaffordable,” Parker said. “But I'm going to stick it out."

Row of residential homes along Ralph McGill Boulevard in the Old Fourth Ward

Old Fourth Ward has become one of the hottest redevelopment areas in Atlanta in recent years, encompassing portions of the city from Ponce de Leon to DeKalb Avenue and Piedmont Avenue to Freedom Parkway, and includes banner redevelopment projects like Ponce City Market and 725 Ponce. The neighborhood also is considered the cradle of the civil rights movement, having been home to Martin Luther King Jr., who preached from the pulpit of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.

While its early history was one of a mixed-income neighborhood, by the early 20th century residents in the Old Fourth Ward were predominately African-American as whites began to move out to the suburbs, Georgia State University professor Tim Crimmins said. Crimmins is also the director of the Center for Neighborhood and Metropolitan Studies at GSU.

By the middle of the 20th century, Old Fourth Ward was at its height as a middle-class, predominately African-American neighborhood, Crimmins said. As suburbanization took hold, many left the area for places like South DeKalb County and West Atlanta, leaving many of the homes to blight and neglect.

While by last census count, the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood is still majority African-American, the demographics of the area are changing rapidly as new development brings in new, younger residents flocking to an urban lifestyle. According to the latest tally from Haddow & Co., there are about 4,000 Class-A apartment units within the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood with an additional 450 units either proposed or under construction.

Historic District Development Corp. Chairwoman and Old Fourth Ward resident Mtamanika Youngblood

The area began to turn in the 1990s as a revitalization of the older homes began to take place under a few pioneers, including Mtamanika Youngblood, a former telecommunications executive who, with her husband, began to rehabilitate homes in the area. Today, Youngblood chairs the Historic District Development Corp., a nonprofit that aims to preserve and revitalize houses in the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic District, which includes the Old Fourth Ward.

Youngblood said the dramatic redevelopment in the neighborhood has come with a price for many longtime residents.

“I'm somewhat distressed by the fact that real estate prices are doing what we anticipated they would do,” Youngblood said. “We could see this train coming and the light at the end of it is more train.”

Youngblood's organization has rehabilitated or built more than 120 single-family houses in the King district, a quarter of which are still occupied by the same family that has been there since the 1980s or even longer. Among her clients are former Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall and his wife, Fulton County Commissioner Natalie Hall. Through a grant program, the HDDC would rehabilitate homes and allow the existing homeowner or renter to remain there after the repairs were completed without seeing any significant cost-of-living increases.

What Youngblood saw, especially with the newly constructed homes, was residents sold them at significantly higher prices, which pushed up the area's property values.

“I knew it was going to happen. But it caught us off guard because it happened so fast,” she said. “We found out that in two, three years, the houses were doubling in price. A good portion of the folks had cashed out.”

The wave of home sales is changing the historic makeup of the Old Fourth Ward, Youngblood said.

“We were watching these frankly historically African-American neighborhoods go from African-American to white,” she said. “But that's really less the issue. It's the fact that just the reality of life is that African-Americans have less resources than Caucasians. It's turned out to be you can only be here if you can afford it.”

Marteca Palmer, a resident in the Old Fourth Ward who is feeling the pressure of rising property values and taxes

Marteca Palmer has seen the dramatic change on her street alone. Palmer lives on Ralph McGill Boulevard in a small home passed down to her from her grandmother. Across the street for years was an old Ivan Allen furniture building. A little farther down is a former Coca-Cola bottling facility. Today, those structures are gone. In their place are new, luxury apartment buildings

The sheer demand to live in the neighborhood, and the development that has followed, has pushed her property taxes up in recent years. How much longer Palmer can remain there is a question mark, she said.

“I'm trying to hang on for two more years. But they keep building and you know taxes are going up,” Palmer said. According to county tax records, the fair market value of Palmer's home has gone from $64,500 in 2010 to $182K last year. Her yearly tax bill went up by more than $2K over that time.

Affordability has become a big issue throughout the city of Atlanta, one that is seeing efforts by both the city and the Atlanta BeltLine Inc. push requirements on developers to carve out more housing units for lower-income families.

But Atlanta City Councilman Amir Farokhi, whose district covers the Old Fourth Ward, said other proposals need to be considered as well, including freezing home values for longtime residents or offering property tax or housing rehabilitation assistance.

“One of our priorities needs to be ensuring that longtime homeowners don't feel like they're priced out of the neighborhood,” Farokhi said. Those programs would also go toward preserving the “diversity and authenticity” of the neighborhood, even as new residents continue to move in, he said. 

Ezra Gallagher is among those new residents in the Old Fourth Ward. After living in an apartment in the area for the past five years, she and her boyfriend purchased a home in December. Now, she can bike to work in Downtown Atlanta

But there was competition for the house she purchased from developers wanting to turn it into an apartment complex, something happening to some of the older homes in the neighborhood.

“When we were buying this house, I was afraid we were going to be outbid by a developer who just wanted to tear it down,” Gallagher said.

For Parker and his North Avenue home, his latest neighbor is under construction: Crescent Communities' NOVEL O4W, a 233-unit apartment complex. Projects like these have pushed his housing values skyward. According to tax records, the fair market value of Parker's 2,400 SF home rose from $130,400 in 2010 to more than $430K last year.

“So, now we have some more apartments,” he said. "Just what we need next door to me, which look down on me."

For Parker and many residents like him, the alternatives to selling are dwindling. Parker said he is in conversations with a developer who would tear down his house and build a mixed-use building. As part of the deal, Parker would move into one of the apartments, joining the wave of gentrification instead of letting it push him away.