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How Wall Street created an affordable housing crisis in South DeKalb

Redevelopment isn’t driving up housing costs in South DeKalb. Real estate investors are.

Story by Logan C. Ritchie
March 07, 2023
Photos by Dean Hess | Research by Iris Brooks, South DeKalb Fellow
How we reported this story:

Canopy Atlanta asked over 50 South DeKalb community members about the journalism they needed. This story emerged from that feedback.

Canopy Atlanta also trains and pays community members, our Fellows, to learn reporting skills to better serve their community. Iris Brooks, a Canopy Atlanta Fellow, is a contributor behind this story.

  • Editor: Christina Lee
  • Copy Editor & Fact Checker: Adjoa D. Danso
  • Canopy Atlanta Reader: Sonam Vashi
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In the early 2000s, when Jamye Barnes moved from the west side to Belvedere Park, the neighborhood just north of Candler-McAfee, the 21-year-old interior designer figured that she’d stay in the South DeKalb neighborhood for a few years and eventually move to a house closer to the city of Decatur. 

The 1,200-square-foot ranch—a two-bedroom, two-bathroom single family home with an office and a driveway—is a style commonly found in the area. “I looked at about maybe six, seven houses and then I came to this house, and I knew immediately that this was the house. It was the best of all I had seen,” Barnes says.

Homes in Belvedere Park.

Homeowner Jamye Barnes.

Affordable housing for two-income families was already limited when Barnes bought her home, she says. Belvedere Park “happened to be the side of town that my money can afford. I didn’t have much choice.” (She purchased it for around $105,000.) It was also a good location for Barnes’ commute to work. She didn’t think about quality schools or access to parks and recreation at the time. 

“It’s a nice neighborhood. Real nice for what it is. This is what you call a starter community,” she says. “I just thought, ‘I’ll be here for five years.’ Twenty-three years later, I’m still here.”

She’s still there because of her neighborhood’s proximity to nightlife, sports and entertainment—without the cost of living in downtown Decatur. “Decatur is where I eat, hang out, shop, things like that,” she says. 

Barnes has outgrown a neighborhood that seemingly hasn’t developed since she moved there: Namdar Realty Group also bought Gallery at South DeKalb Mall for $19 million in December 2021, but no major changes have occurred since. And in South DeKalb (Belvedere Park and Candler-McAfee, but also Gresham Park, and Panthersville), run-down shopping centers like Belvedere Plaza attract gun violence, drugs, sex work, and an unsheltered population. 

Belvedere Plaza, off Memorial Drive, opened in 1955 to serve then-rapidly growing neighborhood Belvedere Park.

Nick Bohin from Knight Sign Industries changes bulbs in the Belvedere Plaza sign.

Barnes says her neighborhood is well-established with longtime residents who look out for one another, and her homeowner’s association is active. “If I see them within our subdivision, we wave because, you know, we’ve been around a long time,” she says. “One of the ladies here does my flowers, and her son sometimes cuts my yard. It’s that type of camaraderie.”

But zoom out, and there’s still an abundance of churches, fast food restaurants, gas stations, and discount stores—and a lack of grocery stores, aside from the Wayfield that Barnes frequents (“I still try to support my community,” she says).  

“It’s the same Checkers that’s been there for 23 years. It’s the same grocery store. It’s the same gas station. It’s the same drive-thru liquor store,” Barnes says. By her observation, since most business owners are not local to South DeKalb, they’re not invested in seeing the area improve. 


Checkers at the corner of Glenwood Road and Columbia Drive.

Nearby, just outside unincorporated South DeKalb, are two community revitalization projects that target the redevelopment of a neighborhood’s center. East Lake is brimming with affordable housing developments, high-end townhomes, and a bright, clean Publix. Kensington has plans for a MARTA station renovation and 35 acres of recreational, residential, and commercial growth. Both areas are gentrifying, causing home ownership and rental costs to rise. 

Although rent and homeownership costs are also climbing in South DeKalb, there is no central redevelopment effort. Barnes thinks that because house prices are rising, “change is coming, but it just hasn’t gotten here yet.” For now, though, redevelopment isn’t driving up costs. Real estate investors are.  

“Change is coming, but it just hasn’t gotten here yet.”

Jamye Barnes, long-time South DeKalb resident

During a housing symposium last year, Mike Alexander, Atlanta Regional Commission’s chief operating officer, said housing construction fell dramatically in the Great Recession of the late 2000s in metro Atlanta—and hasn’t recovered since. “We really just haven’t been building housing at the same rate as previous decades,” Alexander said. 

Whatever properties are left get snapped up, though not by residents. An Emory University study found that in 2021, real estate investors—backed by Wall Street—bought more than half the residential lots sold south of Memorial Drive. 

This predatory behavior has had a ripple effect on DeKalb County’s housing market, as residential property values jumped 20 percent, according to Super District 7 Commissioner Lorraine Cochran-Johnson at a “housing crisis solutions” town hall she held in August. By 2022, the median home price in DeKalb County increased nearly 6 percent in the second quarter alone.

Atlanta Regional Commission data shows that in Candler-McAfee, housing costs for the area’s oldest homes are growing the fastest out of all metro Atlanta submarkets. Houses in Panthersville and Gresham Park cost less, though that might not be for long

So when one firm buys up multiple properties, “especially when they start owning a substantial share of a neighborhood or suburb’s housing stock, they have more ability to push up rents [and] to decrease the quality of services, since there are fewer alternatives,” says Dan Immergluck, Georgia State University professor and author of Red Hot City: Housing, Race and Exclusion in 21st Century Atlanta. “If they buy 30 percent of the houses in the community, they have ‘market power’ to either drive up rents or drive down quality.” 

“If investors buy 30 percent of the houses in the community, they have ‘market power’ to either drive up rents or drive down quality.” 

Dan Immergluck, Georgia State University professor

Glenwood Lanes Bowling Center on Glenwood Road featured 32 bowling lanes, a kitchen, bar and lounge, pro shop and game room. (source: Bull Realty Commercial Real Estate)

Housing experts say that in these neighborhoods, it is clear that Georgia laws protect real estate investors over tenants. Immergluck adds that ideally, federal or state law would demand a registry of every property and its owner. The other approach would be a county-level rental registry, which lots of local governments around the country have—but in Georgia, they’re prohibited by state law. 

Instead, from 2019 to 2021, the average rent in Belvedere Park, Candler-McAfee, Gresham Park and Panthersville rose from $1,100 and below to as high as $1,500, according to the Emory University study

The federal government defines affordable housing as costing no more than 30 percent of a household’s total income for rent, mortgage payments, or other housing expenses based on area median income (AMI). Candler-McAfee’s AMI was $46,217 in 2021, meaning “affordable” living should cost no more than $1,155 per month. Yet single family-home rentals in the area are listed on Redfin and Zillow for $1,400 to over $2,000 per month. 

Georgia legislation passed a decade ago prohibits putting a cap on rental rate increases. So when investors raise rent, residents either pay up or move out. That’s what happened in South DeKalb, when Meridian Management Group bought Forest at Columbia in May 2022 and announced an eviction of 200 tenants that August. When residents pushed back, Meridian instead increased rent by 50 percent, which created the same result of forcing out residents. 

Since 2020, 5,780 residents have been formally evicted through the court system from their homes in Candler Mc-Afee, Gresham Park, and Panthersville, according to data by the Atlanta Regional Commission. (ARC discloses that since it only reports evictions through the courts, it’s likely that even more tenants have been displaced through “illegal” evictions.) 

In 2021, DeKalb Chief Superior Court Judge Asha Jackson extended an eviction moratorium for county residents, the first seen in Georgia since the Covid-19 pandemic began. At the time, DeKalb County was very slow to issue assistance monies through the Tenant-Landlord Assistance Coalition, and families were struggling to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The biggest reason that Atlanta suburbs are a target for these kinds of large buyers, especially the less savory ones, is because Georgia has some of the weakest tenant protections in the country,” Immergluck says. 

“Federal policymakers need to look at whether these companies have too much market power, and look at how many homes real estate investors own in certain places,” he adds.

The Housing Authority of DeKalb County has only 5,000 vouchers for 45,000 applicants on the waiting list for emergency rental assistance, according to the Housing Authority Corporation. Many of those applicants have been waiting for five years because in order to meet demand, 3,000 affordable housing units need to be built each year in DeKalb County. 

In response to the pandemic in 2021, DeKalb County’s Tenant-Landlord Assistance Coalition distributed nearly $53 million in federal emergency rental assistance to nearly 5,000 families. Still, over 38,000 residents remain on the waiting list. 

All of these factors amount to what Cochran-Johnson has called a “housing inventory shortage.”

Driving around unincorporated South DeKalb, it’s easy to see what housing experts are talking about. The tree-lined residential streets that surround the area’s unanchored commercial districts feature split level, mid-century, and ranch homes built in the 1950s to 1970s. There are very few remodels, almost no new inventory. And when new inventory does pop up, it’s too expensive for most of the area’s residents. Within a block of Jayme Barnes’ house, a home with similar square footage sold in 2022 for $330,000.

By the federal government’s own standard, that’s not affordable.

Homes in Belvedere Park.

Commissioner Cochran-Johnson drafted local legislation in 2022 supporting home ownership and rent stabilization. Since then, DeKalb County has been awarded $7.8 million to assist those who are homeless; digitized the homestead exemption process for seniors for easier access; and held workshops on becoming a homeowner. 

South DeKalb doesn’t just need affordable housing. Experts like Will Johnston of the MicroLife Institute, a company that advocates for and researches the benefits of tiny homes, not to mention Pete Walker, Jr., president and CEO of the Housing Authority of DeKalb County, say that the area needs quality affordable housing. Experts at the Brookings Institute define quality affordable housing as using sustainable materials, flexible design, and efficient services, like elevators and plumbing. 

What else can DeKalb County do? Pete Walker, Jr., Housing Authority of DeKalb County’s president and CEO, favors the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), which provides an income incentive for developers who invest in low income housing. LIHTC is a federal program run by the state. It’s an example of how housing is ruled mainly by federal and state laws, leaving local governments with little voice in the matter. 

“State legislators need to preserve the tax credit program because [it] provides significant equity for transactions so that we can either build or acquire and rehabilitate properties,” Walker says.  

Walker suggested that residents attend government meetings to learn about what’s coming into their neighborhood. He also says that alternative options like PadSplits, accessory dwelling units, tiny homes and cottages for seniors are beneficial, though with oversight from homeowners associations. He figures that if an HOA is in place, investors will be kept in check.

Wayfield Foods on Columbia Drive.

PadSplit is an Atlanta-based public benefit corporation that markets available rooms for rent. A homeowner with an extra bedroom posts on PadSplit to fill a short-term rental. A room in Gresham Park can cost as much as $258 per week

PadSplit founder Atticus LeBlanc says that he was “extremely frustrated to see how millions of people were locked out of the housing market completely, sometimes living in their cars or commuting for hours each day while working full-time.” 

“I was also frustrated by the difficulty, expense, and time that was required to produce traditional affordable housing,” LeBlanc says.

Yet PadSplit may not be a perfect solution either. At the time of publication, LeBlanc was facing multiple misdemeanor charges brought against him by the state of Georgia for a zoning ordinance violation. A real estate investor could feasibly buy multiple houses on a street, gaining market share, use the property as a PadSplit and take full advantage of the law. And as seen in South Fulton, neighbors become unhappy because they are expected to live in a single family neighborhood, not next door to a short-term rental.

At the time of publication, LeBlanc was facing multiple misdemeanor charges brought against him by the state of Georgia for a zoning ordinance violation under statute C7-357.

So as county officials continue to debate the best path forward, the neighborhood remains filled with ranch homes, outdated strip malls, and a lingering desire among residents that one day the area will see the same investment in rejuvenation that nearby Memorial Drive is experiencing.

On a recent afternoon, Barnes, an interior designer, and her friend, a former real estate agent, toured a house for sale on Columbia Drive out of curiosity. It had hardwood floors, granite countertops, and modern finishes. It was on the market for $600,000. If what happened to Edgewood and Reynoldstown “happens to this side of town,” Barnes says, new homeowners from outside South DeKalb “are going to have an advantage.” 

Homeowner Jamye Barnes.

Barnes doesn’t expect South DeKalb to become downtown Decatur with a booming restaurant and shopping scene. She wants upgrades to strip malls—a middle ground. She doesn’t expect longtime residents who’ve paid off their homes to be “going anywhere. They own their home.” But she wants to see investment in South DeKalb that residents can benefit directly from. 

“I’m proud to live here. This is a wonderful community. I just wish they would do something in this community. We deserve quality.”

Jamye Barnes, long-time South DeKalb resident

“I’m proud to live here,” Barnes says. “This is a wonderful community. I just wish they would do something in this community. We deserve quality.”

  • Editor: Christina Lee
  • Copy Editor & Fact Checker: Adjoa D. Danso
  • Canopy Atlanta Reader: Sonam Vashi
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