The $10,000 home

Jim Burress Feb 24, 2012

Tess Vigeland: So while we’re on the subject of rich and poor, which side of the tracks do you live on? That used to be an apt metaphor for a town’s dividing line. But after a decade of fast gentrification and equally speedy decline, in lots of places it’s harder to tell where those tracks are. That’s the case in Atlanta.

Jim Burress of station WABE reports on the challenges of living in a once high-priced district, where home prices have fallen to just a few thousand dollars apiece.

Jim Burress: From Atlanta’s English Avenue and Vine City neighborhoods, you can’t help but notice downtown’s towering skyline. That’s if you can look past the crumbling apartment complexes, boarded-up houses and vacant lots. In a neighborhood someone called the “American Nightmare,” 65-year-old Shaheed DuBois is visibly happy to be rehabing his dream home.

Shaheed DuBois: It’s part of our kitchen. Look at the floor. We have a lot more work to be done on this, you know, but right now, it’s a workable kitchen.

In this small, shotgun-style house, wooden skeletons of walls wait for insulation and drywall. There are electrical wires to be run. An HVAC system still needs to be installed. Shaheed and his wife purchased this house about a year ago for $15,000.

DuBois: I’ve got neighbors over there who came here, young people who bought houses and paid $175,000. And then they see that houses were down to $15,000. And he’s still paying the note.

Several properties around him are now listed for less than $10,000. Just a few blocks away, one house sold last month for $3,000. That’s $120,000 less than it sold for just a few years ago.

DuBois: I moved here because I remember English Avenue and Vine City some 15-16 years ago, when it was a wonderful place to be. A lot of people owned their own homes.

What had been a stable, working-class African-American neighborhood for decades, Vine City and English Avenue began to decline. In greater and greater numbers, families fled to Atlanta’s sprawling suburbs. Enrollment at the neighborhood school dropped to a point it was no longer feasible to keep it open.

DuBois: So that left a void. That meant that individuals who had property, those individuals who worked, that they sold their properties and got out at that time. We’re talking about 1994-1997. And the demographics changed.

Drugs and crime go hand in hand with blight and abandonment here. Rapper Young Jeezy, in his song “Vacation” talks about just how rough the area is

Young Jeezy, rapping: I’m goin’ to da bluff/ where it’s rough/ see if I can pick me up enough…

It’s infamously known as “The Bluff,” a place where it’s as easy to score a hit of heroin as it is to stumble upon a boarded-up house.

Harley Etienne teaches regional planning and public policy at Georgia Tech. His office is only about a half-mile from the English Ave-Vine City neighborhoods.

Harley Etienne: So you can imagine the combination of neglected housing, abandoned housing, and then this crime issue all put together. This is a recipe for disaster.

The current condition isn’t because of a lack of interest or money. Decades of federal programs have sunk untold millions of dollars here. In 1999, plans for a huge retail and condo development promised the area a new future. Today, many units sit unsold. A chain supermarket closed a few years ago.

Still, signs of renewal are apparent. Newly-constructed homes are easy to find. But many of those homes are also abandoned. Professor Harley Etienne says that proves this area’s housing crisis isn’t so much about houses at all.

Etienne: The basic problem is jobs. You can throw money at housing, and I can make the houses look nice, I can throw money at putting a new supermarket in. I can throw money at all these different issues. But the reality is, at the end of the day, you have families that are basically hurting because they don’t have access to jobs.

DuBois: We just had a great summer…

Back at Shaheed DuBois’s house, we head outside where he shows off his tiny garden. It’s planted in the front yard with just a few sprouts of cabbage and herbs poking out from the black soil. Every move we make instantly triggers a bright security light. He pays no more attention to that than he does to a man pushing a grocery cart up the street.

Instead, Shaheed tells me why the garden is in the front yard. He wants neighborhood children to stop by and see something they wouldn’t normally notice.

DuBois: Through a garden they learn patience. But now, before that time, we gotta take care of it. We’ve gotta take those weeds, we’re the parents of that plant. So you have to take care like your parent takes care of you.

Shaheed DuBois doesn’t expect to see a return on his investment. But to him, this isn’t about his house. It’s about saving his community.

DuBois: I choose to be here. I choose to be here.

In Atlanta, I’m Jim Burress for Marketplace Money.

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