Saturday, September 28, 2013

Dismantling Stereotypes by Protesting a Slum Lord

Posted by Deirdre Oakley, DEKALB COUNTY, GEORGIA – A repeated stereotype about low income residents is that they don’t care about investing in their housing and community. Another one is that they all live off some kind of government subsidy. And yet one more is that private market rental housing is of much better quality than the maligned public housing developments, many of which are currently being demolished. None of these are true and the peaceful protest I stumbled upon outside the Kensington Station Apartment complex walking home from the train the other day provides a loud and clear reality check. With my now apparently obsolete 3G Iphone camera I captured residents -- including men, women, and children -- chanting and holding up homemade signs aimed at rush-hour passersby protesting the horrible conditions of these apartments: pervasive mold and pipe leaks, no heat, air conditioning that doesn’t work regularly, unwanted bugs, lack of safety, and more mold. One resident had a sign that said “Fix em or condemn”. The local Chanel 2 News was there to report on the protest, although I couldn’t find the story online.

The manicured lawns outside the complex that I pass by on my way to the train on a daily basis, as well as the property owners’ advertisements convey an almost utopian version of rental living. This stands in sharp contrast to the reality of Kensington. None of the residents utilize the outdoor amenities because the woods are not safe, the swimming pools are never clean, and the ‘lake’ a cesspool of mosquitoes. And the apartments themselves have not been updated in years.


The rent is affordable at Kensington and most of the residents are lower income working families who rightly expect that their living quarters meet the standards of the private market rents they pay every month. Yet, the constant code violations have not been addressed by the property owners. One resident living on a ground floor apartment told me that the mold is so bad that despite her efforts at keeping the apartment clean, mushrooms regularly grow out of her carpet. Another resident said that the kids in the complex regularly go to bed wearing coats in the winter because the heating system frequently breaks down. This is despite the fact that residents are responsible for paying their own utilities. No one paying rent should have to put up with these conditions.

Policy makers have advocated for private market-based solutions to the dearth of affordable housing over the last two decades. But Kensington is private and it provides substandard housing in exchange for affordable (but not low) rents. The county has done nothing to address the myriad of code violations cited against the complex. So where does that leave the residents? Will their protest yield any change? Not unless code violations are enforced. And there lies the problem with private market dependence for affordable housing. Likewise, the proverbial elephant in the room is the issue of race: if this were a white working lower income community would the responsible government entity and the land lords be more responsive? To be sure, we certainly do not live in a color-blind society. Still, I am suspending my cynical perspective because protest means hope. I greatly respect Kensington Station's resident mobilization because this is the first step towards change. 

Deirdre Oakley is the editor of Social Shutter and an Associate Professor in the Sociology Department at Georgia State University. She can be contacted at

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Seeing Everyday Train Life around UK’s Stations

Posted by Deirdre Oakley, LONDON, ENGLAND – Great Britain’s rail system is the oldest in the world, the 18th largest, and one of the most dense. In 2009 T-Mobile filmed a very entertaining advertisement in Liverpool’s Lime Street train station featuring a rehearsed flash mob dance which included everyday passengers. Liverpool’s station along with some of London’s busiest stations, like Euston and Paddington, are places full of people from all walks of life, as well as eateries, and retail. The people and establishments are densely packed together into fluid patterns creating a lively and fast moving tapestry of daily life. No wonder T-Mobile used on of these stations -- there’s never a dull moment. However, you do have to pay to use the “loo” at Euston.

Deirdre Oakley is the Editor of Social Shutter and an associate professor in the Sociology Department at Georgia State University. She can be contacted at

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Seeing Roof Inequality

Posted by Deirdre Oakley, LIVERPOOL, UK – Riding the train from London to Liverpool a few weeks back allowed me to see many row house roofs. Conditions varied as they sped by, but I really didn’t think anything of it. So imagine my surprise when my cousin told me that those row houses with the new roofs are more likely to be government-owned social housing than those with old roofs. Social housing in the UK is the rough equivalent of public housing in the United States.

Unlike the United States where demolition of public housing has been the norm since the early 1990s, the UK had an alternative strategy to address the growing maintenance costs of an aging social housing stock: let the residents purchase their homes. According to Dutch scholars, Reinout Kleinhans and Maarten van Ham, the Right to Buy (RTB) program – perhaps the largest sell off program in Europe – has allowed the purchase of 2.7 million units at large discounts primarily to existing tenants since the 1970s.

Ironically, the maintenance issues that plagued social housing beginning more than three decades ago have now been passed on to the low and working income residents that were able to purchase their houses through the RTB program. The primary issue is that these former social housing tenants have never been able to secure enough equity in their purchased homes. Some might ask why. The answer is that RTB did nothing to guarantee increased equity. Thus, residents cannot afford new roofs precisely because their assets have remained static. But with a lessening burden of units, the government can afford to put new roofs on the remaining social housing units. The result has been growing roof inequality.

Deirdre Oakley is the Editor of Social Shutter and an Associate Professor in Sociology at Georgia State University. She can be contacted at

Saturday, September 7, 2013


Posted by Debby Yoder, DECATUR, GA -- Two days after commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, Congressman John Lewis gave the keynote address at the Decatur Book Festival. He was there to introduce the first installment of his comic book trilogy March, a firsthand account of his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, co-authored with Andrew Aydin. Ironically, as a young man, Lewis was inspired by a comic book called The Montgomery Story that detailed the Montgomery bus boycott and provided instructions on practicing non-violence to effect social change. The Montgomery Star inspired peaceful protests, including the sit-ins at Woolworth’s and other lunch counters in 1960-61, as well as later protests in South Africa to stop Apartheid. In 2008, it was translated into Arabic and Farsi and is credited with influencing the demonstrations in Egypt’s Tahrir Square.

John Lewis has spent his life creating change most deemed impossible, and getting into “good trouble” along the way.

Debby Yoder is a regular contributor to Social Shutter as well as a Sociology major at Georgia State University. She can be contacted at

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Where Starbucks’ Just One Tiny Fish in a Very Big Pond

Posted by Deirdre Oakley, SOUTH KENSINGTON, LONDON – I love my daily cappuccino, which on home turf I get at Dancing Goat. So I hate it when I’m traveling and forced to go to Starbucks because it’s typically the only coffee outlet within walking distance.
 So imagine my delight on my trip to the Royal Society of Geography Conference in South Kensington, where within a one block radius of both my hotel and the conference venue there were at least 15 independent coffee shops and only one very lonely Starbucks. In my five days here I’ve gone to a different coffee shop every morning, gleefully walking past Starbucks with my strong, fresh, and delicious cappuccino.

Interestingly, some of these coffee places not only serve pastries and sandwiches, but things like Sushi as well. Some even serve beer and wine – I’m assuming after Noon.


Although the thought of a cappuccino with Sushi makes me a bit queasy, I like the eclectic variety these places offer. And the fact that not everyone on the street has been walking around with a Starbucks coffee cup, has given me a sense of underdog satisfaction.



I took these photographs today, which is a Sunday, so everybody was out and about on this sunny afternoon. The social life surrounding all the non-Starbucks places was lively and crowded. One lone person sat outside at Starbucks. What astounded me, however, was that the line inside Starbucks was just as long as the ones I’ve seen in the States. I almost wanted to go up and ask a few in the line why they were waiting for such horrible coffee since there was much better coffee nearby. But, though very curious, I didn't because my unsuspecting subjects would simply think I was just one of those weird, phony, and rude Americans. They’d probably think my British passport was a fake as well. I should have asked my cousin who accompanied me to a place that even had fantastic straight black coffee, but I forgot. We were having too nice a time.


Deirdre Oakley is the editor of Social Shutter and an associate professor of Sociology at Georgia State University. She can be contacted at