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 firstname.lastname@example.org.