Editor’s note: This is Part One of a two-part series. Part Two will be published next week.
In northwest Atlanta, there’s a row of recently built, two-story homes in shades of green, blue and beige sitting on a residential street. These five houses were designed to be an integral part of the community, but they seem to stand apart, at odds with the neighborhood. A fenced-in apartment complex where a 27-year-old woman was killed in May is across the street. The homes huddle in their own enclave.
This is part of a program that sells Atlanta Police Department officers housing at a subsidized price in historically disinvested communities. These homes were meant to be the start of something different. They were supposed to enhance communities’ trust in police and improve the quality of policing. But four years after officers began living in them, with a growing appetite for solutions to reshaping policing, questions remain about how well this program has worked at a critical juncture.
Residents of Vine City, the neighborhood where the officer programming began with that row of five houses, have raised concerns about gentrification and how well police have meshed with the community. Meanwhile, the program’s scope is widening. Led by the Atlanta Police Foundation, the city of Atlanta and philanthropic organization the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, the initiative is expanding to neighborhoods across Atlanta.
“It saddens me that it’s portrayed in the media as if it is just the bible solution to crime-ridden areas,” says Pam Flores, a Vine City resident of 18 years who was part of initial discussions about the program. She initially advocated for more officers in Vine City when she was the chair of the Neighborhood Planning Unit (NPU), citizen advisory councils that are in every Atlanta community. She now says that the program isn’t as effective as it could have been. “But they didn’t quite do it how we saw it.”
Part of a group of historically Black neighborhoods in Atlanta, Vine City has hosted its share of famous residents. Martin Luther King Jr. lived in a brick house on Sunset Avenue from 1965 until his death three years later. Vine City resident Dorothy Bolden, who worked with King, founded the National Domestic Workers Union, which organized more than 13,000 domestic workers to fight for better working conditions.
Over the decades, the neighborhood next to Spelman and Morehouse colleges was affected by the white flight plaguing American cities including Atlanta, the city that calls itself “too busy to hate.” Vine City became pocked with abandoned lots and hollowed-out houses.
Throughout the years, Atlanta and nonprofits have made promises of revitalization, some more successful than others. Then Mercedes-Benz Stadium came to Vine City in 2017. The announcement of the new sports stadium provoked a wave of nonprofit development that has led to concerns of displacement.
The police housing program began on Vine City’s James P. Brawley Drive the same year that Mercedes-Benz Stadium opened.
The program has placed 16 officers in new homes in Vine City and the nearby neighborhoods of English Avenue and Pittsburgh. After pushback from the neighborhood, the program expanded to also sell homes to five legacy residents, who already lived in Vine City. These houses aren’t the end of the program either. Unity Place, an apartment complex for 30 police recruits, is scheduled to open this year. Over the next year, the police foundation plans to construct another 16 homes.
Savannah Berry has lived in metro Atlanta since she was 15 and has worked for the better part of a decade for the police department. But until four years ago, the homicide unit investigator had never lived in Atlanta, instead renting in the suburbs. She was one of the first five officers to move into Vine City in 2017.
Today, Berry has a green, three-bedroom house surrounded by her four officer neighbors. She says living where she works has benefits, even though like most officers in the program, Berry doesn’t patrol her neighborhood.
“You have that natural knack in the back of your head: ‘Hold on, I can easily encounter this person who I’m taking to jail, who I’m trying to calm down,’” she says. “But there are some officers who … live an hour out of the city of Atlanta, and they just come in, they do their due diligence and then they leave.”
Colette Haywood, a community advocate living in Vine City whose son-in-law is an Atlanta police detective, says residents are getting to know their police neighbors better. That means that they start trusting the police more for problems big and small.
As vice chair of her local NPU, Haywood helps organize a kickball tournament that started this summer between officers and residents in Vine City. Berry participates in the tournament.
“It started us having conversations and looking at police and problems in a different way…so that when we have problems like this, we’ll know who to call, like, ‘OK, this is a person who knows us. He’s seen these kids, he’s played with us so I don’t have to worry about him using excessive force,’” Haywood says. “That’s real community policing.”
The police foundation pitched the concept for the Secure Neighborhoods program to Vine City. The program has three goals: creating a deterrent toward crime, enhancing community-police relations and making Atlanta’s police force more community-oriented, says Dave Wilkinson, president and CEO of the Atlanta Police Foundation.
Officers must apply to the program. One notable applicant was Garrett Rolfe, the officer who killed Rayshard Brooks in 2020, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He testified to the city that he was working through the Atlanta Police Foundation to buy a house. Wilkinson says he was unaware of this and Rolfe was never approved for a home.
Officers have to follow several stipulations to own a house in the program. They must volunteer at the At-Promise Center, a youth community center run by the Atlanta Police Foundation. During their off hours, officers do light patrolling of their neighborhood and attend community meetings. The officers, who must fulfill these requirements for the first five years that they live in their house, receive a $500 monthly stipend in addition to the subsidized home price.
All of this is designed to improve relations between the community and police so if there are neighborhood problems—anything from trash dumped to gunshots fired—they can solve these problems together, Wilkinson says.
“It’s really easy if you don’t know a cop to have this narrative that they’re all out brutalizing us, and they’re basically bad guys,” he says. “But if they actually know one of these officers, it’s a completely different story.”
Whether the program is achieving these goals is mostly measured by soft metrics, Wilkinson says. The foundation asks police commanders if they are focusing on community policing. It also has police commanders regularly go to homeowners’ association, NPU and other local meetings to report back on community happenings.
The only hard metric is crime. Rising crime has been a major concern for many Atlantans. The Atlanta Police Department investigated 157 homicides in 2020, the most in over two decades, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Just this year, police have investigated more than 110 homicides.
The police foundation reported that in 2021, violent crime and auto theft have decreased by 61% in Vine City compared to 2016, the year before officers moved in. It credited some of this drop to the housing program. Gentrification, such as what Vine City is facing, is often associated with decreased crime statistics as well. (“We only look at crime studies to track crime rates/incidents in the area as it related to our program. We can’t account for the sociological makeup of the residents,” the police foundation said.)
LaTeef Pyles, a community barber who has lived in Vine City for 15 years, advocated for officers to live in the neighborhood when he was vice-chair of the NPU. Growing up in Chicago, Pyles’s father was a police officer.
Pyles says he hasn’t seen direct results from the Atlanta program.
One incident sticks out in his mind. Every year, people who grew up in the neighborhood have a picnic called Vine City Day. During the last Vine City Day before COVID-19, attendees met in the local park on Magnolia Street, across the street from a house where an officer lives.
Pyles says in the middle of the festivities, the officer took out a speaker and announced that he would tow parked cars. He got another officer or two to join in too, putting an end to the event.
“He used his police influence to shut down Vine City Day,” Pyles says. “Now we didn’t have permits probably. There were probably parking issues on the streets…but it was in front of his new house that he just moved into and he, for lack of a better term, disturbed some tradition.”
The Atlanta Police Department has no record of the incident, according to the police foundation. Pyles says he never reported what happened to police because he didn’t feel a need to do so. “I didn’t witness anything overtly malicious,” he says.
One four-year Vine City resident spoke with Next City but asked to remain anonymous because he fears retaliation. His landlord is partnered with the Blank Family Foundation, which supports the police housing program.
The resident walks and bikes his neighborhood every day but can’t identify the officers who have lived in Vine City as long as him. He only sees the police cars parked in the driveways on Brawley Drive.
“I don’t see any kind of neighborhood outreach or neighborhood presence that would make them more sympathetic or make folks more empathetic toward police work,” he says. “In some ways, Brawley has a police garage. I mean, that’s what it is, the four or five cars lined up.”
Wilkinson of the Atlanta Police Foundation says having police officers live in a neighborhood, with their patrol cars parked in their driveway, creates a deterrent toward crime. But some residents find it a deterrent to them too because the police live in a row together, not among the community.
“This is Fort Knox. This is a whole martial law, like why are y’all having a whole little enclave of just officers?” says Flores, the former NPU chair. “No one wants to go past that corner, that little block where they’re all there. It kind of looks intimidating.”
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our look into Atlanta’s police housing program, where we will explore concerns of gentrification and what happened during the protests that followed the killing of Rayshard Brooks.
We’ve corrected the location of Vine City within Atlanta.
This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.
Adina Solomon is a freelance journalist based in Atlanta. She writes on a range of topics with specialties in city design, business and death. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, CityLab, U.S. News & World Report, and other national and local outlets.