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The New American Homeless

Housing insecurity in the nation’s richest cities is far worse than government statistics claim. Just ask the Goodmans.

By Brian Goldstone
August 21, 2019
Photographs by Sheila Pree Bright for The New Republic

Last August, Cokethia Goodman returned home from work to discover a typed letter from her landlord in the mailbox. She felt a familiar panic as she began to read it. For nearly a year, Goodman and her six children—two of them adopted after being abandoned at birth—had been living in a derelict but functional three-bedroom house in the historically black Peoplestown neighborhood of Atlanta. Goodman, who is 50, has a reserved, vigilant demeanor, her years trying to keep the kids out of harm’s way evident in her perpetually narrowed eyes. She saw the rental property as an answer to prayer. It was in a relatively safe area and within walking distance of the Barack and Michelle Obama Academy, the public elementary school her youngest son and daughter attended. It was also—at $950 a month, not including utilities—just barely affordable on the $9 hourly wage she earned as a full-time home health aide. Goodman had fled an abusive marriage in 2015, and she was anxious to give her family a more stable home environment. She thought they’d finally found one.

As a longtime renter, Goodman was acquainted with the capriciousness of Atlanta’s housing market. She knew how easily the house could slip away. Seeking to avoid this outcome, she ensured that her rent checks were never late and, despite her exhausting work schedule, became a stickler for cleanliness. So strong was her fear of being deemed a “difficult” tenant that she avoided requesting basic repairs. But now, reading the landlord’s terse notice, she realized that these efforts had been insufficient. When her lease expired at the end of the month, it would not be renewed. No explanation was legally required, and none was provided. “You think you did everything you’re supposed to do,” she told me, “and then this happens.”

A clue lay in the neighborhood’s accelerating transformation. Up and down her street, old, shabby dwellings—many of them, like the one she rented, casualties of the previous decade’s foreclosure crisis, purchased at rock-bottom prices by investors who had simply waited around until they appreciated in value—were being sold, gutted, and reconstructed. In retrospect, a flyer on her doorstep from Sotheby’s International Realty, offering to “pay cash, close quickly, and save you the hassle of multiple showings and cleaning/renovating/staging/pictures,” was an ominous sign. Goodman’s landlord, a doctor who runs an international nonprofit, told me recently that she didn’t renew the lease for financial reasons. “With the area taking off,” she explained, “it was the perfect time to unload the property.” When we spoke, she was preparing to sell the house.

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