Elderly woman fears home loss in Atlanta flood-control plan

October 10, 2015
By Kathleen Foody, Associated Press

ATLANTA – Mattie Jackson’s screened porch has an open-door policy. Relatives and friends are likely to walk up at any time and take a seat on the green iron furniture next to the woman known best as “Miss Mattie” in southeast Atlanta’s Peoplestown neighborhood.

A leading figure in the community for decades, Jackson was the lone representative for three neighborhoods on the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games after the area’s selection for construction of a nearby stadium that later became home to the Atlanta Braves. She’s been credited with helping secure job training programs and affordable housing.

At 93, though, Jackson met a seemingly undefeatable foe: Terrible plumbing.

Jackson and more than 20 neighbors were asked to sell to the city, making way for retention ponds and other measures to minimize damage of persistent flooding in the low-lying area. At least twice since 2009, sewage water backed up from drains and covered her neighbors’ backyards after large storms.

City officials said that buying out residents – or legally taking their properties if necessary – is the best way to solve the expensive flooding problem on the block, which sits on top of a large storm-water junction box that can’t manage heavy rainfall.

“We have an obligation to the public health and safety,” said Todd Hill, director of environment management for Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management. “That obligation is to get people out of dangerous situations. And this is not a situation that you want homeowners to be living in.”

Some neighborhood holdouts insist that the city should find another solution.

Jackson’s plea is simpler.

“I don’t want to leave,” she said, seated on a straight-backed chair in the porch where she keeps a sharp eye on the neighborhood children.

City officials are trying to head off the David and Goliath dynamic amid a flurry of local media coverage. Mayor Kasim Reed met with Jackson on Thursday, promising she could stay in her home while the city pursues an alternate design for the retention pond.

Jackson’s green-paneled house on Ormond Street is less than a decade old, built in 2008 following a fire that destroyed Jackson’s previous house and nearly everything in it. The neat three-bedroom with a modern kitchen and formally decorated living and dining room is the holiday gathering spot for six generations of family – and anyone else coming by for a hot plate of food.

Jackson said it’s never been flooded.

Jackson’s seven living children worried this latest stress was too much for her, said Sheryl Calhoun, one of her daughters.

“My mom and I, we talk five or 10 times a day,” said Calhoun, who lives in Louisville, Kentucky. “It’s always about the house, and she can’t help crying. Our family’s doing the best we can to take her mind off the situation.”

The property is in a “moderate risk” flooding zone, according to state maps, exempting Jackson from federal flood insurance requirements.

Property sale records show the city has paid from $130,000 for a 2-bedroom to $375,000 for a 4-bedroom. Bill Adams, president of Adams Realtors in nearby Grant Park, said that’s typical or strong for the area. Five homes on the market last month ran from $60,000 to $145,000, with more affordable properties closer to Turner Field, he said.

“From a purely unemotional standpoint, the city is overpaying for land,” Adams said. “But from a practical standpoint the homeowner is thinking about ‘Where can I go and replace this house?'”

Christina and Davy Nixon’s two-bedroom house’s crawlspace flooded with sewage water twice since they moved in eight years ago. The city’s offer to buy them out seemed like their best option, Christina Nixon, 33, said.

But they weren’t satisfied with the city’s first offer of $180,000 for their home just up Ormond Street from Jackson. They paid for an independent appraisal and negotiated up to $228,000. They were often frustrated with the city’s slow pace, but are renovating a larger house in the adjacent Summerhill neighborhood.

“I know it’s sad and hard to leave, but for the greater good of really Atlanta’s whole east side, it feels like the right thing,” Nixon said.