A Fear of Gentrification Turns Clearing Lead Contamination on Atlanta’s Westside Into a ‘Two-Edged Sword’ for Residents

ATLANTA _ Shade’ Jones did not want the Environmental Protection Agency to test for lead contamination in the soil under her rented home in Atlanta’s English Avenue community. To her, the cleanup cuts both ways: it makes the area a healthier place to live, and it invites gentrification that could make it more expensive.

Jones’ landlord allowed the EPA onto the property anyway. Now Jones, chair of her community’s neighborhood planning unit and founder of Green is Lyf, spends her days publicly educating people about environmentally sustainable living while wondering privately if renters like her will be able to afford to stay.

“You got people going around digging up everything, making the lots perfect for building,” Jones said. “And [homeowners] didn’t put a dime into it.”

“No one wants to deal with lead in their soil, but when you live in a disenfranchised community like this, it has been a two-edged sword,” she said.

Jones is not alone. There is a very real concern among residents that the federal cleanup of lead contamination could have the unintended consequence of speeding up gentrification in the historically Black neighborhoods of English Avenue and Vine City, which have seen their combined population drop by 60 percent since 1960.

Shade’ Yvonne Jones Credit: Photo Courtesy Shade’ Yvonne Jones
The EPA tested the home of Shade' Yvonne Jones, a renter on English Avenue. Jones is worried that the lead remediation in her neighborhood will speed up gentrification. Credit: Aydali Campa
Jones’ landlord had the property where she lives tested for lead and cleaned, but Jones worries the remediation in the neighborhood will speed gentrification and push out renters like her. Credit: Aydali Campa

The high levels of lead in those two communities were found in dark clusters that look like volcanic rocks and are scattered across more than 600 acres west of downtown Atlanta. The “rocks” are actually slag, a byproduct of smelting that was used as fill nationwide prior to 1974. The contamination is thought to have come from foundries that operated in the area until the mid-20th century.

EPA officials have been studying the extent of the contamination since 2018 when Emory University doctoral student Sam Peters brought it to their attention. At the time, Peters partnered with Historic Westside Gardens, a local organization that promotes healthy and sustainable eating, to test some properties for lead contamination. They expected to find some lead contamination from old paint in the soil samples, but they weren’t expecting to see the high levels they discovered in some gardens, some 10 times above the EPA’s threshold level.

Since then, the EPA has tested about half of the more than 2,000 properties on the site, which spans an area roughly 100 acres larger than Disneyland. About 40 percent of the tested properties had levels above the EPA’s safety threshold. For almost a year, officials have offered to replace contaminated soil for free. However, more than half of the properties are vacant, and finding the owners of the empty lots and abandoned houses has been difficult, officials said.

Combined, the two affected neighborhoods have more than 7,000 residents, about a quarter of whom lack jobs, and 40 percent of whom live off incomes below the poverty line. Advances have been made to address neighborhood environmental concerns, including a new ample green space designed as a drain for rainwater. Pipes are being updated to allow for more water capacity and reduced overflows.

Remedial Project Manager Leigh Lattimore said mistrust from the community has slowed down their progress. She hopes that the site’s new designation as a Superfund Site by the EPA, which would provide more funding for the cleanup and entail community input to develop a long-term cleanup plan, will help build more trust with the community.

Some EPA officials are working out of a lot in English Avenue in an effort to be accessible to the community to answer their questions.  Community Involvement Coordinator Ron Tolliver said he gets a lot of feedback from the community.

“I am responsible for making sure that the communities that are impacted have their voices heard in this process,” said Tolliver. “I also teach them about our processes as a government entity, and our role in that process and also their role as well, so we can kind of feel consent when we go out to get access to properties.”

Economic concerns are adding fuel to the mistrust. Renters, who make up about 80 percent of the area’s residents, fear being priced out as private development brings new, pricier real estate. Some homeowners fear their property values could go down if lead contamination is found and remediation could leave their homes vulnerable to damage from other environmental conditions, such as flooding, that would be costly for them to fix on their own.

Annie Moore, an English Avenue resident and New Jersey native, lives with her mother, son and grandchildren in a house she rented for five years and finally bought in 2020. A dense forest of lush green bushes and towering trees surround her house. One of its exterior blue walls has four paintings by a local artist and faces the neighboring small park designed to capture stormwater.

Moore has watched rents and home values around her rise dramatically in the last few years and frequently gets calls and letters offering to buy her property. She has no doubt her property could be contaminated by lead. A dark cluster of what looks like slag about the size of a cantaloupe sits in her front yard on the edge of the street, with tall grass surrounding it.

“I didn’t know that’s what it was,” Moore said. “I just use it to help build my garden.”

The home of Annie Moore, an English Avenue resident on Atlanta’s west side, neighbors a park built to alleviate flooding in the area. Moore frequently gets calls from investors looking to buy her property as more developments pop up nearby. Credit: Aydali Campa

Even so, Moore is uncertain about testing her property for lead. If the presence of lead is confirmed, she worries that not cleaning it up could bring down the value of her house if she decides to sell it. She also worries that cleaning it up would mean ripping out the rain garden and drains she installed to eliminate water build-up in her backyard that used to run two feet deep during heavy rain.

Some of her neighbors, Moore said, were quick to take the EPA up on its offer of free tree removal—a service that commonly costs more than $1,000 in the city—without considering the long-term consequences. She is concerned that, as more trees in the surrounding area are uprooted for lead remediation, flooding at her home will worsen.

English Avenue and Vine City are located at the mouth of the Proctor Creek waterway and have faced flooding issues for many years. Atlanta’s water pipes do not have enough capacity for the rainwater and sewage, so raw sewage flows out of the pipes, and people in lower elevations are the first to be impacted by the flooding, according to environmental scientist  Na’Taki Osborne Jelks.

The EPA does not keep track of how many trees in Vine City and English Avenue have been knocked down during cleanup, or how many have been replaced with new ones. Onsite coordinator Chuck Berry said his team works with residents to address those concerns and will install retaining walls, drains and other mitigation measures when necessary to avoid creating more or new flooding issues.

“We have to intelligently manage our excavations and make sure that whatever we end up with doesn’t make a problem for the person living there,” Berry said.

After contamination is discovered, the EPA’s Lattimore said, home values typically dip briefly but rebound when clean-up begins. 

637 Acres is Big Deal

Colette Haywood, originally from Flint, Michigan, moved to Vine City six years ago and has since been involved in community advocacy as a neighborhood planning unit co-chair. A grandmother of two, Haywood is not opposed to soil testing at the house she rents, because it was built in the mid-1990s and is unlikely to contain slag, she said. She’s also not against signing up her grandchild, who lives in the neighborhood, for blood testing under environmental scientist Eri Saikawa’s study, but she said she doesn’t know enough about it yet to make a definitive decision.  

Haywood has been involved in community efforts to mitigate the impact of flooding and mold. Haywood said she doesn’t know very many people who got their property tested for lead—“and I’m pretty connected”—but residents were coping with several improvements simultaneously. Among them was the City of Atlanta’s construction of Rodney Cook Sr. Park, a 16-acre green space built to help alleviate flooding in Vine City by capturing stormwater. 

“And at the time that that was happening, there was also issues with flooding, so we were dealing with the mold from the flooding, the construction of Cook Park,” said Haywood. “It was on top of gentrification, so it was a combination of all of that.”

Westside Future Fund, a nonprofit organization working to help revitalize Historic Westside neighborhoods, is racing against rapid gentrification in the city to keep “legacy” residents in the historic neighborhoods. The EPA allowed the organization to test and clean properties they own. Westside Future Fund has cleaned at least 77 properties, according to Lee Harrop, the organization’s vice president of real estate development.

“We’re spending about $2 million that we hadn’t planned on spending on environmental work, but it was necessary,” said Harrop.

Chunks of slag, a byproduct of smelting that can contain high levels of lead, are scattered throughout the English Avenue and Vine City neighborhoods on the west side of Atlanta. Credit: Aydali Campa
Chunks of slag, a byproduct of smelting that can contain high levels of lead, are scattered throughout Atlanta’s English Avenue and Vine City neighborhoods. Credit: Aydali Campa

The EPA prioritizes cleaning up the soil in properties where people reside. He said that because the Westside Future Fund buys empty lots or abandoned properties, the nonprofit would have had to wait until the EPA cleaned up priority properties before getting to its properties. 

Development in the surrounding downtown area of the city is only exacerbating the stress locals feel of possibly being displaced, said Jelks, who attends church in the Westside and is the co-founder of West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, a community-led organization working to protect greenspace and water quality in West Atlanta.

She has seen people forced to move because of flooding and others forced to move because of rising property values. “So I think there is this concern, this very real threat of losing one’s shelter and perhaps the only opportunity for shelter,” said Jelks.

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Residents living in the midst of the Superfund cleanup do not have to look far for precedents that feed into their fears.

East of Northside Drive, which borders the communities, another working-class Black community was forced out by urban renewal. That community was razed to build the Georgia Dome stadium 30 years ago and is now the home of the new Mercedes-Benz stadium. The Belt Line, a large developing walkway that began being built in 2005, has transformed the center of Atlanta but exacerbated gentrification.

“If we look at the history of development in Atlanta, it’s not been a shining success story for prioritizing people who have lived in the same place for a long time,” said Historian William Bryan.

Those new developments are attracting investors. Newly renovated homes for sale, leasing or short-term renting are popping up around the neighborhood. Mercedes Benz Stadium is just across the street from Vine City and will be one of the stadiums hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2026. 

The lots in the area have doubled in value since Microsoft announced early last year that a new campus would be erected in northwest Atlanta, said Westside Future Fund’s Harrop. Last year, in announcing its 90-acre Quarry Yards campus in the nearby Grove Park and Center Hill area, Microsoft said it is being planned with “world-class sustainability” as part of the company’s commitment to becoming a “carbon negative, water positive, zero waste company by 2030.” 

The cleanup effort itself has been an effective way to promote more testing and cleanups, said Berry from the EPA. As more homeowners get their yards cleaned, more neighbors come out, familiarize themselves with the testing and clean-up process, and sign up.   

“I think we’re in a different place now, where these issues are taken more seriously,” said Bryan. “I think there is more dialogue, but that doesn’t mean things have been solved.”

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