The Morehouse Crackhouse

Several properties owned by the college have fallen into ruin. What happens when Morehouse becomes the oppressor of the Black community?

As I chatted with some folks sitting near a boarded up house in the West End last week, a guy popped out of a car that was just a hair too nice for the neighborhood. Two men sat in the back seat, watching. I introduced myself.

“First off, let me ask you a question. Are you APD?” he asked, side eying me up and down. He sounded like Mike Epps. “Are you any law enforcement, period?”

“Not at all,” I answered. “I’m a journalist.”

“I’m a pharmacist,” he replied, deadpan.

I was there to look at 880 Drummond Street. The house sits between empty lots. Low red brick stairs next to the house lead nowhere. A collection of chairs and a table adorn the sidewalk in front of the steps. The single-family home had no trespassing signs posted on the kicked-in wooden fence, but squatters had nonetheless strung sheets across the front of the porch for a bit of privacy.

I spoke with a woman there who had been hidden behind the sheet wall. She told me she was “selling her ass” to survive on the street. I asked her if she believed she was in danger. “We all are, us women,” she replied, describing how she had guns pulled on her, how she had been beaten, and that she had been raped repeatedly at the property.

(The woman I spoke to is not the woman pictured above. As a common journalistic convention, I will refrain from disclosing the identity of a rape victim. I contacted Atlanta’s social services outreach leaders after reporting through this story, to try to get the people I spoke with enrolled in homelessness services.)

“I’m still out here trying to get some help,” said Linda Brooks, who described a precarious housing situation with her sister on Drummond Street. “Don’t come out here condemning it, the way we live. Help me to get from this situation.”

Another fellow, who would not identify himself, said he was a life-long community member. “A lot of us grew up here, and had grandmas that had a house right here,” he said, pointing at an empty lot. “Now it’s gone.”

People spoke with me there for about a half an hour before an incoherent woman lying on the table started throwing fast food ketchup packets at me. Her friend told me it was time to go.

“People are fixing to get high,” she said.

Morehouse has owned 880 Drummond Street since September 21, 2020. Mid-pandemic, Morehouse decided to buy a single-family property for $95,000, and then to board it up.

A house valued under $100,000 anywhere in Atlanta today, should be drawing all kinds of attention. But the conditions on the street might make a gentrifier nervous. Most of Drummond Street has been reduced to empty lots, some of which have people living on them in tents. Several have become illegal dumping sites. A neighbor said he wouldn’t recommend cleaning up one of them without a hazmat suit on, for fear of human waste.

“This property does belong to Morehouse and we are currently working with the City of Atlanta to obtain a demolition permit,” a nameless Morehouse College spokesperson said in email. “In the meantime, our campus security does surveil the property to prevent loitering and we’ve recently did a [garbage] pick-up for not only the house, but the street block as well.”

I’ve asked Morehouse more questions about what’s going on here, without reply.

Atlanta generally won’t issue a demolition permit on a house unless it is considered more than 50 percent dilapidated.

The previous owner, Charles Hill II. — a Morehouse grad and property developer in Southwest Atlanta — called me to talk about it. Hill is probably best known for running against then-State Rep. Vernon Jones and Stonecrest Mayor Jason Lary, candidacies that look like lost opportunities in hindsight.

Hill and his family own property in the Atlanta University Center neighborhood. He used to own 880 Drummond, but sold it to Morehouse last year. “I was compelled to sell the house that was renting below market rate to a single family tenant, because of the continued proliferation of blighted properties owned by AUC Institutions and what those properties are doing to the neighborhood,” he said. “The blighted conditions of these properties are egregious and lay bare the social and class divide present in our community between African-American academic elites and our low income brethren right outside the college campus gates.  It’s total bullshit, everyone turns a blind eye, but it's nothing new, in the city too busy to care about low-income black folks and the neighborhoods they call home.” 

Morehouse College or Morehouse College Inc. owns 21 of the 43 parcels on Drummond Street, according to Fulton County tax records. It also owns 11 parcels on Beckwith Street and 19 parcels on Mitchell Street — mostly empty lots — which create a block of land with Drummond. Morehouse has been buying property on Drummond Street for two decades, scooping up some places for less than $30,000 during the real estate crash of 2007-2010.

It’s one of two clusters of properties Morehouse has been acquiring. The other is a block between Fair Street and Joyce Street across the street from the Franklin Forbes Arena, which is now mostly empty land.

Plainly, Morehouse has some purpose for acquiring a complete Monopoly set on these streets. But this isn’t like building a public school or a MARTA station: Morehouse has no legal right to compel anyone to sell them their house. They have to offer a price someone is willing to accept.

It is in Morehouse’s financial interest for that price to be as low as possible.

City Councilwoman Cleta Winslow, currently running for her seventh four-year term, said she had long been aware of Morehouse’s plans for the neighborhood, starting with a master plan for acquisition in 1999. “I have talked to a lot of people who have negotiated with Morehouse,” she said. “I know they weren’t cheating people.”

In January, Apple and Southern Company announced plans to launch the Propel Center, a business incubator and “global innovation headquarters” at historically Black colleges, housed in the AUC. The Southern Company Foundation and Apple each pledged $25 million to this effort.

The Propel Center has a social justice component, according to the project’s website. “Propel Justice will develop social justice-minded leaders who are prepared to serves as community organizers and activists, and become transformative political influencers. Special features will include using technology to involve HBCU students in the important work of organizations like the Equal Justice Initiative and connect them to history through partnerships with historic organizations and augmented reality technology.”

None of the announcements have said exactly where the Propel Center will be located.

Amid the social justice outcry for Black lives last year, Morehouse raised about $107 million for its capital campaign, a 500-percent increase over previous years and by far the most in the school’s history. Morehouse School of Medicine announced a $225 million capital campaign this year.

Jahni Lane-Foster, 18, a political science first year student at Clark Atlanta from Richmond, Va., protesting campus dormitory conditions.

Meanwhile, some AUC students have been complaining about the conditions in the dormitories. They’ve taken to tents on campus to protest inaction by school administrators.

The four schools in the Atlanta University complex had the largest freshman class in history this year, but those students met a school unprepared for the influx, said Ellis Sawyer, a 21-year-old junior from Chicago studying philosophy and urban studies at Morehouse. 

"There's mold at most of their freshman housing and lots of students are getting sick because of it," he said. The schools own some off-campus housing, but it's expensive. Sawyer is paying $1,200 a month to live in graduate housing which has its own problems, he said. "I transferred here to be part of a broader community, and I don’t have that community," he said. " As an HBCU, we need to have extra space for nontraditional students and students who don’t fit the idea of who should be in college. An HBCU needs to do differently from a PWI."

The social justice mission described by the Propel Center seems at odds with the gentrification necessary to build it, Sawyer said. Events have him questioning the moral choices of the school. "We’re looking goofy talking about going to the same school Martin Luther King Jr. went to while the president of Morehouse is raising money for the largest cop training complex in America," he said, referring to Atlanta's plan to build a police training facility in DeKalb County. 

Cleta Winslow submitted a rezoning proposal for the Atlanta University Center — including Drummond Street and other nearby streets — which had its first hearing last week.

The rezoning would create a special public interest district that “preserves” the character of the community, by creating distinct zoning rules for the area. The SPI is a product of years-long planning through the Westside Future Fund. The rezoning designates land in the area as zoned for office and industrial use.

“I wanted it to be an inclusive plan,” she said. Winslow and city planners met with local churches, neighborhood planning unit leaders and neighborhood groups, she said. “I wanted to make sure that people were heard and knew what was going on. That’s why we haven’t heard a lot of consternation.”

Under the new zoning, Mitchell Street would be able to field mixed-use development, and Beckwith Street would have office and institutional uses. But properties on Drummond Street are currently SPI 11 SA 4 — or University Residential — and are proposed to be rezoned to SPI-4 SA 9: a low-density residential subarea

I cannot help but notice that means that Morehouse would be able to pick off properties on Beckwith Street at less cost, since single-family-zoned property is less valuable than commercial property.

Nonetheless, Morehouse has been pecking away at property acquisition for about 20 years, and there’s no reason to believe that Morehouse would be able to quickly acquire the remaining lots without writing very large checks.

I question whether Morehouse gives a damn about what happens to the neighborhood — that is, the predominantly Black residents of this community — in the indeterminate, years-long acquisition period before the college redevelops the land.

Consider that Morehouse has kept these properties under its own name, rather than using some corporate veil. That’s instructive: it allows Morehouse College to use its campus police department to respond to crimes there, rather than the Atlanta Police Department.

APD records show three felonies on Drummond Street since May: the theft of a license plate and two stabbings, both by women. One was a lover’s spat, the other a product of mental illness and substance abuse.

I’ve made a request for Morehouse’s police records on Drummond Street since 2020. The state legislature changed the law in 2014, requiring the law enforcement records of campus police at private colleges to be subject to the Georgia Open Records Act. Odds are they’re not used to this kind of inquiry. We’ll see how well they comply with it.