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A new mixed-use development in Cumming could transform downtown, and displace low-income seniors in the process.
Orchard Apartments 4 041419 web
The Orchard Apartments is a low-income senior community with small complexes off Meadow Drive and Orchard Circle in Cumming. The one- and two-bedroom single-story apartments have been one of the only reliable sources of affordable housing for low-income seniors in the city since their construction in 1981 and 1985, but they could be coming down to make way for a proposed mixed-use development and displace the complexes' residents in the process. - photo by Brian Paglia

By Alexander Popp and Kelly Whitmire

apopp@forsythnews.com, kwhitmire@forsythnews.com

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For many of Forsyth County’s elderly and disabled residents, moving where they live isn’t as simple as just picking out a listing online and hiring a moving company.

But in the next year, that may be what some local elders are forced to do to make way for a large mixed-use development that has been proposed in the heart of Cumming. 

For the dozens of senior citizens living in the Orchard Apartments, a low-income senior community complex off Meadow Drive and Orchard Circle in Cumming, news that the land their homes sits on could be sold has caused shock, confusion and uncertainty over the past months.

According to city officials, the Orchard Apartments sit on land proposed as part of Mashburn Village, a planned 63-acre mixed-use development that will be between Veterans Memorial Boulevard and Atlanta Highway (Hwy. 9). The roads will be connected through an extension of Orchard Circle.

In early March, residents of the Orchard Apartments received word from the complex’s management company that there was a “good possibility” the land the apartments sit on would be sold in early fall. They were “strongly advised” to find a new place to live.

The plan

Officials with the city of Cumming provided the Forsyth County News with plans for the development, which is planned for both sides of Orchard Circle. The project would include a public/private parking deck, multi-story self-storage facility, a pedestrian connection to nearby Movies 400, green space, trails, 75,000 square feet of retail/flex space, a restaurant, civic space, a grocery store and other amenities.

For housing, plans show there will be 320 leasable flat units, 85 lots for single-family homes and 31 lots for townhomes.

The project was designed by Atlanta firm Wakefield Beasley & Associates, who were previously associated with construction of the Forsyth County Courthouse and Jail, Halcyon Forsyth and Avalon in Alpharetta, according to the firm’s website.

Scott Morgan, director of planning and zoning for the city, said the plan may have slightly changed from the original concept and that the property had been submitted for rezoning to planned unit development (PUD) zoning but would not move forward with the city until a Development of Regional Impact (DRI) process was done by state and regional organizations.

Currently, the land where the development is proposed to be built is split into several parcels and owned by Sawnee Valley, L.P.; Orchard Apartments LTD; Marital Trust & Mashburn Farms LP; Martha Mashburn Lappe; and Marcus Mashburn Jr. & Alice S. Mashburn Family Trusts.

Cumming City Councilwoman Linda Ledbetter said she understands the property owners’ reason for selling and thinks the development will be a plus for the city but feels for those who are having to move and may not have the resources to do so.

“I cannot blame the people for wanting to sell their land. I know it’s time,” Ledbetter said. “They’ve held it for over 50 years, it’s time to sell their land, but we’ve just got to find a place … that the county and the state can [provide] for the elderly.”

Ledbetter said she previously delivered food to those in need living in the apartments with AgeWell Forsyth, a local non-profit group that provides a variety of volunteer services for seniors in Forsyth County.

“At the age a lot of these people are, they don’t draw a lot of Social Security because they didn’t pay in a lot … and that puts them at a real big disadvantage if the family doesn’t take care of them,” she said.

While there are many developments in the city and Forsyth County geared toward those 55 and older, Ledbetter said they were far out of reach for those who would have to move.

“If you build houses for seniors 55 and older and you put in all of these amenities and fun things to do, then the house is too expensive for me, much less the people I’m talking about,” Ledbetter said. “I had a retirement. A lot of these people don’t have any kind of retirement, other than a little bit of Social Security, so it’s just really, really sad.”

Asked if there were any resources or plans for those without the financial resources or physical ability to move, Ledbetter said there were not. She hoped the local community and non-profits could do something for those that will have to move.

“There’s nowhere around Cumming that has low-income housing,” she said. “What little we have, the state housing has a long waiting list.”

The residents

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Donna Shively looks at photos of her family on Friday, April 12, 2019, in her home at the Orchard Apartments, a low-income senior community complex near downtown Cumming. - photo by Brian Paglia

When Orchard Apartments resident Donna Shively heard rumors circulating about the property earlier in the year, she said she didn’t think much of them.

Then the letter came, which she and other residents said amplified their fears and concerns.

The letter, which was obtained by the FCN, stated that Georgia law required 60 days of written notice to tenants before a lease is terminated. It said more information will be mailed to residents when it becomes available.

“The bottom line is that it is in your best interest to be looking for a new place to live for the future,” the letter stated.

It also suggests three local apartment options and gives the contact information for the housing authorities in the cities of Hartwell, LaFayette, Ellijay and Gainesville, suggesting that residents could split a two-bedroom with a friend to save on rent.

"I was upset, and I made the remark that if something is going on, we need to know about it," Shively said.

Residents have not received official word on when the property will be sold, Shively said, but she has already started to search for new places to live in the county.

Shively moved to Forsyth County from Indiana five years ago to be closer to her daughter, son-in-law and the two grandchildren that she watches from time to time. She chose the Orchard Apartments partially for the low rent but also because of its proximity to all the shops and doctor’s offices she needed.

“We're close to everything, it doesn't take us long to go to a doctor, the store is close by ... and it's a community that is a good size for us," she said. "You feel comfortable in here; I'm not feeling like I have to watch what I'm doing all the time. If I need some help, there’s someone I can go to."

But for her, like many of the apartment’s residents, moving from the comfortable two-bedroom that she rents for around $600 a month to another apartment complex could be costly.

So far, all the places Shively has been able to find in Forsyth County start at $1,300 a month or more.

“We are going to have to look at how much it's going to cost, because most of us are kind of low income,” she said. “Some of them, I don't know how they’re going to do it.”

Another Orchard Apartments resident, who labeled herself a “higher-functioning senior” and asked not to be named, said there is nowhere else left in the county for low-income seniors to go.

"These are people all on fixed incomes. You can't find an apartment under $1,100 [a month] in Cumming," the resident said. "They have nowhere to go, I have nowhere to go."

On a limited income, the resident said that even a jump in rent of a few hundred dollars would affect her life drastically, so like many of the residents she'll probably have to move out of the county. 

For people like her, who have been living in the county, paying taxes and contributing locally for all of their lives, to be forced out would feel like an insult, she said.

"We helped build this county, and now there’s nothing for us? It's like they don't want poor people in Forsyth County," she said. “It's shameful for this county; it's disgraceful for this county.”