A panel discussion about Buford Highway’s challenges drew about 75 people to Brookhaven’s Cross Keys High School Oct. 5, where topics included overcrowding of schools, affordable housing and the importance of voting.

While the Buford Highway community has long been known for being one of the most diverse areas in the Southeast, it is facing rapid change from redevelopment and other pressures.

Rev. David Park of the Open Table Community church.

The panel consisted of Cross Keys High School Principal Jason Heard; Pastor David Park of Brookhaven’s Open Table Community Church; state Rep. Scott Holcomb (D-Atlanta), who represents part of the Buford Highway area; Doraville City Councilmember Dawn O’Connor; and recent Cross Keys graduates Ana Cadreny and Mileydy Villegas.

The concern for affordable housing has increased in recent weeks, when it was announced in late September that two Brookhaven apartment complexes — The Terraces at Brookhaven and Northeast Plaza Apartments — could be torn down to build single-family houses and townhomes, potentially leaving hundreds of residents without a place to live.

Even with the apartment complexes that aren’t being torn down, the cost of living has gone up around the Buford Highway area, challenging low-income residents to pay for rent and threatening the diversity that makes the area so unique.

Holcomb said one way he hopes to make a difference is by raising the state’s minimum wage.

“If you can’t keep prices down, at least you can try to increase the earnings,” Holcomb said. “I support it going up to $15 an hour.”

Heard said the two ways to influence government is through money and votes. In the back of the school’s cafeteria, where the discussion was held, voter registration was provided by the Center for Pan-Asian Community Services.

The panel members all agreed that one of the main ways to influence change in the community is to vote for candidates who will make positive changes to affordable housing, education and other issues facing the area.

“We’ve got to voice our concerns,” Heard said. “We’ve got to be the ones to let our decision-makers know what we want as a community.”

Park didn’t wait until Election Day to make his voice heard. Earlier this year, he and a dozen other faith leaders from the area wrote a letter to the city of Brookhaven expressing concerns that the diversity of the city was at stake because of the lack of affordable housing.

The city listened to the request, and last month appointed 13 volunteers to Brookhaven’s first Affordable Housing Task Force, whose first meeting was slated for Oct. 6. Park said the letter’s result shows that there is power in numbers.

“People are listening and are wanting to help, but they won’t know how to address the issue without that type of incentive,” Park said.

During the conversation, the issues related to education in the Buford Highway area were brought up. Overcrowding is affecting the high schools, panelists said, while a lack of affordable housing is dwindling the amount of teachers in one of the elementary schools and causing classes to be consolidated.

Students from Cross Keys High School were present, and Heard said it is important that the community’s youth take part in the conversation because they are a part of the future.

It was emphasized throughout the night by the panelists that coming up with solutions, rather than simply stating the problem, is the best way to provoke change.

“As soon as we realize that collectively we have a voice, then change will happen,” Heard said.

–Justin Fedich

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