By Tim Eberly / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution – January 1, 2011
Atlanta police officer Antonio Matos and his family chose five years ago to live in Dacula rather than Atlanta for Gwinnett County’s award-winning school system and its lower cost of living.
Atlanta Police officer Antonio Matos (right) chats with Columbia High Point Senior Residences resident Carmelo Aponte, 76, in the apartment complex’s formal living room. (Bita Honarvar)
But a divorce earlier this year meant Matos needed a new place to stay — and that’s more likely to be inside Atlanta city limits because of a program sponsored by the Atlanta Police Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the police department.
The foundation just revamped a housing program in the hopes of luring officers like Matos inside city limits.
“Hopefully, I can get one of these foreclosures,” Matos, 44, said.
Matos, a former Milwaukee police officer, is living in an apartment near Turner Field, in Atlanta, temporarily. But he wants to buy a place in the spring or summer, and the police foundation wants to keep him close.
“It’s a critical part of our strategy to create a safer city — to have police officers living in the city,” said Dave Wilkinson, the foundation’s president and CEO.
Wilkinson’s plan is simple: More officers living in Atlanta increases police visibility and helps deter crime. It also gives officers an emotional investment in the city and makes them less likely to leave for police jobs in the suburbs, he said.
The concept isn’t new. Other cities have struggled with the same issue: Urban living is often prohibitively expensive on a police officer’s salary.
Only 22 percent of Atlanta police officers live within city limits, according to the police foundation. The top reasons officers prefer the suburbs over city life, the foundation said: safety concerns, cost of living and the quality of schools.
Apartment complex owner Brent Sobol says he’d jump at the chance to have officers living in either of the two complexes he owns in southwest Atlanta.
“I think this is one of the best programs I’ve seen in a long time,” said Sobol, who sits on the foundation’s housing committee. “Why? Because it’s easy to do and everybody wins.”
The police foundation had a housing program for officers in 2006-08, but it focused largely on down payment assistance for homebuyers.
This time, the program will have a “comprehensive menu” for officers in all stages of their lives, said Stephanie Cruse, the housing program manager. The program has a $77,000 budget for 2011, all of which comes from community donations.
The foundation is offering $1,000 bonuses for officers to relocate to the city.
But other choices will be offered: short-term city housing for recruits while they’re in training; rent-free and rent-discounted apartments in exchange for officers providing security while off duty; discounts on home purchases; and reduced interest rates on home loans.
The foundation will work with landlords, community groups, developers and banks to offer the incentives.
While the foundation wants options for all officers, its strategy is to focus on new recruits.
Recruits are less likely than police veterans to have put down roots. Single or married, they are generally not yet parents, Wilkinson said.
“The goal is to engage and cultivate a housing relationship from the very beginning of the application process,” Cruse said.
The timing of the housing program appears ideal. Atlanta police are on a major hiring push, planning to hire 900 officers over a three-year span.
Officer Glenn Cross, 28, finished the police academy in October. He heard about the $1,000 relocation bonus recently and applied for it.
“I thought there was a catch,” said Cross, originally from Stone Mountain. “I couldn’t understand why I could get $1,000 just for moving into the city.”
Matos, the Milwaukee transplant, said he’s hoping to buy a house in the Grant Park area, where he is currently assigned to patrol. From his apartment near Turner Field, he can walk to work. He doesn’t want to go back to his 45-mile commute to Dacula.
“The closer to work, the better,” he said.