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Posted: 6:56 a.m. Monday, Oct. 29, 2012

Housing crisis

Unsafe streets stifle housing rebound in southwest Atlanta

Residents contend with vagrants, dealers and prostitutes. Police crack down but owners of vacant homes hard to find.

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By J. Scott Trubey, Russell Grantham

LaShawn Hoffman’s nonprofit in southwest Atlanta can renovate a vacant home for a new buyer in a couple of months. Vandals and thieves can strip out anything of value and render the house uninhabitable in just a couple of hours.


Neighborhoods across metro Atlanta are struggling to rebound from the real estate crisis. But few face the hurdles found in the working class communities south and west of downtown.


Atlanta code enforcement officers regularly respond to complaints of squatters occupying properties illegally, or attempt, often futilely, to convince occupants to clean trash collecting in yards.


Vacant and abandoned properties have attracted drug dealers, prostitutes and squatters. Those renovated for new buyers are often plundered before they can go on the market.


The general lawlessness is a major reason some in-town neighborhoods have failed to rebound from the housing market’s collapse despite their proximity to downtown, the Atlanta Beltline and neighborhood parks. It’s also a daily affront to the residents who’ve decided to tough it out or can’t leave.


“Having children walking by vacant and abandoned houses that are open and [they can] witness any kind of illicit activity that might be going on is a huge concern,” said Hoffman, CEO of the Pittsburgh Community Improvement Association.


Hoffman’s group has been attempting to rehabilitate vacant houses in Pittsburgh, where as many as 45 percent of the community’s 1,800 residences are vacant.


But some days, Hoffman feels the effort moves one step forward for every two steps back.


In 2009, the Coalition for the Preservation of Pittsburgh (PCIA) bought a two-story home with a double front porch on Humphries Street. Although the group secured the property with steel shields over the windows and doors, one door, on a second story porch, was left unprotected.


Last winter vandals pried open the porch door, and ripped out appliances and copper pipes. Wood floors were splintered as though an explosion had torn through the vacant home. Fragments of dry wall littered the rooms.


“This was going to cost me about $70,000 to renovate,” said Hoffman. “Now this will cost me $20,000 more.”
Since 2009, violent and property crimes have hit residents of neighborhoods like Pittsburgh, West End and Adair Park about two to three times more frequently than the city overall, according Atlanta police statistics. Pittsburgh’s hollowed-out streets have seen nearly four times more burglaries and aggravated assaults as the city overall.


Justin Vogel bought a rundown bungalow on Elbert Street as an investment two years ago. The house next door, occupied by a squatter, caught fire not long after and the blaze spread to Vogel’s house and one other, destroying three homes.


Now, Vogel struggles to keep people from filling the vacant property with trash. Code enforcement once issued a citation for high grass.


“I’ve got to figure out a way to secure it,” he said.


Housing fraud, the cause of so many of the area’s ills in the run-up to the real estate crash, is also back, but in a new way. Scammers dupe buyers into believing that they can get title to a vacant house through squatter’s rights, simply by paying them “fees” to file bogus affidavits at the county courthouse.


More teeth to code enforcement


Recognizing that the area’s problems stem from the intertwined issues of blight and crime, the city of Atlanta earlier this year merged its code enforcement division with the police department.


Major C. J. Davis, head of the code enforcement division, said the reorganization has helped give more teeth to code enforcement. Her officers are now better able to share information with uniformed police, she said, and both police and code enforcement officers are active in the area.


Earlier this month, a three-month sting by Atlanta police and federal agents dubbed Operation Steel Curtain resulted in arrests of 105 individuals in Pittsburgh. The dragnet rounded up fugitives, suspected gang members and people accused of burglaries, carjackings and even homicides.


Police collected 45 guns and more than $81,000 in drugs. Meanwhile, the vice unit has made 102 prostitution-related arrests this year.


Such efforts have had a broad impact, police say. Major crimes are down 26 percent so far this year in the Pittsburgh area, and 24 percent in neighboring Adair Park.


Former state Rep. Doug Dean, a longtime housing advocate in southwest Atlanta, credits the city for stepping up policing of Pittsburgh and nearby neighborhoods. He raves about rehabs to Pittman Park, the community center and a new computer lab.


But Dean said the city’s code enforcement department isn’t doing enough to tackle the problem of abandoned and dilapidated properties, which depress home values and scare off would-be buyers.


The department, he said, has been more aggressive in going after properties with tenants and owners it can easily find than in trying to condemn long abandoned houses that attract criminals.


Dean singled out a home at Mary and Smith streets he said has caught fire repeatedly. A tree grows up through the middle of the house.


“This house has been here like this for probably 20 years,” he said. “Twenty years.”


But finding owners is easier said than done. Some homes were sold and resold several times during the housing boom, often fraudulently, and owners are difficult to trace.


Maj. Davis said a new property registration system is helping. “If we can find the owners, we can make them pay,” she said.


The city also is trying to step up efforts to tear down vacant eyesores. More than 175 properties have been demolished by the city since 2008, and nearly 200 more have been cleaned and sealed up in that time. Nearly 100 properties are under demolition orders – 11 in Pittsburgh — with 250 more properties citywide awaiting hearings for potential bulldozing or clean up.

Breeding ground for opportunists


Community leaders and code officers said most complaints of squatters occupying houses illegally involved the homeless looking for overnight shelter. But some are organized groups targeting homes whose ownership has been left in doubt following the foreclosure crisis.


Atlanta Code Enforcement Officer William Kirkland said news coverage of so-called sovereign citizen groups and greater public awareness has helped curb the squatter problem. When code enforcement arrives to check reports of squatting and trespassing, Kirkland said, the squatters have typically left by the time officers arrive.


Ownership voids have become a breeding ground for opportunists.


In April, a south Atlanta man pleaded guilty as a first offender to racketeering for offering to help people obtain vacant houses through a process known as adverse possession. He was sentenced to restitution and probation of 10 years.


Adverse possession, commonly called squatter’s rights, is a legal means of obtaining property when an individual does not hold title. Under Georgia law, a person can obtain ownership in some situations when he or she has essentially possessed it for 20 years.


Police said the man, Edgar Lee Rodgers, was part of the sovereign citizen movement, whose adherents claim they are not subject to U.S. law.


Authorities said Rodgers tacked signs along Metropolitan Parkway advertising homes “as is” for $3,000.

He showed victims houses around south Atlanta and taught people how to file affidavits declaring ownership, one victim told police. Would-be homebuyers often paid Rodgers several thousand dollars expecting a deed in the mail that never came. The affidavits were bogus.


But the new “owners” often paid for hefty renovations before moving in, only to learn that they’d been duped when the true owners or police checked on their properties, Atlanta Police Investigator Douglas Ricks said.


“The new owners are out money to Rodgers, money in repairs and can be arrested,” Ricks said.


In March, Rodgers showed two Lithonia men three houses in Sylvan Hills.


Rodgers went with the two men to the Fulton County Courthouse to file affidavits, but the reaction of a clerk made one of them suspicious. When the buyers gave Rodgers $4,500, and asked for a receipt, Rodgers went to his car, claiming he’d get a receipt book. He then sped away with the money.


Distinguishing squatters from renters


Even large, well-funded players like Atlanta-based Carter, one of the nation’s largest real estate developers and investors, have become embroiled in the casual chaos that pervades the city’s hardest-hit sections.


At deep discounts, Carter bought nearly 300 homes in struggling Atlanta neighborhoods from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. in late 2009.


But dozens of its homes since have been slapped with alleged codes violations for overgrown and junk-filled yards; empty houses occupied by vagrants; and renters accused of operating unlicensed group homes.


In one case, a tenant was cited and shut down in 2010 for running an unlicensed “transitional home” in one Carter-owned home in the Adair Park neighborhood, only to move to another Carter property in West End and receive a similar complaint that he was operating a rehabilitation center there without a permit.


An official with Carter said the company is working “vigilantly” to monitor and protect its large portfolio of homes.


Getting owners to correct code violations, or at least, properly secure vacant properties with metal shields or plywood, are victories, said Kirkland, the code enforcement officer, who recently led two AJC staffers on a tour around the West End and Pittsburgh areas.


On one street, kudzu and hedges clasped a house near I-20 in a leafy beard. Hip-high weeds crowded out the sidewalk and hid faded beer cans. The home looked vacant.


Kirkland said his first instinct when approaching a vacant home is to look for an escape route. Not a path a desperate trespasser might use to flee, but one for himself and his partner should things turn ugly.


“You don’t know what’s on the other side of that door, or lingering in this high grass,” he said.


A young man in his 20s, a tattoo splashed across his torso, emerged from inside agitated – by the code officer and the reporter and photographer on the porch.


He claimed to be a renter of the property, but said he didn’t know the owner’s phone number or address. The man said the owner, a woman, lived in Cincinnati, Ohio.


Kirkland cited the man for the high weeds and vines creeping into the soffits, the broken windows and junk.


“You have 10 days to clean this up,” Kirkland told the man, who twitched nervously.


Kirkland could only cite the man for the home being an eyesore. Squatting requires a victim – the property owner – to file a complaint. For now, it’s up to Kirkland to find the owner to serve a warning and to determine if the house contains a squatter or a legitimate renter who’s simply not keeping up the home.


In hardscrabble neighborhoods with a glut of deteriorated houses, it’s sometimes a difficult distinction.


A search of Fulton County property records revealed the house belonged to a man in Snellville, not a woman in Ohio.


Second of two parts

Sunday: Five years after the crash, southwest Atlanta neighborhoods still in crisis

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