OPINION: Tenants cry foul over non-renewals from landlords

A poorly maintained pool is among the complaints of residents at Mitchell's Park, an apartment complex in Smyrna.
Courtesy of Ian Spiegelman

Combined ShapeCaption
A poorly maintained pool is among the complaints of residents at Mitchell's Park, an apartment complex in Smyrna. Courtesy of Ian Spiegelman

Krystin Harris was relieved in April when the rental assistance she applied for last November finally materialized from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. The program, established to assist residents impacted by the pandemic, paid Harris’ rent through September but management had already served her a letter of non-renewal effective July 31.

Harris had moved to The Slate, an apartment complex in DeKalb County, in February 2021. For the first six months, one of the bathrooms in her unit was unusable, damaged by tree roots in the sewage line, she said. The kitchen cabinets were partially detached from the wall. The water in the community pool looked putrid. But the recent divorcee with two young children needed an affordable place to live.

After a few weeks of living in substandard conditions, Harris complained to the property management company. Some issues were resolved.

This past January, the apartment complex came under the management of South East Asset Management Services (SEAMS). When Harris began reporting ongoing housing issues to that company, she got no response. After she called Code Enforcement, communications between Harris and SEAMS quickly turned sour.

When SEAMS took over, Harris was behind on her rent, having lost her job in August 2021. She communicated that she was awaiting rental assistance and connected the property manager with her caseworker. When she got a new job in November, she used her income to cover daycare expenses and car payments so she could continue working.

When her lease renewal came up in March, SEAMS offered her a four-month lease but subsequently filed eviction paperwork. Harris felt the reason for the non-renewal wasn’t just about the unpaid rent. She also felt that she was being punished for contacting Code Enforcement.

“I wasn’t being negligent, I was drowning,” said Harris when we talked by phone. “You don’t just bounce back from a job loss.”

Apartment complexes scattered throughout the metro area, many of them owned by out-of-state private equity firms, are focused on turning profits rather than providing safe, sanitary homes for residents.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s recent housing investigation revealed predatory practices and what happens when tenants try to stand up to powerful landlords who are protected by Georgia’s lax regulations.

ExploreAJC investigation: Georgia’s renter protections, among nation’s weakest, let problems fester

I have written previously about the lack of political will to change state laws that favor landlords. In Georgia, tenants who withhold rent or break a lease risk eviction. Landlords have little reason to address tenant complaints because they rarely face consequences.

The Atlanta City Council has called for everything from a Tenant Bill of Rights that would include instituting rent controls and creating a tenant advocate office to establishing procedures for bringing criminal charges against negligent landlords.

A 2019 statute makes it illegal for landlords to retaliate against residents for requesting repairs or contacting code enforcement, but Ian Spiegelman feels that retaliation is precisely the reason his lease is not being renewed in Mitchell’s Park, an apartment complex in Smyrna.

Spiegelman has lived in the complex for five years, witnessing everything from rodent problems to poorly lit walkways. Every summer he goes to management with the same complaint: the pool is either not filled or unfit for swimming. The property manager told residents to use the community pool at a nearby park at a cost of $10 per person, he said. This year, he snapped photos of the pool filled with green water and posted them on social media.

“They are not renewing me because I complained and posted pictures,” said Spiegelman, who has a consistent record of on-time rental payment. Last month, Spiegelman’s complaints were forwarded to the corporate offices of Eighteen Capital Group, the Kansas-based private equity firm that owns the complex. He said the property manager later told him he was harassing the management team by using an expletive when he left a voicemail complaining about nonfunctional lights in the laundry room.

Spiegelman’s lease ends in September but he anxiously checks his door each day fearing an eviction notice.

Eighteen Capital Group did not respond to my request for comment.

Georgia has a lot of room for improvement in protecting tenant interests, especially with landlords skilled in subterfuge or avoidance.

Harris shared a recent copy of her tenant newsletter in which residents were offered the chance to win a $100 gift card in a raffle.

The cost of an entry? A positive review on Google.

Dangerous Dwellings: An AJC investigation

As violent crime escalated in the city and its suburbs, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sought to uncover why so many of them took place at certain apartment complexes.

Reporters embarked on a year-long effort which included collecting crime data from 15 area law enforcement agencies and code enforcement records from 19 jurisdictions. They also analyzed lawsuits, property records, corporate documents and files from local and state housing agencies. More than 250 persistently unsafe and unhealthy apartment complexes were identified.

The findings are detailed in a three-part series, Dangerous Dwellings, available free on AJC.com and the AJC ePaper.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.