Chappell Forest: A complex abandoned while lives restart

It was Easter weekend when 30-some families started moving from a deplorable and largely abandoned Atlanta apartment complex to better housing, assisted by the city, some churches and assorted do-gooders.

Atlanta officials said the rare city intervention was a noble governmental reaction to an unfolding emergency. They helped resettle all residents, paid for deposits and rents and even arranged to get school buses rerouted to keep kids in their schools. It all shows, Mayor Kasim Reed’s office said, “We will not be a city too busy to love.”

Some believe the action — and accompanying religious holiday — was the hand of the Lord helping the downtrodden. “It was a miracle from God,” said a preacher, known as the First Ladii, who had counseled the residents for months.

Others say the effort was simply to prevent Al Sharpton, the rambunctious minister who hosts a TV show, from turning his electronic bullhorn on City Hall. The relocation was kept quiet, they say, because city officials were concerned that resettling residents in private housing with public dollars might bring a flood of similar requests. Atlanta has lots of dilapidated apartments with residents eager for residential salvation.

The saga of Chappell Forest apartments — replete with druggies, self-proclaimed Jesus freaks, metal thieves and long-suffering residents — might make good movie fodder. In fact, it already has. Last fall, Arnold Schwarzenegger's movie crew used the sprawling complex northwest of downtown as the backdrop for his film "Ten," a shoot-'em-up depicting an urban drug-infested hell. But the environment was so dilapidated that crews had to fix it up before shooting.

While the filmmakers were setting up klieg lights, residents were battling the property’s newest owner. Ed Mitchell says he approached residents in an effort to to see who was who, trying to sift the legitimate, paying residents from the deadbeats in the mostly vacant, neglected 216-unit complex.

He said rent payments were needed to fix up the units. Residents demanded he fix the units before they paid rent.

Ultimately, ownership sent out eviction notices and in December, local civil rights firebrand Joe Beasley led a couple dozen residents to the mayor’s office lobby in protest.

When mayoral aide Andrea Boone came out to shoo the crowd into a conference room, Beasley loudly announced, “We’re taking over this office in your daddy’s name,” referring to the late Rev. Joseph E. Boone, a civil rights leader renowned for protests. A road bearing Rev. Boone’s name is within sight of the complex.

“Joe Boone and I took over the mayor’s office when Andy Young was mayor,” recalled Beasley, who also issued a veiled threat to city officials: He would call in Sharpton.

Mitchell said he received a call from a city official asking him to delay the evictions for a couple weeks. “Don’t kick them out over Christmas,” the official urged the landlord, according to Mitchell.

By March, Chappell Forest’s population had dwindled to perhaps 30 families, many who couldn’t afford to move or rent legitimate apartments because of criminal records or spotty work histories. Some lingered on for free rent. Water flowed through the complex parking lot because copper water pipes had been stolen from vacant apartments. The water bill, ignored for years, approached $1.2 million. Unpaid property taxes were $350,000.

City codes officials blanketed the complex with violations and the fire department condemned it. The city cut off the water for a couple days to force the issue and encourage people to leave but, realizing as many as 30 children still lived there, it was turned back on.

Residents Brittie Davis and Nikki Jefferson, who had organized residents against the landlord, were now tasked with determining who was an actual resident as word spread the city was helping people move.

“The decision was made by the mayor to help relocate every resident who needed relocation assistance,” said mayoral spokeswoman Sonji Jacobs Dade. “It was consistent with the mayor’s philosophy that cities have souls and that where we can, we should not hesitate to help one another.”

The effort cost $28,000, she said, with funds coming from private donations to the mayor’s office, funds from the offices of councilmen Ivory Young and Michael Bond and federal block grants to the city. The effort was coordinated by at least four local churches and ministry groups and Project Community Connections, a non-profit that houses the homeless.

Residents were placed in other apartments, with the first month’s rent and deposits paid. Many had rents negotiated to around $450 a month, about half the market rate.

One woman, a school custodian and a Chappell Forest resident for 15 years, refused help, said Tamara Serwer Caldas, a volunteer lawyer who represented residents after the eviction notices. “She said, ‘I don’t need help.’ She said, ‘It’s wrong. Why would I get help if I don’t need it?’” Serwer Caldas said.

“It was an intervention from external forces that interrupted these people’s lives and moved them into a better situation.”

Jefferson, a waitress, is thankful for the help, which allowed her and her three sons to move to an apartment near downtown. Her children have already made new friends.

It was a good deed by the city, she said, “But they wanted to keep it under wraps. They don’t want every bad neighborhood coming to them asking ‘Why don’t you do the same for us?’”

City officials said the circumstances mandating the move are relatively rare and should not set a precedent.

Davis, a food service worker at the Fulton County courthouse who maintained the master list of residents, said, “Everyone who needed help, either legit or not, were helped. We didn’t want to leave anyone behind. Everyone got a fresh start.”

She, too, now lives near downtown.

Mitchell said his brother, who according to records owned the property briefly in 2012, hoodwinked him into investing in the complex. Chappell Forest had four ownership changes in a year, some between the same people, property records indicate.

City officials have pursued a codes violation prosecution against Mitchell, who has fenced the property. Eight years ago, Chappell Forest was worth $4.25 million and provided poor residents with an increasingly scarce commodity in Atlanta: affordable housing.

More than likely, Mitchell or the city will end up demolishing it, a city official said.