Apartment crackdown hits usual Georgia barriers

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Local governments work to hold landlords accountable but change is slow

Soon after Atlanta declared a crackdown on negligent apartment owners, code inspectors descended on Pavilion Place, a complex with a landlord who repeatedly failed to show up for court the last time the city tried to hold him accountable.

Inspection teams swept through the buildings, documenting rotting floors and ceilings, rat and roach infestations, leaks and mold, and a wide-open front gate. Then came code enforcement’s scathing complaint, filed in Municipal Court, which labeled the complex so deplorable that it’s not fit for human habitation. The city asked a judge to order a long list of repairs and additional security to address rampant crime. If the owner refused, the city said, the judge should authorize code enforcement to start bulldozing buildings.

But before a hearing could be held, the city’s attorneys dropped the complaint. Earlier this month, Deputy Solicitor Erika Smith explained to City Council members that the owner — a Beverly Hills investor who has repeatedly failed to keep promises to tenants and regulators — is ready to sign a contract to meet the city’s demands. He has already “come into compliance with many of the violations originally filed within the complaint,” she said.

That came as a shock to Danielle Russell, a tenant who’s been speaking out for three years about conditions at Pavilion Place and says little has changed since the crackdown was announced in July. She says she’s still kept awake by gunshots at night and spends almost every morning prying dead rats out of spring traps on her kitchen floor.

“In seven months’ time, nothing has happened,” Russell said. “The city should be petitioning the judges to do their jobs and crack down on this guy and either put him in jail or make sure that he pays his fines.”

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

After The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s “Dangerous Dwellings” series began exposing unsafe living conditions for tens of thousands of people in apartment complexes across the metro area, several local governments announced plans to toughen regulations and go after chronic code offenders. But a new review by the Journal-Constitution found those efforts are already running up against the same obstacles that have allowed horrid conditions to fester.

Enforcement processes move at a crawl. Timetables for reforms have been pushed back. Governments are still limited in manpower and legal powers.

Atlanta Councilwoman Andrea Boone, who sponsored the resolution calling for a coordinated response to derelict apartments, said code enforcement’s efforts have prompted some landlords in her district to address leaky roofs, bad plumbing and mold. But she said the goal was to see persistently negligent owners held criminally accountable.

“Let me be clear — I am not satisfied at all,” Boone said. “Overall, we have a long, long way to go.”

Tough talk aside, both regulators and landlords know that if a government wields the full hammer of property condemnation, hundreds of residents could be left homeless and local governments — and taxpayers — could be put on the hook to find new places for them. The specter of that scenario keeps governments more interested in negotiations with landlords than in punishments.

“That’s not cracking down, that’s business as usual,” Atlanta City Councilman Michael Julian Bond said.

Localities can also impose tougher maintenance and inspection standards, but apartment owners have warned that will result in extra costs being passed along to tenants.

That has prompted some local governments, including Sandy Springs, to move cautiously on reforms they had touted. Other governments, including Gwinnett and DeKalb, are proceeding in fits and starts.

Credit: Arvin Temkar / Arvin.Temkar@ajc.com

Credit: Arvin Temkar / Arvin.Temkar@ajc.com

‘War mode’?

Atlanta officials minced no words last summer when they called for code enforcement, police, the city solicitor and district attorney to join forces against owners of crime-ridden and derelict apartment complexes.

City Solicitor Raines Carter released a list of 43 complexes he said were already targeted. DA Fani Willis said her office would go into “war mode” and seize complexes, if need be.

Since then, though, many officials have had little to say about their efforts. Willis and her spokesman didn’t respond to a reporter’s calls or emails. A scheduled interview with the code enforcement director, Daphne Talley, was nixed by the police department’s public affairs director, who said Talley can’t talk about specific cases.

After the Journal-Constitution questioned the mayor about what the crackdown has accomplished, his staff provided names of eight complexes the city is going up against in court. But Pavilion Place is the only one to have been targeted with aggressive litigation since July.

Litigation pending against two complexes on the city’s list, Daron Village and Forest Cove, predated the council’s call for a crackdown. Fairburn-Gordon I & II has a stack of citations and has been placed in receivership during a legal dispute between the brothers who own it, one of whom is the landlord of Pavilion Place. A consent agreement is in the works for one of the eight, the mayor’s office said, while litigation is pending, but not filed, against others.

Criminal charges seem to be largely off the table now.

The city solicitor this month told council members that consent agreements are a better option because they’re enforced by the court and can require landlords to do more than just correct code violations. They can also include measures such as requiring owners to hire around-the-clock security.

“It makes for a smoother, and quite frankly a more efficient process when you’re not going to trial fighting each and every charge,” Carter told council members. “Because as you know, an apartment complex can have hundreds of violations.”

Pavilion Place’s owner, Behzad “Ben” Beroukhai, faced 100 criminal counts and $100,000 in fines after code enforcement swept the complex in late 2019. But he didn’t show up for court, nor did he show up to answer charges over another of his five apartment complexes on the city’s target list.

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

The problem, said Smith, the deputy solicitor, is that on paper Pavilion Place is owned by a limited liability company, and a 2018 city ordinance bars criminal charges against corporate entities. So her office can’t pursue criminal charges against Beroukhai.

Beroukhai, his attorneys and the property manager did not respond to calls or emails seeking comment. The city declined to provide a copy of the consent agreement for Pavilion Place, or describe its terms, until the document is filed in court.

The mayor’s office did say that an additional $125,000 has been allocated to the Solicitor’s Office to file court cases against apartments, and that $300,000 in additional funding has gone to code enforcement, which has added three code inspectors.

But Talley, the code enforcement director, told council members in January that her division had 21 code inspectors before the pandemic but now operates with only nine.

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Meanwhile, the Journal-Constitution learned that the city now has 54 complexes on its list of those to be targeted, based on its updated data on crimes, fire and code violations.

Atlanta Councilman Bond said the city should tap reserves to hire more inspectors, as many as 80 more if necessary, to go after the city’s targets.

“This really is an emergency,” Bond said in the committee meeting. “If people are forced to live under these conditions, we all have to do a whole lot more.”

Government wheels turn slow

Sandy Springs leaders said last year that City Council would vote in January to require its apartment complexes to undergo independent interior inspections of all units every year in order to renew business licenses. Currently, 20% of units have to be inspected annually.

The vote has been delayed, though, while the city is in a back-and-forth with the Atlanta Apartment Association, which has been lobbying against the change. Internal emails obtained by the Journal-Constitution show at least two meetings have taken place about the change, most recently in January.

The association told city officials that increasing required inspections would add tens of thousands of dollars to owners’ yearly operating costs. “With the added cost ultimately being borne by residents,” lobbyist Stephen Davis wrote in a September email to city officials.

The vote is now expected this spring, according to an internal email from the city manager.

“If we pass this cost on, and we do it in an unthoughtful manner, it’s just going to get passed to the people we’re trying to help,” Councilwoman Melody Kelley told the Journal-Constitution.

Sandy Springs did vote last month to add two code enforcement officers to form a new apartment inspection unit.

Our reporting

Amid Georgia’s affordable housing crisis, hedge funds, private equity firms and other absentee investors have bought up aging apartment complexes throughout the metro area, hiking rents and fees while skimping on maintenance and security. That business model has trapped tens of thousands of people in apartment complexes with rampant crime, squalor or other hazards, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found in its 2022 “Dangerous Dwellings” investigation.

The investigation also found that investors were attracted to Georgia because the state’s renter-protection laws are among the nation’s weakest, and local governments often lack the legal authority, resources or time to force unscrupulous operators to make sure apartments are safe and habitable. Read more at ajc.com/dwellings

Gwinnett is also moving slowly.

After the Journal-Constitution gave the county the names of 14 apartment complexes in its jurisdiction with rampant crime, code violations or other hazards, code enforcement conducted exterior inspections and issued citations to nine. Among them was Las Palmas near Norcross, which has had a burned-out building standing on its property for almost two years.

Chris Hayward, deputy director of planning and development, declined to answer questions about why it’s taken the so long for code enforcement to address the building ruins.

A county spokeswoman said that after the inspection last fall, it took two months for the citations to be issued because the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office had trouble serving the Florida-based owner’s registered agent listed in College Park.

“This really is an emergency. If people are forced to live under these conditions, we all have to do a whole lot more."

- Atlanta Councilman Michael Julian Bond

On another front, Gwinnett may be making progress. The county does not accept code complaints for conditions inside apartments, because its ordinances don’t allow interior inspections. That could soon change.

The County Commission voted Tuesday to send possible ordinance changes to the state Department of Community Affairs for a review, which the county attorney said is a step required under state law. The next step is commission approval.

Commissioner Kirkland Carden, who championed the reforms, says he has at least three votes in support, which is enough to have interior inspections permitted by summer. “Best case scenario, May. Worst case scenario, June,” Carden said.

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Tenants in peril

In DeKalb County, where CEO Michael Thurmond says fighting blight is a priority, code enforcement has hired three new officers in the past two months.

Enforcement is hindered, though, by its code enforcement recordkeeping system, which Thurmond has called “a complete mess.” Thurmond said last year that a new system would roll out in the first quarter of 2023, but now the timetable has been pushed back to May.

Still, the county’s multifamily task force has been going through a list of complexes with egregious violations to make sure they’ve complied with a requirement to have 20% of their units independently inspected each year, said chair Aaron Kimble. The Journal-Constitution had found the county failed to enforce the rule in recent years.

And the task force recently came down hard on a complex where a 4-year-old was shot in the foot a few days before Christmas, setting deadlines for making sewer repairs and other renovations, Kimble said. This spring, he said, the task force will do a sweep of Avondale Village, a dilapidated complex near the county jail with burned-out buildings, rodent infestation, and rows of empty ground-level units that are attracting vagrants and crime.

But even the county’s most aggressive actions can only go so far in helping tenants.

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

In January 2022, the task force swept Thornberry Apartments, issuing more than 100 citations for dangers such as faulty balconies, exposed wires, damaged roofs and corroded staircases. In April the complex’s owners agreed to pay $48,600 in fines and court costs.

All that did nothing to help Paul McMillan, whose ground-level one-bedroom unit stinks from the mold that has been consuming baseboards under his sinks and growing out of an air conditioner vent for the past year. Fungus has sprung in bulbs out of the hallway and bathroom floors. He lives surrounded by blight, with dumpsters frequently overflowing, units boarded up, graffiti sprayed on the sides of buildings and on the playground slides, and trash strewn in parking lots and grassy areas.

A cancer survivor, McMillan lives off Social Security, and after his landlord raised his rent last year higher than his monthly payments, he decided to withhold rent until his landlord cleaned up the mold.

Management promptly sent him a dispossessory notice, then taped an eviction notice to his door. Georgia doesn’t allow tenants to withhold rent no matter the living conditions.

Credit: Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com

Credit: Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com

The worst was still to come. Last month, two men accosted McMillan in the parking lot outside his unit, demanding money and shooting him in the ankle. He underwent surgery and now uses a wheelchair, as he faces homelessness.

“You shouldn’t have to give them your money to live like this, and they can put you out of here in a blink of an eye,” McMillan said.

The Florida limited liability company that owns Thornberry Apartments didn’t respond to an email. Robert Jones, the property manager, told the Journal-Constitution that McMillan is more than $11,000 behind on rent. He said the mold hasn’t been removed because McMillan won’t allow workers into his unit, which McMillan denies.

“You can ask anybody in this complex,” the manager said. “If you call me, I try to get to it as soon as I can.”