No one took Carol Reynolds’ warnings about apartment 906E seriously until the morning it went up in flames, destroying her home and those of 20 others.
Squatters had broken into the vacant upstairs apartment and taken up residence, but when Reynolds complained, her landlords brushed off the danger. She was so worried at one point that she called police, she told a DeKalb County fire investigator at the scene.
“I kept bringing it to the office for two frigging months. They haven’t done jack,” Reynolds shouted, outraged, after she escaped her burning building. She was certain the intruders set the fire, she told the investigator, and her landlords could have prevented it.
It took more than 50 fire and rescue personnel to beat back the March 5 blaze, which burned so fiercely that it brought down the building’s roof. And as Reynolds predicted, investigators found that a squatter in 906E was to blame. A homeless woman confessed she had built a fire on the apartment’s balcony to cook dinner because the stove’s gas service was disconnected.
Reynolds, who had moved in as part of a program to house the homeless, was homeless once again. “It burned down in no time. I lost everything,” Reynolds, 59, said recently.
The fire at The Village at Kensington reflects the danger faced by residents of blighted apartments in and around Atlanta.
Tens of thousands live amid conditions that place their health and safety at risk because apartment owners, often private equity firms and investment groups, routinely dodge attempts by local governments and courts to hold them accountable, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found. Decades of efforts to crack down on the south DeKalb complex’s code violations — unsecured, vacant apartments, as well as sewage leaks, rats, mold, overflowing trash and other problems — have failed to turn it around, allowing a business model that places profits over safety to flourish.
Georgia has no minimum standards requiring owners to maintain their rental properties, much less to keep them decent, safe or habitable. Instead, a confusing patchwork of local ordinances is all that stands between tenants and apartment owners. Enforcement is left to code enforcement officers, prosecutors, municipal and magistrate judges and others who often lack the legal authority, resources or time to hold unscrupulous owners accountable, the Journal-Constitution found in a review of thousands of code enforcement complaints and interviews with dozens of government officials in the five largest counties in metro Atlanta.
In some jurisdictions, residents have nowhere to turn when landlords refuse to repair broken toilets, fix the heat or exterminate rats in their apartments. In Gwinnett County, Union City and across the state, no ordinances bar apartments from operating with these unlivable conditions.
And while some local governments provide their code enforcement officers with years of training and ample support, others provide little and overwhelm their inspectors with cases. In unincorporated Cobb County, for example, a single inspector fields tenant complaints from the area’s 146 complexes, in addition to other responsibilities. Elsewhere, inspectors may not show up for days or weeks after a complaint, if at all.
Yet investors can weather even the most targeted, aggressive crackdown by a local government. Violating a housing code is typically no more serious than getting a speeding ticket, with penalties capped at $1,000 per citation. Owners buy time by dodging process servers, dragging out court hearings, breaking promises and paying fines until they flip the complex to the next owner.
These weaknesses open the door to predatory investors who raise rents and limit spending on security and maintenance. And as the area’s supply of affordable housing vanishes, ever-rising rents and sales prices prove there’s no need for owners to make lasting repairs on acres of wrecked apartments. The values of even the most notorious complexes keep skyrocketing without them.
New owners often employ the same tactics, leaving local agencies to deal with the resulting blight, crime, and unhealthy conditions, said interim Clayton County Chief of Staff Landry Merkison.
“It’s just this repetitive cycle, and if something isn’t done above our pay grade, this is what we will continue to see,” said Merkison, who has dealt with the problems caused by unscrupulous owners for years. “It’s only a matter of time before this hits every single community.”
These conditions trap local governments and residents in an impossible bind. The Journal-Constitution investigation identified more than 270 persistently dangerous complexes in Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties, where crime, neglect and squalor render apartments unlivable. Local authorities could seek a court order to shut derelict complexes down. But they have neither the money to help residents move, nor enough safe, affordable housing to place them in.
Recently, it cost the City of Atlanta $9.1 million to relocate about 200 families from a single condemned apartment complex.
Georgia also lacks laws that could wring the profit out of neglect. Landlords aren’t explicitly required to guarantee that rental dwellings are habitable. And unlike 41 other states, Georgia doesn’t allow tenants to withhold rent to force landlords to remedy unsanitary or unsafe living condition.
So across metro Atlanta, local leaders have reached the conclusion that it’s better to try to nudge the worst apartment owners into cooperating, rather than shut down hazardous complexes. Residents have nowhere else to go.
Cost of doing business
At The Village at Kensington, advertised rents start at $1,250, the grass is tightly clipped, and the clubhouse near its entrance is neatly painted. Yet eight months after the building where Carol Reynolds lived went up in flames, its charred beams and brick exterior still await demolition.
Other buildings with burnt-out apartments, puddles of raw sewage and crumbling balconies blight its vast grounds. Vagrants enter through broken fences to roam its hilly, winding drives.
Many of the complex’s nearly 1,000 apartments are vacant and unlocked, with doors and windows missing or hanging open, or water pooling on their floors. Fugitives and other squatters live side-by-side with clients of homelessness programs and families who moved in because they needed a cheap apartment, quick.
Seventy-four school-age children call the complex home, county schools records show.
Dannielle Jefferson, 37, was homeless and desperate for a safe place to stay when she took a basement apartment in February 2018. She had recently left a marriage that turned ugly, and none of the friends who took her in would let her and her toddler daughter, Morgan, stay for long, she said.
A leasing agent for the complex refused to show Jefferson the apartment before she put down a deposit, she alleged in a lawsuit. After she moved in, she figured out why. The electricity went out in half of her apartment, there were no lights in the breezeway and her next-door neighbor introduced himself as a squatter who was fresh out of jail.
At night, she’d awaken to sounds of strangers trying to open her windows or rattling the knob to her front door. Once, police officers swarmed her apartment breezeway, demanding she identify herself and asking for her neighbor’s whereabouts.
“It was just so bad. I was like, this can’t be real life,” Jefferson said. “This can’t be something that should be OK.”
Jefferson was not aware that her complex was undergoing one of DeKalb’s most aggressive crackdowns ever on derelict apartments.
In 2014, then-interim DeKalb County CEO Lee May formed a Multi Family Task Force after a review showed widespread disrepair at apartment complexes and warned that neglect allowed crime to flourish. A team of police, code enforcement officers, prosecutors, fire and health inspectors, and community development administrators aimed to find new ways to ensure that owners followed the law.
In two years the task force issued more than 6,300 citations, leading to nearly $115,000 in fines, according to a December 2016 presentation to the Board of Commissioners by May and Luz Borrero, then the county’s deputy chief operating officer for development. Fourteen of the county’s most notorious complexes came into compliance.
The crackdown even reduced crime, Borrero said. Police reported fewer burglaries, robberies and car break-ins in three of the four precincts tracked by the county.
But for all their progress, the experience taught task force members that they did not have enough power to keep properties from sliding back into disrepair.
Time and again, in DeKalb and across the region, violations recur under new ownership. In 2017, Brookhaven fined the property manager of the complex then known as Brookstone Crossing $10,000 for code violations at it and a sister complex. By August 2021, inspectors found that the renamed 3112 Brookhaven had broken windows, inoperable stairway lights, and other problems.
In Atlanta, new owners promised Councilman Dustin Hillis that they would fix crumbling units and rampant crime at Rolling Bends apartments on the city’s northwest side. But he said the complex, now named Woodland Heights, remains one of the most violent and run down in his district.
“They came in promising the world and have honestly failed to deliver on pretty much all of that,” Hillis said of the owners. “Basically, from what I can tell, they’re putting lipstick on a pig.”
Owners know that fines are so low that paying them is cheaper than making repairs, DeKalb’s Borrero said during the 2016 presentation. One of the worst of the county’s offenders was The Village at Kensington, which had racked up hundreds of court summonses for violations in the first two years of the task force.
Built in 1967, The Village at Kensington has been a hazard from the beginning. After a third-floor railing gave way in 2009, leaving a tenant with a fractured vertebrae and injured spinal cord, an engineer found that railings installed throughout the complex were structurally unsound and never built to code, court records show.
A revolving door of owners cycled the complex through a series of re-brands in recent decades, giving it grand names such as Kensington Station and Oak Tree Villas, but the complex remained in shambles. Complaints in the years leading up to the county crackdown detail extraordinary disrepair, including rats, a collapsing ceiling, sewage spills, busted plumbing, broken heating and faulty gas lines.
In 2017, when private equity firm Code Real Estate Partners of Florida bought the complex for $36.3 million, fed-up prosecutors threatened to hold its representatives criminally liable for the squalor.
This was unusual. Out-of-state owners can ignore demands that they appear in court, knowing that prosecutors do not have resources to extradite suspects on a local ordinance violation, according to interviews with code enforcement officials and solicitors.
But the firm’s co-founder Jared Remington appeared in DeKalb County Magistrate Court that November and agreed to a detailed list of hundreds of repairs, each with its own deadline, court records show. In six months, all balconies, faulty wiring, and gas lines were to be up to code, and rats and other vermin gone.
Remington also agreed he would not sell his property without a judge’s permission. If he complied with the requirements, the court would reduce $523,000 in fines to one tenth the amount.
As crews got to work, the troubles faced by tenant Jefferson and her daughter grew worse. Mold flourished in their apartment, and sewage pooled outside their front door. The heat broke as the weather turned cold, and maintenance workers only arrived to make repairs after more than three months of complaints.
Those workers changed Jefferson’s locks in retaliation for her complaints and blew off her phone calls pleading for a key until the next day, she alleged in her lawsuit, filed in DeKalb County State Court. Stuck outside trying to find help, without a safe bathroom nearby, Jefferson and her toddler Morgan soiled themselves. They paid for a motel room so they could wash up and sleep.
That winter, Jefferson sat in her car with her daughter at a nearby McDonald’s when an enraged man pounded his fists on their window.
“Did you tell on me?” he shouted. “Did you tell on me?”
It was her next-door neighbor, the squatter wanted by police. Jefferson sped off.
The thought of returning to her apartment terrified her, but after hours of driving around, trying to come up with a plan, she conceded that she and Morgan had nowhere else to go. They returned to The Village at Kensington, tiptoed down the dark stairwell, skirted the pool of sewage and slipped inside their apartment door.
After their lease ended she and her daughter were homeless once more. They lived for three months in a motel until they were able to move out.
A magistrate judge closed the complex’s code enforcement case in November 2018, clearing the complex for sale and reducing its fines to $85,000, still one of the highest amounts ever paid in the county. A New York company purchased it the following summer for $52.25 million, a 44% gain in two years.
More recent attempts to set up face-to-face meetings to encourage owners to make repairs at the south DeKalb complex have become games of phone tag, said Aaron Kimble, chair of the county’s multifamily task force, which spearheads its efforts to keep complexes in good repair.
“They’re absentee, a lot of times,” he said. “They’re either not here, or if they are here, they’re not present in terms of wanting to rectify the issues.”
The complex sold once again in December 2021, this time for $76 million, and is now named Avondale Village. Housing advocates said they consider its new owner, New York-based North Point Management Corp., one of the worst landlords in Connecticut.
North Point’s Zvi “Harry” Horowitz promised fixes after he took over management and purchased Seramonte Estates in Hamden, Conn. in 2021, but mold, flooding basements, broken doors, faulty appliances and vacant apartments remain chronic problems, according to tenants and recent health department violation notices.
Georgia code enforcement authorities face long odds against owners with such deep pockets. The state sets no minimum qualifications or training for code enforcement officers, and their powers are strictly limited by Georgia law, county ordinances and policies.
They cannot enter an apartment unless invited and can only make arrests if they are sworn peace officers. Managers can kick them off their properties during routine inspections, which are confined to parking lots, leasing offices and club houses that are easily accessible to the public.
Government audits show that disarray and overwhelming caseloads also keep code enforcement officers from doing their jobs. In 2019, when Atlanta city council members complained that cases were taking too long to resolve, auditors found some officers were assigned 20 to 30 cases daily, and as many as 95% of cases where no violation was found may have been closed without oversight. Auditors witnessed officers exposed to “potentially dangerous conditions” and the “risk of physical harm” in the field.
Atlanta Police declined requests for an interview to discuss whether it made fixes in the three years since the audit.
In DeKalb, for all the work by its multifamily task force, its code compliance office continues to struggle to perform essential tasks. An audit issued earlier this year found that problems identified in a 2017 audit had still not been fixed. In most cases reviewed by auditors, officers failed to respond to complaints within 72 hours as required by department rules, and more than 800 of its code cases were marked “open” for more than four years.
The audit also found that in cases reviewed, most property owners did not bother to appear for their cases in magistrate court.
County officials have yet to advance key task force proposals to give the county more ammunition against neglectful owners. Commissioners failed to sponsor local ordinances to enact them or to direct their lobbyist to push for reforms at the state level.
Gone was a bid to require owners to bear the cost of relocating tenants found to be living in uninhabitable conditions.
Gone too was proposed legislation barring owners from selling properties with open code violations, increasing penalties for repeat offenders and allowing inspectors to immediately enter private property in the most egregious cases.
The proposals seemed to languish in endless back-and-forth between the county’s legal department and the commission, before they faded entirely, said Marcus Kellum, the county’s former director of code enforcement.
“If the desire is there, the blueprint was left on the desk.”
Local governments can take apartment owners to court to pressure them into making repairs, but this can take years or demand more resources than governments can provide.
Prosecutions for poor conditions turn into cases of David versus Goliath, where underpowered agencies, strapped for resources and time, square off against owners who are well shielded by their money and the law.
The prosecutors who take on these cases have notoriously high caseloads. East Point has one to handle all city code violations, from traffic violations to disorderly conduct. Cobb County has one part-time solicitor who handles juvenile traffic tickets when he is not taking on property owners, Chief Assistant Solicitor-General Christopher Lanning said. It’s hard for them to match the firepower of an apartment owner.
“You’re talking about corporations that have millions of dollars at their disposal,” Lanning said. “If we slap a few $1,000 fines on them, on some level it almost seems like it is the cost of doing business.”
As a last resort, prosecutors can seek to seize apartment complexes used during certain crimes, but this rarely takes place. Government agencies are ill-equipped to manage an apartment complex, much less one that’s neglected or overrun with crime.
Under state nuisance law, local governments may also petition a court to let them use public money to demolish a dangerous property or abate hazardous conditions, but this process is slow.
An attempt to clean up one westside Atlanta complex has drained city resources for 12 years, code enforcement officials told the City Council in an April meeting. Its owner dodged inspectors and broke promises to make repairs, then successfully petitioned a judge to issue a temporary order blocking the city from moving forward with demolition.
“We will never have enough funding to take care of every code violation in the city of Atlanta,” said Daphne Talley, director of code enforcement for the Atlanta Police Department.
So cities and counties increasingly have resorted to letting owners regulate themselves. Brookhaven, Dunwoody, Duluth and others require that apartment complexes hire third-party contractors to inspect a portion of their units annually, covering all of them over several years. Owners that fail to submit an inspection report are not re-issued a business license and violate local ordinances if they continue to operate.
Yet an apartment complex can remain dangerous and still pass its inspections. A Journal-Constitution review of thousands of pages of DeKalb County inspection reports completed over five years showed that The Village at Kensington passed from 2017 through 2019, then did not submit reports for the following years. Other apartments that failed to submit reports also continued to operate.
That’s because the county does not want to be in the business of finding new places for residents to live, said Kimble, the chair of DeKalb’s multifamily task force.
“We can obviously ask the property to shut down,” he said. “However, what we run into is … displacing all of these residents, which DeKalb County does not want to do.”
With no better solutions on the horizon, local governments resort to approaches they know fall short. Cobb County in September approved its own version of the third-party inspection program over the objections of tenants convinced that landlords would raise their rents or leave them homeless if their apartments were deemed uninhabitable.
Living in a squalid apartment, they said, is better than being out on the street.
Commission Chairwoman Lisa Cupid took their worries to heart.
“We are very much in a Catch 22,” she said. “What’s the point of having a livable condition if you can’t live? And this is our challenge.”
The Village at Kensington’s new owner, Horowitz, said recently that its problems are in the past, and the newly named Avondale Village is now one of the most “amazing properties around.”
“All problems have been taken care of and are being taken care of, and we have a great relationship with our code enforcement,” he said.
But recent complaints at the complex have a familiar ring to them.
In March, shortly after the fire that left resident Carol Reynolds and 20 others homeless, police arrested the squatter who set it. She was living in a different abandoned unit at the complex. Fire and code inspections that followed found that the complex had no records to show that it completed its annual fire hydrant inspection, and that balcony panels were rotting or falling off.
Reynolds moved to another complex in west Atlanta. Neighbor Pamela Graves, 63, who lost nearly everything in the fire, did not have the money to move elsewhere and fought with apartment managers to move into a different apartment there.
Graves is now worried about rats that have chewed their way into her kitchen more than a dozen times. When she flips on the light, they leap from her counter into the space behind the stove, or scurry into the dark spaces around her refrigerator.
“We’ve had rats. We’ve had roaches,” said Graves. “We’ve had a green mold and black mold. And the whole situation has been very, very stressful.”
No officer came when she called Code Compliance in May about the standing water and mildew smell coming from her building’s empty bottom units, she said. When she called again in August, a code compliance officer took two weeks to call her back. Instead of booking an appointment, the officer gave her the name of an extended-stay hotel, Graves said.
“Her suggestion to me was for us to get out of here,” Graves said. “Because it’s not healthy. It’s not safe. And she’s right — they’re not going to do anything about it.”
About this investigation
Setting building maintenance requirements is largely up to local governments in Georgia. So why do hundreds of metro Atlanta apartment complexes remain dangerous, unhealthy places to live?
That was the question The Atlanta Journal-Constitution set out to answer for this installment of the Dangerous Dwellings investigation.
To find out, journalists spent months compiling a first-of-its kind database to match code enforcement complaints from 19 jurisdictions to area apartments. They also reviewed local ordinances and examined thousands of apartment inspection records and other public records. Out in the field, they visited dozens of complexes, interviewing residents, landlords, local prosecutors, code enforcement officials, public officials and other experts. They also attended court hearings and accompanied code officers on a “sweep” inspection of one complex.