Atlanta paid to house people in one of DeKalb's worst apartment complexes

Federal COVID money paid rent in at least 21 of metro area’s ‘Dangerous Dwellings’

While local governments battle slumlords to make them provide decent housing for tenants, they’ve come to rely on some of those same apartment owners when they need to quickly put roofs over heads.

Such was the case with “LIFT 1.0,” an Atlanta initiative to place 800 homeless people or families in stable housing during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. The city paid nearly $1.7 million to put more than 100 households in DeKalb County’s The Village at Kensington, one of the most persistently dangerous apartment complexes in the metro area, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.

Of the 56 rental properties the city used for housing, Kensington is among at least 21 that made the Journal-Constitution’s list of more than 270 “Dangerous Dwellings” in five counties, apartment complexes deemed to be so overrun with crime, neglect or squalor that they’re unlivable.

The $24.1 million program also placed people in Atlanta’s Pavilion Place, notorious for rats and plumbing backups and the subject of a recent code enforcement crackdown; DeKalb County’s Park Valley, site of numerous rapes, aggravated assaults and robberies in recent years; and Clayton County’s Elite at 285, where a 20-year-old man was shot to death in April.

But the rapid rehousing initiative placed more people at the Kensington apartments, and spent more money there, than at any other complex by far.

Cathryn Vassell, executive director of Atlanta’s lead agency on homelessness response, said it was a consequence of the housing crisis, with a scarcity of available units and rising rent prices. The nonprofits working for the city had to find landlords willing to take on tenants with no income and poor credit, some with criminal backgrounds or mental health issues, she said. That meant putting people in places like The Village at Kensington.

“The question is, are they in greater harm’s way on the street?” said Vassell, of Partners for HOME, which is administering LIFT. “It’s a very challenging situation that we’re in.”

Recently renamed Avondale Village, the complex has been a bane to the county’s multifamily task force over the past six years, with hundreds of code citations, dozens of serious crimes and at least six fires. Rows and rows of bottom-level units have been left vacant and unsecured throughout the pandemic, inviting squatters and prompting complaints of mold and rats. In December, a man emerged from a ground-level vacant unit and robbed a resident and his friend at gunpoint, according to a DeKalb County Police report.

Atlanta City Councilman Jason Dozier called the Journal-Constitution’s findings “alarming” and said city funds should not go to landlords who keep tenants in substandard conditions. During a meeting last week of the Community Development/Human Services committee, which he chairs, he questioned Vassell about routing homeless people into some of the same complexes Atlanta and Fulton County prosecutors said they are targeting in a campaign against dangerous and unhealthy apartments.

“Yes, we do have a housing crisis,” Dozier told the Journal-Constitution. “But we do have to also house our residents with dignity.”

Credit: Curtis Compton / AJC

Kristy Neff holds her cat, Judah, next to a bullet hole in the wall of her apartment at The Village at Kensington. She says she wrote "Bulletproof" on the wall after a March incident in which a man fired several shots into her apartment. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

One of the people Atlanta placed in DeKalb’s The Village at Kensington, Kristy Neff, said she lived in a tent near Howell Park, in Atlanta’s West End, when she was approached by a nonprofit doing street outreach for LIFT. The program placed her at Kensington in early 2021.

Neff said she came to detest the complex, calling her unit “a death trap.” She showed reporters mold growing on her walls and her balcony paneling coming apart. On the back side of her row, trash covered the grounds and another unit’s balcony railing had become detached and hung off the building. Most of the units around her were vacant and unlocked.

“I’d rather be somewhere safe camping than right here,” Neff, 52, said. “Because I mean, they shoot at night. And you can’t call the cops every time you hear shootings.”

Credit: Curtis Compton / AJC

On the back side of Kristy Neff’s row of apartments at The Village at Kensington, a gutter has collapsed and a balcony railing hangs off the building. Neff called her own apartment unit “a death trap.” (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Neff has since moved to North Georgia.

The man behind the LLC that owned The Village at Kensington at the time, Israel Perlmutter of Brooklyn, N.Y., did not respond to messages from the Journal-Constitution left by phone and through social media.

The nonprofit agency responsible for finding apartments on the city’s behalf said the problems Neff described weren’t noted in an inspection before she moved in. Each unit had to pass an inspection using U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development standards, said Matt Hurd, executive director of Open Doors, one of a dozen nonprofits which worked as subcontractors under Partners for HOME.

The first check of her unit found no electricity, no smoke detector, an oven and dishwasher that needed replacing, and a leak under the sink, all of which were corrected, Hurd said.

“We have a finite amount of affordable units,” Hurd said. “And a lot of those affordable units are in various states of disrepair, and so we have to kind of weed through the units that we just know we can’t, in good conscience, place somebody in.”

Among other things, the HUD standards require buildings to be structurally sound, for units to have functioning bathrooms and kitchens, uncontaminated water, adequate lighting, heat and air conditioning. Appliances have to function, and there can be no signs of rat or insect infestations, Hurd said.

The City of Atlanta’s LIFT program

Atlanta’s LIFT initiative started in 2020 to take on homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. The first phase, LIFT 1.0, used $19 million of Atlanta’s federal CARES Act funds and $5.1 million in private contributions, eventually housing 807 people and families and giving subsidies to 771 households to prevent them from losing housing.

The second phase, LIFT 2.0, aims to house another 1,500 people or families by the end of 2024 using $26.6 million in city, state and federal funds. The program has already housed 19 people and families and put 145 people into shelters, hotels or diversion, according to Partners for HOME, which is administering the LIFT program.

Meanwhile, Partners for HOME, Invest Atlanta and the United Way Regional Commission are working on Atlanta’s $50 million HomeFirst initiative, an effort to build 550 affordable apartment units around the Atlanta Beltline, Grove Park, Old Fourth Ward, East Atlanta and other parts of the city. Half of the money for HomeFirst came from the city and half from private sources. The program has so far funded 563 units, according to Partners for HOME.

But the inspections at The Village at Kensington focused on the interiors of the units themselves, not on the condition of surrounding units or the overall state of the complex, he said.

The managers of the Kensington complex told Open Doors it was in the process of renovating hundreds of vacant units and offered up about 300, Hurd said. Open Doors reserved 150.

Even though the units in question had all been renovated, some still didn’t pass inspections, Hurd said, even after further repairs. The city wound up using about 115 apartments there. The complex charged $855 to $940 per month for each unit, according to another nonprofit that handled rent payments.

“I definitely stand behind them,” Hurd said. “We would not place anyone in there unless those units specifically passed inspection.”