Making money from misery
As residents deal with rats, crime and intruders, absentee owner enjoys ‘upper-class lifestyle’
At Pavilion Place, a derelict apartment complex south of downtown Atlanta, residents contend with cockroaches and crime, doors that won’t lock and windows that won’t open, plumbing that backs up and dumpsters that overflow. They clean up when intruders defecate outside their doors. They listen at night as rats scratch inside the walls.
A continent away, in Beverly Hills, California, Pavilion Place’s owner employs a pool man and a gardener, a housekeeper and a tutor for his preschool-age children. His household expenses approach $40,000 a month. Most families at Pavilion Place earn half that much in a year.
For residents, each day at Pavilion Place represents an existential struggle. Seven people have died there in homicides since 2015, and at least 14 others have been wounded by gunfire. In 2020, four people were killed over just 59 days.
The owner faces challenges of a different magnitude. In a contentious divorce case, his wife has accused him of infidelity and financial misconduct. She is seeking half a million dollars a year in support.
Pavilion Place, constructed 56 years ago into a steep embankment above Cleveland Avenue, not far from the Atlanta airport, highlights a predatory housing system in which owners of even the most dilapidated apartment complexes prosper while residents remain trapped in homes that are unsafe, unhealthy or, often, both.
An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution identified more than 250 complexes across metro Atlanta where violent crime and dangerous living conditions combine to make apartments all but uninhabitable. The investigation found that at least three-fourths of the region’s most dangerous complexes belong to private equity firms and other remote investors, many of whom, in the absence of robust governmental oversight, prioritize earnings over their tenants’ well-being.
Pavilion Place belongs to a 52-year-old California real-estate investor named Behzad Beroukhai. Known to tenants merely as “Ben,” he built an apartment-rental business of about 30 buildings and complexes, seven of them in metro Atlanta, from an office in a cream-colored house in a residential section of Beverly Hills.
Since Beroukhai bought Pavilion Place in 2015, an already dilapidated complex has slipped even further into disrepair.
The only driveway into the complex lacks a security gate, so anyone can enter at any time. A banged-up perimeter fence can be easily breached.
Open basement doors reveal a putrid stew of trash and standing water. In some apartments, floors and ceilings are spongy with rot, so bad that one resident crashed through his kitchen floor in 2019 and had to be extricated by firefighters.
And on the playground, in a complex that 103 school-age children list as their home address, a scrap two-by-four plank served for a time as a makeshift swing seat. Now, two bare chains dangle from an overhead bar, with no seat at all.
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Besides the killings and the other shootings, there have been 22 attempted or completed suicides at Pavilion Place since Beroukhai bought the property, Atlanta police records show. There have been 69 aggravated assaults. Thirty-five automobile thefts. Fifty burglaries. Four rapes. Eight sex crimes. Seventeen armed robberies — not counting an unreported one committed by two teenagers wielding a military-style assault rifle.
In an interview, Beroukhai said Pavilion Place has overcome problems he attributed to other people: employees of a property-management company, unsavory tenants he inherited from the former owner, workers who failed to resolve residents’ complaints.
But now, he said, “we are really on top of the game.”
“The property is 100% livable,” he said. “Whatever I have to do, I just do it. Better to spend the money and get the stuff fixed.”
Beroukhai’s depiction is hard to square with reality at Pavilion Place. For years, the Journal-Constitution found, Beroukhai has steadfastly resisted efforts — by government regulators, by the police, by tenants — to force him live up to his promise to provide decent housing.
Amid this attempted reckoning, Pavilion Place has remained a residence of last resort: better than the streets, if only marginally.
A few of Pavilion Place’s 240 apartments offer glimpses of Atlanta’s soaring downtown skyline, off in the distance. Closer-range views inspire less awe.
Pavilion Place consists of 28 drab, red-brick buildings, a good number with apartments that are burned out or otherwise abandoned. In the late 1990s, Catholic Social Services housed international refugees at the complex, then known as Crescent Hills, until news reports exposed living conditions that the archbishop of Atlanta acknowledged were “deplorable.”
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The complex underwent a renovation in the early 2000s, backed by as much as $7.5 million in federal and state tax credits. But by the time Tranisha Wilcox arrived in 2019, the property had deteriorated yet again.
Wilcox, 29, had poor credit, an unstable income and a history of eviction notices from landlords. She was pregnant with her second child and on the verge of homelessness when, despite her shaky record, Pavilion Place rented her a one-bedroom apartment for $650 a month.
It nearly killed her.
Early the morning of Jan. 17, 2020, Wilcox awoke to the smell of smoke. Flames rose onto her second-story wooden balcony, and noxious smoke met her at the front door. She and her sons were trapped.
By dawn, they were at Grady Memorial Hospital receiving treatment for smoke inhalation. Wilcox had handed her boys — first her baby, CJ, then 7-year-old Giovanni — through a small bathroom window to a firefighter on a ladder, and a fire captain had come through the smoke to rescue her, sharing his oxygen mask as he led her to safety.
The fire started in the apartment beneath Wilcox’s, according to an Atlanta Fire Department investigator’s report. The sprinkler head closest to the fire’s point of ignition did not activate, the investigator determined, allowing flames to spread to other apartments.
The sprinkler’s failure was not entirely surprising.
Housing inspectors had documented missing parts from sprinklers in several buildings at Pavilion Place and some sprinkler heads had been painted over, records show. Fire alarms and extinguishers in some apartments didn’t work or were missing altogether.
Wilcox wanted to leave Pavilion Place after the fire but couldn’t afford the security deposit and application fees — hundreds of dollars on top of the rent — she would need to get another apartment. Pavilion Place’s managers moved her into a different unit, but the basement of her new building flooded when it rained, and water that smelled of human waste backed up into her bathtub.
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Just as troubling, an intruder repeatedly defecated and urinated in her building’s first-floor hallway. At night, Wilcox could hear the man outside her door. In the morning, she would find feces smeared on the floor and walls.
Wilcox and her neighbor across the hall, Kimberly Kemp, called 911, but the operator told them to talk to the Pavilion Place rental office instead. Apartment managers refused to lock the building or even clean up the man’s mess, Wilcox and Kemp said. The women scrubbed the green carpet and the walls themselves.
Kemp, 53, considered Pavilion Place too dangerous for her grandchildren to visit. As she showered one day, a bullet had come through the ceiling, she said. Her bathroom floor already had begun to cave in.
“This,” Kemp said of the complex, “has been pure hell since I got here.”
The view from Wilcox’s new apartment was of her former one. One day last year, nearly two years after the fire, she could see that her old place remained charred and vacant.
“I have to get out of here,” she said. “One way or another.”
Far from Pavilion Place, Ben Beroukhai keeps a low profile. He has no presence on social media, and his business doesn’t have a website. In an age of ubiquitous exposure, no pictures of Beroukhai seem to exist online.
But a portrait emerges from interviews and court records, most vividly from his divorce case.
“Ben and I enjoyed an affluent, upper-class lifestyle,” his wife, Liat Talasazan, wrote in a court filing last year. They lived, she wrote, in “a beautiful five-bedroom, four-bathroom, 4,000-square-foot home” with their three children: a boy and a girl in preschool and a baby daughter.
Talasazan catalogued the couple’s luxuries: five restaurant meals most weeks, each costing $250 or more; a Cadillac Escalade for her, a Mercedes-Benz S 550 for him; his cellar of fine wines and Scotches; her $1,500-a-month spa membership, weekly massages and Pilates classes; tutors for their two older children on top of $48,000 a year in preschool tuition. The pool man and the gardener each came two days a week; the housekeeper, four.
The couple’s monthly expenses, according to Talasazan, totaled $39,549, or nearly $475,000 a year.
Talasazan estimated her husband earned $400,000 a month from his real-estate holdings. But she said she needed a $50,000 forensic audit — the sort of review typically performed to detect financial wrongdoing — to be certain.
In his own filings, Beroukhai said he grossed no more than $400,000 a year, an amount that would not remotely cover the expenses his wife detailed. Her claims about his finances and his life outside the marriage, he said, were “full of lies and misrepresentation.”
The most antagonistic issues between Beroukhai and Talasazan highlight the contrasts between his life and the lives of residents at Pavilion Place. In a heated telephone call that Beroukhai recorded last year, Talasazan pressed him to immediately send her a promised $100,000 payment on a second home in Israel, according to a transcript filed in court. Beroukhai said he didn’t have that much money in a single account, a claim that infuriated Talasazan.
“May God break your legs,” she told her husband.
In Los Angeles, as in Atlanta, Beroukhai’s apartment buildings stand in neighborhoods with high crime and low incomes. And, as in Atlanta, his tenants in Los Angeles complain that he fails to maintain safe residences.
Beroukhai recently reached a settlement with residents of one of his buildings in Los Angeles who alleged that he refused for four years to address leaks, rodent infestations, inoperable electrical outlets and sewage backups, among many other problems. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed. In another case, a judge last year ordered Beroukhai to pay almost $10,000 to a tenant who accused him of “failure to provide (a) safe home” and of creating a “hostile environment.”
How Beroukhai conducts business came into focus when the city of Los Angeles sued him in 2013 over an apartment building called the Stevely Arms.
Surrounded by elegant old palms, the 24-unit pink stucco building evokes the Los Angeles of the mid-20th century. But any glamour that once defined the Stevely Arms has, like the paint on its exterior walls, long since faded.
After Beroukhai and his brother, Abraham, bought the building, it became a haven for drug dealers and gang members, Los Angeles officials alleged in court documents. A tenant on the ground floor operated what amounted to a walk-up window for drug sales. Housing inspectors found “human waste and garbage” in the building’s courtyard and garage and squatters living in a utility closet. Shootings and other violent crimes were common; the victims included a pregnant woman wounded by a stray bullet.
“This has been pure hell since I got here."
Beroukhai promised to enhance the building’s security and check the backgrounds of potential tenants, according to court records. Instead, a city lawyer wrote, Beroukhai’s “meager response … was to secure the property’s gate with a bungee cord.”
In a later conversation with the police, Beroukhai displayed “disinterest” in the building’s troubles, court records say, “flippantly stating that he would rent to whomever could pay him cash.”
City officials threatened to seize the building and floated the idea of forcing Beroukhai to live there himself. To settle the lawsuit, Beroukhai and his brother agreed to pay as much as $50,000 in fines, clean and secure the building and evict residents who engaged in criminal activity.
Beroukhai acknowledged recently that drug dealers had operated out of the Stevely Arms. But he said the same was true at other nearby buildings.
“The city of Los Angeles — they are very strict,” he said.
Today at the Stevely Arms, metal bars protect ground-floor windows, and the front door and the garage are locked to deter intruders. If gang members are present, they don’t call attention to themselves.
The settlement agreement took effect in late 2015. Since then, according to police data analyzed by the Journal-Constitution, serious crime at the building has dropped by almost half.
Violent crime plagues Beroukhai’s properties in Atlanta.
Eleven homicides and more than 350 other violent crimes have occurred at his apartment complexes in the metro area. At his six properties inside the Atlanta city limits, police officers responded to 10,537 calls for service from 2017 to 2021 — six times a day, on average. Police records list “fight in progress” as the most frequent report. “Shots fired” is third.
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Pavilion Place has been especially troubled. The first of its seven homicides occurred about five months after Beroukhai bought the property in June 2015. That first killing and another in 2017 took place during episodes of domestic violence. Then, in 2018, 14-year-old Sonja Star Harrison died when a bullet ripped through the ceiling and struck her in the head.
The man accused of killing the girl did not live at Pavilion Place but sometimes stayed upstairs from the apartment where she was visiting her sister, according to court records. Residents had seen him a day earlier waving a gun outside the building, a police detective later testified in court. No one, however, called the police.
Another shooting, in August 2020, marked the beginning of a particularly deadly period: four homicides in 59 days. All four underscored the property’s security lapses.
In two cases, neither the victims nor those suspected of killing them lived at Pavilion Place but still entered the property freely. In the third case, Pavilion Place employees had known that the victim was staying in a vacant apartment without permission, according to police reports. Authorities filed murder charges against a resident of the same building who had purportedly threatened to kill the squatter for breaking into his apartment.
The fourth killing took place before daybreak on Oct. 20, 2020. Eva Jones, 59, apparently was sleeping when bullets from an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle tore into her ground-floor apartment. The shots blew out windows, damaged the bedroom walls and even ripped up flooring.
Jones was shot at least nine times, an autopsy determined: in the head, in the chest, in both arms and in the right thigh.
The gunman had not targeted Jones, the police said, but rather her 57-year-old boyfriend. The previous morning, two teenagers had approached the man to buy marijuana but instead robbed him at gunpoint with an AR-15-style rifle. The boys fired several shots as they ran away past the complex’s playground.
The boyfriend did not report the robbery to the police. Neither did a Pavilion Place security guard who learned about the incident later that day.
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It’s impossible to know whether reporting the armed robbery would have prevented Jones’ death. But when homicide detectives arrived at Pavilion Place, the security guard identified the teenager who allegedly fired the rifle during the armed robbery: a 16-year-old who was staying in the building behind Jones’. Now 18, Emmanuel Watson, who had spent the year before Jones’ killing in juvenile detention for threatening a witness in another murder case, is awaiting trial on murder, armed robbery and other charges.
Beroukhai said he could not have prevented Jones’ killing or any of the others. Most shootings at Pavilion Place, he said, are the results of drug deals.
“There was no way we could control it,” Beroukhai said. “It was a dispute between the parties.”
Jones had lived at Pavilion Place for years, her niece Amayia Hixson said, but had grown weary: of persistent gunfire, of abandoned apartments that seemed to attract criminals, of rats and filth and trash everywhere.
The day she died, Jones had an appointment to look at a new apartment in another complex.
“She said, literally every day, all day, ‘I’m ready to go, I’m ready to go,’” Hixson said. “She’d had enough.”
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Building a case
One morning last fall, Danielle Russell led an impromptu tour of the place she reluctantly called home. Like Eva Jones, she had had enough.
The first stop was the vacant apartment across the hall, where Russell suspected squatters had been staying. She pushed open the unlocked door and pointed out a large hole in a bedroom ceiling, still not repaired after a fire several weeks earlier. Now, sunlight pierced the roof, exposing rafters and insulation in the attic.
Outside, as Russell stepped through a gap in the perimeter fence, a young man emerged from the adjacent woods, rapidly advancing toward her.
“This is my cut,” he said, agitated.
Russell assured him she meant no harm, and he retreated. Later, she said she had stumbled upon the spot where he sells drugs.
Back at her building, Russell examined a nearly 2-inch gap in the concrete window casing beside the front door, a place where rats and other vermin can get in. Rats are so abundant, she said, that her downstairs neighbor stood outside with a pistol, firing at the rodents as they scurried around.
“She said, literally every day, all day, ‘I'm ready to go, I'm ready to go.' She'd had enough."
In her own apartment, she hears rats squirming and clawing inside the walls. They gnawed through drywall into the kitchen pantry and chewed their way into boxes of dried food. Once she killed a rat with the handle of a Swiffer duster. Another time, two rats jammed their heads into the same black plastic trap, their tails wagging until they died. Russell takes photos of every rat she kills to document for apartment managers that she needs pest control.
Russell, a 46-year-old artist, came to Pavilion Place from a shelter for homeless people in February 2020. The rental agent wouldn’t show her the apartment before she signed a lease, Russell said, and when she moved in, she encountered a mess she could not have imagined: a kitchen stove filled with dirty pots and pans. A leaky bedroom ceiling so porous that an employee of the complex poked his finger through it. A blackened air conditioning filter that appeared not to have been replaced in years.
Month after month, Russell asked apartment managers to make repairs. Month after month, she said, they refused.
But Russell kept records of each request and each denial, building a case for the government agencies that oversee low-income housing. She made telephone calls, sent emails, cajoled and badgered officials to intervene. Some said they would pursue legal action against Beroukhai. Others ignored her.
In early May, Atlanta code enforcement officers posted a notice on her building: It was no longer fit for habitation. But property managers did not transfer Russell to a different apartment and even leased another unit in the building to a new family.
Russell found the continual conflict exhausting.
“It’s just too much to keep fighting,” she wrote one day in a text message. “I just want to go to sleep without hearing rats in the ceilings and walls.”
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Two months after he bought Pavilion Place, Beroukhai received an alarming letter from the Atlanta Housing Authority. A recent inspection, the letter said, had revealed “exigent health and safety findings” that required his immediate attention.
The housing authority, which administers a federal rent-subsidy program, would be among the first government agencies that would take on Beroukhai over substandard conditions at Pavilion Place. The authority started with an ultimatum: If he didn’t correct the most serious violations within 24 hours and the others within 30 days, it would cut off the rent subsidies, from which Beroukhai stood to collect about $300,000 a year.
The way the authority’s threats played out was not nearly so simple.
When the housing authority’s inspectors returned to Pavilion Place about a month later, fewer than one-third of the 48 apartments eligible for the subsidy program received passing scores.
The authority wrangled with Beroukhai for two years before deciding to cut off the subsidies at the end of 2017. The payments, however, continued an additional 13 months, until January 2019, while residents in the subsidized apartments looked for new homes. By then, almost four years after Beroukhai bought Pavilion Place, the housing authority had paid him more than $1 million.
The authority acted as quickly as it could, spokesman Jeff Dickerson said. It applies “stringent standards” to apartment complexes that receive subsidies, Dickerson said, but gives owners a chance to make repairs after inspections or complaints from residents.
“It's just too much to keep fighting. I just want to go to sleep without hearing rats in the ceilings and walls."
Like the housing authority, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs found unacceptable conditions at Pavilion Place. Its strategy: sternly worded letters to Beroukhai that demanded fixes.
The state agency had jurisdiction over Pavilion Place because it oversees low-income housing tax credits such as those claimed by the complex’s former owners. Even though he received none of the credits, Beroukhai still was required to reserve a number of apartments for tenants who qualified for subsidies and to meet maintenance standards set by the government.
He failed to meet those standards, a Community Affairs official wrote to Beroukhai in April 2019: “Living conditions at Pavilion Place have deteriorated to unsafe and unsanitary levels since your company’s acquisition of the property.”
Violations of the agency’s rules “will not be tolerated,” the official wrote, and the department was “prepared to take the necessary legal steps” to force Beroukhai’s compliance.
But the agency gave Beroukhai more time while he worked with a compliance consultant. That was in August 2019. A month passed, then three more. Beroukhai met with state officials that December, promising to meet their requirements. After five more months, in May 2020, the department drew up yet another timetable for completing the repairs it had ordered a year earlier.
Public records do not reflect any additional action. A spokesman for the department declined requests for an interview.
Atlanta police officers converged on Pavilion Place on Nov. 21, 2019. Knocking on doors throughout the complex, they questioned every resident they could find about the condition of their apartments. Local and state housing agencies had failed to force significant change at Pavilion Place, but now law enforcement would try.
The officers’ sweep of the property led to a 100-count criminal complaint against Beroukhai, filed in Atlanta Municipal Court in March 2020. The complaint accused him of violating the city housing code in almost every building at Pavilion Place.
The allegations were familiar: Beroukhai had allowed trash and junk to accumulate outside more than half of the buildings. He had failed to provide working toilets, sinks or bathtubs in at least 15 apartments. He had let dangerous conditions — rodents, exposed wiring, falling ceilings — fester throughout the complex.
Each of the 100 charges carried a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
This was the 15th time since 2014 that Atlanta code-enforcement officers had brought criminal charges against Beroukhai or companies he controls, according to court records. He paid small fines in several cases, never more than a few hundred dollars.
The new case went dormant during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. But when Chief Judge Christopher Portis convened an arraignment hearing on Nov. 16, 2020, Beroukhai wasn’t there. No lawyer or anyone else appeared on his behalf.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Nevertheless, Portis did not issue a warrant for Beroukhai’s arrest for failure to appear in court, and prosecutors have never rescheduled the hearing. Raines Carter, Atlanta’s city solicitor, declined to comment because, he said, the case is still open.
Earlier this year, code-enforcement officers filed their 16th case against Beroukhai, over alleged violations at another complex in which he is a partner. That case went to court in April and again in May. Beroukhai didn’t show either time.
Leaving Pavilion Place
In the apartment Tranisha Wilcox moved into at Pavilion Place after the fire, the refrigerator worked only sporadically. The freezer compartment soon was filled with boxes of packaged meals, all of them spoiled.
Early in the pandemic, Wilcox’s job cleaning office buildings vanished. So did her older son’s after-school program. She could find child care for the baby only occasionally, and the children’s fathers did not regularly give her money to support them. She earned enough driving for Lyft to cover most of her bills: groceries, her car payment, utilities. But not rent.
Wilcox stopped paying in September 2020, thinking a federal eviction moratorium imposed during the pandemic would buy her enough time to catch up. But by March 2021, Pavilion Place said she owed more than $5,000 and was falling further behind each month. The complex didn’t wait for the moratorium to end before filing court papers to evict her.
Last Sept. 7, Wilcox sat in her living room, hunched over a smartphone that streamed her eviction hearing in Fulton County Magistrate Court. The court session opened with a recorded message from Chief Judge Cassandra Kirk, who told tenants not to expect much relief: Georgia law, she said, gives judges little discretion in eviction cases, even if landlords had not properly maintained their properties.
Wilcox waited three hours for her case to be called. Then, in 15 minutes, it was over. She had no lawyer, so she had to negotiate with Pavilion Place’s attorney herself, over Zoom. She agreed to pay $7,856 — money she didn’t have — and to vacate her apartment by the end of the month.
To Wilcox, the eviction was yet another indignity from her time at Pavilion Place.
“They should be punished for not fixing nothing, just as we got punished for not paying,” she said. “But the law doesn’t work that way.”
Wilcox and her sons left Pavilion Place on Oct. 3, their belongings stuffed into her car in trash bags, totes and laundry baskets. She had not found an apartment she could afford, so she drove to what she hoped would be a temporary place: the Economy Hotel off Fulton Industrial Boulevard in southwest Atlanta. Nearby was a Waffle House and a Mrs. Winner’s Chicken & Biscuits, a used-tire shop and a pallet manufacturer, a lingerie store and an adult-entertainment nightclub.
The rent was $280 a week, far more than the $600 a month Wilcox had budgeted. The room had no television, no microwave, no refrigerator.
Still, she thought, this was progress.
“To look at the bright side,” she said, “at least I’m getting out.”
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