Raw sewage flowed into Miracle Fletcher’s apartment for months. It bubbled up from the bathtub drain and erupted from the toilet. It spewed from faucets. Once it sprayed Fletcher’s teenage daughter as she showered.
Fletcher asked employees at Trestletree Village, an enclave of low-income apartments in the gentrified neighborhood near Atlanta’s Grant Park, to fix the plumbing. Repeatedly, she says. She pleaded with them to move her family into another unit. Repeatedly, she says. For months, they did neither.
The federal housing subsidy that she relied on covered her rent only at Trestletree. That left her with two options: a home in a noxious apartment there or no home at all.
“As a mother, I felt hopeless,” said Fletcher, a 39-year-old preschool teacher and cancer survivor. “I just couldn’t understand how this could be happening. How was it OK for me and my children to be allowed to live that way or be in those types of conditions?”
All around Trestletree, her neighbors had their own stories of unmitigated squalor: rodent infestations, incessant leaks, so much mold that one resident ended up in the hospital. Their individual complaints had not brought relief, but collective advocacy might be more effective. Soon Fletcher became a leader of a newly formed tenants association at Trestletree.
But her pursuit of one of the most basic human needs — a decent place to live — ultimately collapsed amid the extreme imbalance of power between landlords and tenants in Georgia, home of some of the weakest renter-protection laws in the United States, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.
Fletcher endured not only the horrific conditions of her apartment but also threats of eviction and retribution for demanding repairs and organizing other tenants to do the same. She said she experienced declines in both her physical and mental health and even faced the possibility of arrest.
Trestletree is among more than 250 persistently dangerous apartment complexes in metro Atlanta that the Journal-Constitution identified through an examination of crime reports, housing-code complaints, lawsuits and other public records. At least three-fourths of those complexes belong to private equity firms or other absentee investors, who often receive government subsidies or tax breaks despite unsanitary, hazardous conditions, while also placing outsize burdens on police and other public services.
State laws, the Journal-Constitution’s investigation found, enable many of those landlords’ predatory housing practices, trapping tens of thousands of low-income residents in derelict apartments that imperil their health and safety.
Georgia doesn’t allow tenants to withhold rent to force landlords to remedy unsanitary or unsafe living conditions. It doesn’t let renters break a lease if their apartment is unfit to live in. It doesn’t let courts take control of rental properties when owners refuse to correct egregious violations of housing codes. It doesn’t even require landlords to explicitly guarantee that rental dwellings are habitable.
“Our statutes are very landlord-friendly,” said Lindsey Siegel, an attorney with Atlanta Legal Aid, which provides free representation to low-income residents in housing disputes. “Landlords push the envelope and try to get away with as much as they can to make money. And a lot of money is being made on the backs of the lowest-income tenants.”
But the Georgia General Assembly has done little to hold landlords accountable for substandard housing, or to allow government regulators to do so.
In 2003, lawmakers approved a measure that opponents, only somewhat in jest, referred to as a slumlord protection act. It prohibited local governments from setting up registries of residential rental properties in their jurisdictions. More significantly, it barred code-enforcement investigations of rental homes without probable cause, defined only as “code violations which are in plain sight.” In practice, that prevents code-enforcement officers from initiating cases involving interior violations unless a resident specifically invites them into an apartment. But some code-enforcement agencies in metro Atlanta don’t even accept such complaints from tenants.
Sixteen years later, state Rep. Sharon Cooper introduced a bill that would bar landlords from retaliating against tenants who request repairs or file complaints with regulatory agencies. Forty-one other states already had similar laws on the books.
Committee hearings on the bill featured testimony from expert witnesses who said rats, mold, cockroaches, bad plumbing and other squalid conditions all contribute to the onset of asthma and other illnesses, especially in children.
“I consider slum landlords the most despicable people in the world,” Cooper, a Republican from Marietta, said in a recent interview.
But the Georgia Apartment Association, long a powerful lobby in the Capitol, worked against the bill, mostly behind the scenes. In a statement to the Journal-Constitution, the association said its members “were actively engaged in discussions” on the measure and “appreciate the opportunity to address the concerns raised.”
Chelsea Juras, a spokeswoman for the association, declined to elaborate on the nature of those concerns.
As the bill progressed through the 2019 legislative session, some lawmakers placed the blame for poor living conditions not on landlords, but on tenants.
“Oftentimes these people may come from poor conditions, and so they bring with them mold spores, rodents, roaches,” Bill Heath, then a Republican senator from Bremen, said in a committee meeting.
“Admittedly,” Heath continued, “these are people who don’t necessarily have high levels of education. They haven’t been brought up in washing your dishes and putting your food up, keeping the doors closed and your windows down.”
Heath, who served in the Legislature for almost two decades, did not respond to recent messages seeking comment.
He was one of the 44 lawmakers — 16 in the Senate and 28 in the House — who voted against a weakened version of the bill that ultimately became law. It allows tenants who sue over retaliation to collect no more than the equivalent of one month’s rent and an additional $500. Landlords may be ordered to pay tenants’ legal fees, but only if their conduct is found to be what the bill described as “willful, wanton and malicious,” which can be difficult to prove.
Without the potential of larger awards, housing experts say, few lawyers are willing to devote time and resources to pursue most potential cases alleging retaliation.
It was in this environment that Miracle Fletcher decided to advocate for herself and for her neighbors, regardless of the consequences, and eventually to file a lawsuit against Trestletree, in a test of the new state law.
“Being silent,” she said, “was killing us.”
Dating to 1949, Trestletree Village is among the oldest standing apartment complexes in Atlanta. It actually is two separate collections of one- and two-story brick buildings, set half a mile apart on opposite sides of what is now the Atlanta Beltline. The main street into the complex’s southern half was, until 2018, called Confederate Court — for residents, most of whom are Black, a perpetual insult.
Shootings and other violent crimes have frequently brought the police to Trestletree. In 2012, a woman was wounded by crossfire from two groups of men fighting over a dice game, according to news reports. A similar shootout in 2017 injured two people, police reports show. One homicide occurred in 2015, another in 2020.
As crime mounted, the aging buildings fell into disrepair, even as the neighborhood thrived with new home construction and renovations. An affordable-housing nonprofit based in Denver, Community Housing Concepts, bought the complex in 2012, and one of the organization’s for-profit affiliates, the Monroe Group, promised an extensive renovation. Executives at Monroe did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Monroe, which manages Community Housing’s 21 low-income apartment developments in 12 states, went to work at Trestletree with significant government assistance: city-issued tax-exempt municipal bonds and state and federal tax credits, together worth as much as $20 million. And Monroe stood to collect as much as $2.2 million a year in federal housing subsidies.
Trestletree desperately needed work, according to an inspection performed in 2013 in connection with the bond issue.
“A majority of components,” the inspection report said, “were found to be nearing the end of their useful service life” — including, notably, the plumbing.
In response to the inspection report, Monroe said that when work commenced, “interior innovations will include … new plumbing.”
Whether the plumbing problems identified almost 10 years ago are related to the sewage leaks in Miracle Fletcher’s apartment is not clear. Regardless, in the years after the renovation, conditions at Trestletree clearly deteriorated.
In 2019, a resident told Atlanta’s code-enforcement agency that holes in the floor allowed rats to enter her apartment, endangering her baby. Another reported that mold caused by leaks had worsened her child’s asthma. Yet another complained that when his upstairs neighbor flushed the toilet, raw sewage seeped down his bathroom wall.
And in 2020, Latricia Wyche reported that she had become so ill from mold in her apartment that she ended up in a hospital. There, she said, a doctor told her not to go home.
The financial-rating agency Standard & Poor’s took note of the problems in 2020, when it twice downgraded bonds that backed the renovation, citing the complex’s “deteriorating physical condition due to deferred maintenance.” Downgrades tend to lead to lower bond prices.
Standard & Poor’s again downgraded the bonds in March 2022, again citing Trestletree’s disrepair. An analyst wrote that Trestletree’s most recent inspection by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had found 20 health and safety deficiencies, including missing or damaged electrical outlets, blocked fire exits, missing or inoperable smoke detectors and a cockroach infestation.
Although the company said it had corrected the deficiencies, the analyst questioned its ability to “successfully manage the property and mitigate risks in the near term.”
“The outlook is negative,” she wrote, relegating the bonds to junk status.
‘A lot of power’
Miracle Fletcher knew Trestletree’s reputation even before she hunted for an apartment in 2018.
“It’s known for drugs,” she said. “It’s known for violence. It’s known for all the things that make society worse.”
But she could not afford the rent for a better-maintained, safer apartment. Her finances still had not recovered from her battle against oral cancer, which had required surgeons to remove half her palate. (The cancer is in remission now.)
Trestletree, she said, would have to do.
“I felt like even if I’m not working or, for whatever reason, I can’t work, I won’t have to go live with my family or send my kids somewhere else to live,” Fletcher said. “We’ll be able to still stay in our home.”
At Trestletree, she qualified for an income-based federal housing subsidy that fully covered her rent. But this arrangement bound her to the complex: The payments went directly to her landlord, and if she moved, she would lose the subsidy.
“Any landlord has power,” said Esther Graff-Radford, Fletcher’s lawyer. “A landlord with a project-based voucher has quite a lot of power.”
The extent of that power emerged after sewage began leaking into Fletcher’s apartment in February 2019.
Fletcher reported the problem to Trestletree’s leasing office, her lawsuit says, but employees did nothing about the leak for several weeks. Finally, a plumber came and performed what the lawsuit calls “temporary repairs.”
Those fixes held until August. Then the leaks resumed, stronger than ever. The stench from Fletcher’s apartment drifted out to the parking lot.
This time, according to the lawsuit, no one even tried to repair the plumbing, and the leaks became progressively worse.
On Oct. 3, Fletcher filed a complaint with the company that administers HUD’s rent-subsidy contracts with landlords in Georgia. Later the same day, Trestletree’s property manager inspected Fletcher’s apartment, blamed the neighbors for clogging the building’s pipes and, according to the lawsuit, threatened to evict Fletcher.
Almost every day for the next seven weeks, sewage flowed into Fletcher’s apartment, her lawsuit says. She and her children developed chronic breathing troubles. Depressed and anxious, Fletcher lost weight and experienced panic attacks.
Finally, on Nov. 21, sewage flooded the apartment with such force and such volume that it spilled into a neighboring unit. Photographs that Fletcher took that day bear graphic witness to the mess left behind in her apartment. One shows fecal matter floating in the bathtub; another, a soiled rug and several black plastic garbage bags stacked just outside her door. Almost everything Fletcher owned was ruined.
Trestletree’s property manager agreed that day to move Fletcher and her children to another apartment. The move resolved Fletcher’s crisis, but it did not address the conditions that afflicted many of her neighbors.
“We got a little angry,” she said. “I’m not going to lie: We were pissed.”
Kendi Beyah grew up in Grant Park as wealthier people from other parts of the city and the suburbs discovered the charms, not to mention the investment potential, of the neighborhood’s 19th-century Victorian homes.
Beyah, 25, moved into Trestletree Village with her young daughter in 2018. She worked in a call center and ran a side business out of her apartment, selling candles and rugs and other housewares she designed and made herself.
She encountered problems almost as soon as she moved in.
One day her apartment’s circuit-breaker box shorted out, shocking Beyah so strongly that she needed hospital treatment. Another time, sewage flooded her apartment, as it had Miracle Fletcher’s unit.
But Trestletree employees ignored her, Beyah said, even when problems were in plain sight.
Late one afternoon in July 2021, a heavy downpour erupted over Trestletree, and a knee-high wave of stormwater and sewer runoff surged through the front doors of the ground-level apartments of Beyah’s building. When Beyah and her neighbors saw an employee of the complex leaving for the day, they pleaded for help.
“We kept saying, ‘Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey,’” Beyah said. “She just kept walking.”
Beyah lived in the apartment directly above Fletcher’s, and the women bonded over their shared disaffection with Trestletree’s management. Soon, they began talking with the Housing Justice League, a tenant-rights organization that could amplify their concerns.
Those conversations led to the formation of the Trestletree Tenants United Association in June 2020. Residents, Beyah said, deserved better treatment than they had become accustomed to.
“We are not zoo animals,” she said. “We are working moms, we are business owners, we are sisters. We’re a community. And we’re a community being left behind.”
The association’s members met with officials from HUD, held rallies and gave interviews. Beyah and Fletcher spoke to housing advocates from across the country at a meeting of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants, made up of tenant associations like Trestletree’s.
Under federal law, tenants have the right to organize in properties that receive HUD subsidies, with or without their landlord’s permission. Still, many Trestletree residents were wary.
“They’re supportive of us,” Fletcher said, “but they’re afraid.”
The way Trestletree responded to the tenants association only reinforced the fear.
Quashing a rebellion
When Fletcher spoke out at Trestletree, she didn’t expect it to go unnoticed. And it didn’t.
At first, she said, the retaliation merely seemed petty. The complex fined her $25 when children dropped trash outside her apartment as they walked to and from the playground. But when she set out a trash can where the children could deposit the offending potato chip bags and juice boxes, the complex fined her again, this time for an unauthorized receptacle. The accumulating fines began to be onerous, but if she didn’t pay them, she could get evicted.
Such punitive measures were in the forefront when members of the tenants association drafted a letter to Trestletree’s owner in June 2020.
“We feel that we are being individually targeted by management through unjust notices to vacate, inaccurate rental adjustments, delayed maintenance repairs and unfair fines and fees,” the letter said. “We look forward to an improved relationship with Trestletree management and more transparency around our obligations as residents.”
Trestletree’s management did not respond directly to the letter. Soon, however, photocopied flyers appeared at the complex: “Trestletree Village Criminal Trespass/Banned List!”
“If anyone on this list is seen on the property, you should notify APD and management,” the flyers said, referring to the Atlanta Police Department.
The flyers contained the street names of people suspected of being drug dealers or gang members: Shrek and Spider, Rico and Danny Boy.
They also included, without explanation, a kindergarten teacher at nearby Parkside Elementary School. Members of the Housing Justice League. And Michelle Ampong, a volunteer with a neighborhood group called the Parkside Community Equity Coalition who, the flyers noted, had been “recently seen on the property.”
Though not directly affiliated with Parkside Elementary, the coalition was created by parents and staff from the school, many of whom contributed to or benefited from the neighborhood’s gentrification. The coalition’s website says it is dedicated to acknowledging and dismantling the “many inequalities at Parkside rooted in current and centuries-old racist and oppressive systems.”
Ampong’s visits to Trestletree served a more pedestrian purpose.
After the school shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, coalition members tried to make sure the roughly 200 school-age children who lived at Trestletree had computers and online access so they could keep up with their classes remotely. Residents at the complex, many of whom did not have cars, also asked for help with other necessities: food, toilet paper, cleaning supplies. Ampong delivered prepared meals to Trestletree twice a week.
Then her name appeared on the banned list.
Residents told her not to risk being arrested, Ampong said recently. Even if that didn’t happen, she said, she didn’t want her presence to cause trouble, so she stopped bringing food.
By fall 2020, Trestletree had also told a church, Kingdom Life Atlanta, to discontinue a pop-up food pantry on the property, the pastor wrote on Facebook.
It was obvious, Miracle Fletcher said, that Trestletree’s management intended to quash the tenants’ rebellion.
Employees locked tenants out of the laundry room. Residents without cars suddenly faced the additional expense of ride shares every time they went to a laundromat.
Trestletree’s management also told members of the tenants association that inviting people from the Housing Justice League or the Parkside coalition into their homes could get them evicted, according to Fletcher’s lawsuit. And when the tenants association went to the leasing office to speak with the property manager, she called the police, threatening to have Fletcher and the others arrested — even though, Fletcher said, they were polite and peaceful.
Unable to invite its supporters to Trestletree, the tenants association moved its meetings to the sidewalk just outside the complex.
Months later, Michelle Ampong, the volunteer from Parkside, had to wait on the same sidewalk when she went to Trestletree to assist a resident who was being evicted.
“I don’t expect this kind of behavior from any human,” Ampong said. “I don’t expect any professional to work in that way. It didn’t feel professional. It felt personal.”
‘Almost giving up’
Only a handful of Trestletree residents are still active in the tenants association, their collective efforts largely over.
“People just started caving, almost giving up,” Kendi Beyah said. “That’s when it started being every man for himself.”
The Monroe Group, the management company that oversees Trestletree, has denied retaliating against the tenants association. In its response to Fletcher’s lawsuit, the company said it classified members of the Parkside coalition and the Housing Justice League as trespassers because they engaged in “threatening behavior towards Trestletree management.” The company cited no details.
Monroe also denied refusing to repair Fletcher’s apartment. “No act of omission,” Monroe’s lawyers wrote in court records, “caused or contributed to any injuries or damages.”
The company is mounting an aggressive defense in court, seeking Fletcher’s psychiatric records in an attempt to show that an earlier experience, not her time at Trestletree, caused the mental anguish cited in her lawsuit. Fletcher’s lawyer has objected to the request, but the judge assigned to the case has not issued a ruling.
Beyah left Trestletree in October after the complex filed an eviction action against her. She had withheld rent over unfinished repairs in her apartment and, just as important, because she was tired of fighting. She moved out even before her eviction case went to court. Beyah and her daughter now live with a relative.
Fletcher left Trestletree, too, at the end of January and moved in with a family member. Her final experience at the complex again reflected the limits of a tenant’s rights and the breadth of a landlord’s power.
Over the winter, her apartment’s water heater went out. She reported it to management. Repeatedly, she says.
But no one, Fletcher says, ever came to fix it.