Update: Saturday evening, five young people were shot at the apartment complex formerly known as The Park at Greenbriar. Two of them died, including Justin Powell, the 16-year-old son of Natosha Hinton, quoted in this story. Also killed was 14-year-old Malik Grover. Wounded were two 15-year-olds and an 11-year-old.
The apartments across from Greenbriar Mall were owned by a landlord with several troubled complexes and had a history of bad plumbing, mold and roach complaints. Crime was so commonplace that a manager repeatedly warned that police considered the apartments a “war zone.”
Residents would have been hard pressed to know any of this when they signed a lease. Management at what was then called The Park at Greenbriar had no legal obligation to track its chronic crime or other problems, much less disclose them.
What Natosha Hinton did learn through 18 hard months at the southwest Atlanta complex is that for six months it would not fix her upstairs toilet and sink, which overflowed with brown sewage, she said.
“They don’t have a heart at all,” said Hinton, 59, who is facing eviction with her 16-year-old son for an overdue rent bill that she disputes. “The only thing they’re looking at is getting the money.”
While Atlanta-area tenants struggle for safe and decent affordable housing, data that can reveal patterns of crime and substandard living conditions at housing complexes is buried in local government records. It’s unusual for local authorities to aggregate and analyze police, fire, code enforcement, ownership and other information to identify and monitor complexes that are dangerously unlivable.
But an Atlanta Journal-Constitution examination, based on records from dozens of government agencies, has uncovered detailed information on 272 of the area’s most persistently dangerous complexes. That information, now published online by the Journal-Constitution, opens the door to understanding the extent of the housing and living condition problems faced by tens of thousands of metro Atlantans.
In a state that has failed to grant its renters basic protections against unscrupulous landlords, advocates say the information can be one of the few tools prospective tenants could use to know if they’re placing their families at risk.
It can also help local governments identify landlords who have a pattern of owning dangerous properties and make authorities more effective against them, said Joseph Schilling, an expert on blighted properties and code enforcement at the Urban Institute.
Getting an owner who has no stake in the community to make repairs, he said, can be far different than dealing with a local mom-and-pop landlord.
“You’ve got to dive deeper into figuring out, is this someone who lives in the region? Is it someone who cares about the property, the neighborhood and the tenants?” Schilling said. “Or is it an out-of-state investor who’s part of a real estate syndicate, which has an entirely different business model?”
Search for profits
The Journal-Constitution’s examination found that nearly 70% of the complexes on its list are controlled by out-of-state companies, from New York, Florida, Utah, Canada and elsewhere. Some are owned by companies tied to investment giants and private equity firms with hundreds of billions of dollars worth of assets under management, though their identities are often concealed behind anonymous limited liability companies, middlemen and subsidiaries.
As the metro area’s dire shortage of affordable housing worsens, those investors have been snatching up aging complexes where lower-wage families live. Of the 272 complexes the Journal-Constitution identified, 189 were built in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
The investors’ business model: Raise rents and tightly manage operations to raise profits, then sell.
But older complexes are often plagued by high maintenance costs and need far more than cosmetic changes. Plumbing, heating and other major systems may need overhauls for which investors may not want to pay, said Schilling.
“They’re looking at it as an investment in real estate speculation. They’re looking at it from, ‘What’s my rate of return? Let me minimize the amount of cash that I need to maintain it,’ ” Schilling said.
Canadian firm Frankforter Group, which has been tied to at least three area complexes with chronic gun violence, advertises average returns at 23%, which it achieves by “maximizing rental rates” and “rigorous operational controls to manage and reduce costs,” its website states.
Frankforter’s CEO declined an interview request through an assistant, but an attorney sent a statement on behalf of one of the company’s Atlanta holdings, a property where a 9-year-old boy died in a shooting in February: “We are proud of our commitment and ongoing efforts to work alongside city officials to provide an elevated standard of affordable housing to residents of Atlanta.”
Salt Lake City-based Bridge Investment Group, which since 2019 has acquired four suburban properties with crime and other problems, posted a 37% return on its workforce and affordable housing fund last summer. Fundraising for a new round of investments recently raised $1.74 billion, well ahead of its $1.50 billion target.
A Bridge spokeswoman said the company is focusing on apartment safety and that many of the violent crimes and other issues found by the Journal-Constitution took place before it acquired the properties. They are “only a fraction of our portfolio in the Atlanta region,” she added.
Tusk Equity Partners, the New York firm which owned The Park at Greenbriar complex when Hinton signed her lease, in recent years has held seven of the metro area’s chronically dangerous properties through affiliated companies. Specializing in what it calls “innovative operations and cost-effective management,” its website boasts 25,000 residents in complexes across Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, though the site reveals nothing about its leadership, and it discloses few details in public filings.
Court documents from lawsuits against the complex fill in some of the blanks.
Tusk principal Moshe Horn acquired The Park at Greenbriar in 2018, a few months before his 30th birthday, and used third-party companies to run on-site operations.
Horn could fly to Atlanta in the morning to visit Tusk’s complexes and be back in in New York in the evening in time to see his children, he testified. He kept tabs on The Park and other properties through phone calls several times a day, including weekends, with a top executive at its management company.
Business was good. Occupancy rates stood at 98% at the Greenbriar apartment, and monthly rent collections topped $700,000. More than a dozen investors signed on with his company to share in the complex’s profits, Horn testified.
Yet graffiti covered the The Park’s buildings, burned-out units went unrepaired and its security cameras were broken. A deputy sheriff who patrolled the complex in exchange for reduced rent said that he moved out, fearing for his life, after a man was shot dead in August 2019 near his front door. He testified that an apartment manager told him the budget had no room for security guards.
That summer marked the beginning of a five-month string of violence during which apartments were sprayed with gunfire, a tenant was robbed by two armed men, a different tenant reported her children were held at gunpoint, a maintenance supervisor was threatened with a gun, a visitor suffered a gunshot wound to the face, another visitor was shot in the parking lot while waiting for an Uber, and still another visitor was shot while walking to Greenbriar Mall to meet up with his mother.
A leasing office worker warned her supervisors in three separate written reports that police wanted the complex to improve security. She typed the same sentence each time:
They consider this property a “WAR ZONE.”
Still, Horn testified he heard nothing of this violence until a series of lawsuits were filed by the survivors of the victim of the August 2019 shooting and two others wounded in separate attacks.
Even then, Horn expressed no urgency over adding security. Security patrols are more suitable for higher-end properties where tenants can afford to have the expense added onto their rents, he said. Installing a gate at the complex’s entrance could cost as much as 7% of its monthly rent collections, Horn testified, and gates often break or malfunction.
“I’ve paid way too much money to repair gates,” he groused.
In response to requests for comment left for Horn by the Journal-Constitution, an attorney for Tusk said to stop attempting to contact him.
Tusk sold The Park at Greenbriar in October 2021 to ICER Properties, a family-owned real estate company also from New York that hopes to acquire 10,000 apartment units in southern states, its website says. The new owner’s president told real estate trade publication Bisnow that it was entering the Georgia market to avoid “crazy regulations” in his home state.
Doors at the complex, now named The Retreat at Greenbriar by ICER, are painted a cheerful yellow, and new wood fencing surrounds the worn patios. But stormwater still runs calf-high during downpours, and trash overflows from the dumpsters, resident photos show. Tenants have recently complained of mold, holes or cracks in ceilings, roaches and a broken air conditioner, according to city code enforcement records.
In July, a man nicknamed “Maniac” fired a bullet that shattered a bystander’s patio window, a police report states. Two aggravated assaults have taken place since then, and there’s still no security gate.
ICER Properties’ president did not respond to phone or email messages asking for comment.
The Park at Greenbriar is among 43 complexes that the city of Atlanta identified this summer as having chronic crime and code enforcement problems. But the city’s list, released after the first installments of the Journal-Constitution’s Dangerous Dwellings investigation, did not include dozens of other complexes the newspaper identified as being as bad or worse, and officials acknowledged that their approach to monitoring them has been fragmented.
Like other local governments, Atlanta wasn’t combining information from police, code compliance, fire inspections and courts to identify chronically troubled properties.
As more have come to light through the Journal-Constitution’s investigation, local governments are being pushed to take tougher approaches. The detailed information the newspaper published on the 272 complexes could increase that pressure, advocates say, and bring accountability.
“Sometimes publicity may spur people into action,” said Bambie Hayes-Brown, president and CEO of Atlanta-based Georgia Advancing Communities Together, a statewide association of nonprofit housing groups.
Cobb County commissioners passed an ordinance in September to require apartments to hire a third-party certified inspector to assess 25% of their units each year.
Sandy Springs’ city council, which instituted a program similar to Cobb County’s in 2007, is expected to vote in January on making its rules more stringent. Under the proposal, its 98 apartment complexes would have to have all units inspected yearly.
Gwinnett County leaders are discussing whether to create minimum standards for interior living conditions, said Commissioner Kirkland Carden. Currently, the county’s unincorporated areas have none, and code enforcement officers won’t inspect inside apartments.
“I do hear from my constituents,” Carden said. “I do see the press coverage, I see the videos, I see the pictures, I see the dwellings that they live in. And it’s subpar.”
At the Gold Dome, State Rep. Mesha Mainor, D-Atlanta, hopes that the attention will breathe new life into her proposal from the last legislative session to require apartment operators to post their crime statistics on their websites. The bill died after industry groups such as the Georgia Apartment Association opposed it and lawmakers pushed through amendments that would make local law enforcement shoulder the workload and costs.
“The people want it, but the industry does not,” Mainor said.
Georgia remains a solidly landlord-friendly state, said State Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee. After winning a bruising 2019 battle for a new law to protect tenants who report code violations from landlord retaliation, she found her colleagues had little appetite to advance renter protections the following year.
All the recent attention to unlivable conditions, however, is a stark reminder of how many Georgians are suffering.
“It certainly is an issue that I think will be discussed,” Cooper said.