“These conditions are unacceptable for any family, and in these cases, they are subsidized by the federal government,” the letter says. The senators request answers from HUD by Oct. 13.
The Senate probe focuses on multifamily properties in the Section 8 Project Based Rental Assistance program, which uses federal dollars to subsidize rent for tenants with low incomes at complexes across the country. Nationally, the program allows some 2 million people to live in affordable housing, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Unlike more commonly known housing choice vouchers, these lucrative PBRA subsidies are awarded to the complex, not the tenant, and are a sought-after commodity among affordable housing landlords.
Crime, fire and code enforcement data show that several PBRA sites rank among metro Atlanta’s more than 270 persistently dangerous apartment complexes identified by the AJC in its investigation.
Georgia’s weak tenant protection laws have allowed private equity firms and other out-of-town investors to reap millions from the complexes. But the investors’ business model has left tens of thousands of people in Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties to live amid violence and unhealthy, unsafe conditions, the AJC found. Combined, these complexes house at least 13,000 school-age children and have accounted for at least 281 homicides and 20,000 serious crimes in a recent five-year period. Nearly all are in nonwhite neighborhoods.
The Senate inquiry names no specific PBRA landlords or apartment complexes. The AJC series lists the program’s Forest Cove, Trestletree Apartments, Woodland Heights and others among metro Atlanta’s persistently dangerous properties.
Nationally, federal regulations and contracts with property owners give HUD the power to force owners to make repairs, but tenants struggle to get the agency to use it on their behalf, said Bridgett Simmons, a staff attorney with the National Housing Law Project, which helps tenants and low-income homeowners across the country.
“What we’ve seen time and time again is HUD is reticent to actually use that power to require owners to bring properties back into compliance,” Simmons said. Poor tracking of tenant complaints and outdated technology make the problem worse.
In Georgia — one of three states lacking basic habitability standards — HUD rules are supposed to give tenants of subsidized properties better protections than those who live in luxury high rises, gated complexes and other market-rate rentals.
But PBRA tenants may not be benefiting from these higher HUD standards. A review of HUD’s most recent physical inspections shows that at least 45 of these properties in Georgia received a failing score, according to the senators’ letter to Fudge. All but one had emergency health and safety issues, it said.
In southeast Atlanta’s Thomasville Heights neighborhood, Forest Cove logged some of Georgia’s lowest inspection scores for years. Although there was ample evidence that the property was in dire need of repair, tenants could not convince HUD to act, said Alison Johnson, executive director of the Housing Justice League.
Violence, health and safety concerns grew so troubling that a municipal court judge ordered Forest Cove’s demolition in 2021, and Mayor Andre Dickens struck a deal with its owners to move its tenants to other apartments. The crumbling Thomasville Heights property remains standing as its owners fight the city over demolition and continuing problems with conditions.
Problems with PBRA properties have been so difficult to solve that a Senate inquiry may be what it takes to get HUD’s attention, Johnson said.
“Tenants have tried for so many years to really put the pressure on our regional and local HUD offices, but they haven’t budged,” Johnson said. “Hopefully this inquiry from the Senate will make them move, and know their tenants are serious about the way we’ve been treated.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Dangerous Dwellings investigation exposed how out-of-town private equity firms and other investors profit from Georgia’s weak state tenant protections and gaps in local enforcement, while tens of thousands of metro Atlantans are left to live amid violence and substandard conditions.
The investigation, which began publishing in June 2022, included publication of a list of more than 270 apartment complexes the AJC found to be persistently dangerous.
The series spurred changes to local ordinances in several metro Atlanta jurisdictions, led to a bipartisan proposal to boost statewide tenant protections and won several national journalism awards.
Read the series at ajc.com/dwellings