One resident was injured in a predawn apartment fire near at the Brannon Hills complex Feb. 19, 2014. A judge is authorizing demolition of four burned-down buildings at the complex. JOHN SPINK / AJC
Photo: John Spink
Photo: John Spink

Burnt-out Brannon Hill condos can be destroyed

DeKalb’s government can soon demolish four burnt-out and unsafe condominiums, a significant victory in the county’s protracted fight to rid the complex of squatters, gangs and drugs.

Residents of Brannon Hill condos, located near Memorial Drive and the city of Clarkston, cheered a judge’s decision last week that gave the county permission to intervene in a community that has earned a reputation for intractable blight and poverty.

The complex has been deteriorating for more than a decade as fires have ravaged several buildings that were left in disrepair. Those buildings became a haven for crime and homelessness, while residents were left with little recourse because of absent owners.

Meanwhile, the county government’s efforts to hold property owners accountable did little good because a number of them couldn’t be found. Many had abandoned their properties. The county sued earlier this year to seek permission to intervene, and Superior Court Judge Gregory Adams authorized the demolition in a Nov. 15 order.

Residents and community members tried to clean up the area last spring, but it remains littered with worn mattresses, used tires and scattered debris. More than 100 people live at Brannon Hill, and dozens of others squat there, sleeping in the remains of crumbling buildings.

A task force of police, residents, prosecutors and government employees has been working to find solutions, said DeKalb Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton.

“This is the first time anybody has had any success with tackling the problem of Brannon Hill,” Sutton said. “It’s just the right thing to do to clean up that blight over there so that those residents will have a suitable place to live.”

Property owners in fire-damaged buildings at the complex have 60 days to demolish or clean up the structures before DeKalb’s government steps in.

“The people who are suffering are the people who live in here now,” said Warsameh Bured, who sits on Brannon Hills’ temporary board of directors. “It’s our government, and we need something bigger than us to help the people.”

The “deplorable conditions” at Brannon Hill make it a public nuisance that justifies government action, Adams’ order said.

One of the buildings doesn’t have a roof, and its walls have been damaged by repeated fires. Another building is uninhabitable after two units caught fire in February 2014. The remaining two buildings were completely destroyed, leaving piles of garbage covering their foundations.

DeKalb may file a lien on the properties to recover demolition costs.

Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May called the court’s action “a big step in the right direction.”

“This order puts Brannon Hill’s owners on notice to improve the property, or DeKalb County has the authority to step in,” May said in a statement. “We have been working diligently for years to clean up Brannon Hill and other blighted communities.”

The county can work only on buildings damaged or destroyed by fire, according to the judge’s order. The government isn’t allowed to clean up the entire property.

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