The entire bottom floor of a south Cobb apartment building has been abandoned to the rats. Doors are boarded up and windows smashed in. Above, residents live with more rodents, mold, leaks, cracks in their walls and windows, faulty wiring and sewage overflows from their neighbors’ toilets.
Some people leave their doors open to air out the smell of rot. There are no smoke alarms or fire extinguishers.
Kewanna Carson points to the insulation hanging down from a dripping hole in her ceiling, a problem she says management has ignored for months.
“I got small children,” said Carson, who supports her son, 8, and daughter, 5, as a deputy manager at McDonald’s. “I don’t need to be in here with this.”
The building belongs to one of three apartment complexes — Parkview Apartments, Kingsley Village and Hunters Grove — owned by a group of investors from Canada who bought the buildings in 2015 for $6.4 million under the name Trinity Parkview LLC. Fed up with living conditions at the apartments, some residents have joined an effort to organize renters in south Cobb and show how absentee landlords can take advantage of tenants, who have little legal power in Georgia. But a dearth of quality affordable housing leaves them with few alternatives.
Despite criminal charges citing more than 80 code violations over the condition of the buildings, the Trinity Parkview investors continue to collect government rent subsidies, while tenants and their advocates say renters are threatened with eviction for speaking out or reporting violations.
The Marietta Housing Authority provides housing vouchers for 69 out of 490 apartments —14 percent. Eight of those units are occupied but in “abatement,” meaning the authority is withholding payments until problems in the apartments are fixed.
Rents run between $800 and $1,100, and the amount the vouchers cover depends on the tenant’s income and the size of the family. With an average monthly subsidy per unit of $630, that amounts to more than $40,000 in tax dollars a month going to a landlord who has hired an attorney to defend against charges brought by the county.
Pete Waldrep, the executive director of the housing authority, said the individual apartments where voucher recipients live passed inspection, and the housing authority is not responsible for other tenants, the overall condition of the buildings or the management’s history of noncompliance.
He also pointed out that finding homes for voucher recipients can be a challenge. Many landlords don’t want to rent to such tenants, who must be low-income to qualify for the program. With or without a voucher, people with poor credit, a criminal record or a prior eviction are less likely to get approved for a lease and may end up in substandard housing.
“The whole south part of the county is not in good shape,” Waldrep said. “We have to be somewhat practical.”
Finding housing can be even harder for those without the guarantee of a housing voucher.
The authority has demolished 755 subsidized apartments over the past two decades. It currently operates 827 such units and is building another 653. The vast majority are reserved for seniors. Additionally, it administers vouchers for 3,011 individuals or families.
Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds the voucher program, said he could not comment on a particular case with which he is unfamiliar. But, he said, ultimately whether to approve payments is up to the local housing authority.
“They don’t have to do business with this landlord if there is ample evidence that their housing isn’t suitable,” Sullivan said.
Peter Mazzuchin, one of two general partners in Trinity Parkview along with Kerrison Chin, who is listed as the defendant on the charges filed by the county, blamed a former partner, now deceased, for failing to maintain the properties. Chin did not respond to a request for comment submitted through his attorney.
“Our mission is to transform communities,” said Mazzuchin. “We are anything but slum landlords.”
Some say they have transformed the community — for the worse.
Monica DeLancy, founder of the We Thrive in Riverside Renters Association, said Kingsley Village was in much better shape when she lived there four years ago, before the current owners bought it.
Through her organization, now in its tenth year, DeLancy is spearheading the effort to organize renters throughout the Six Flags area, including the Trinity Parkview apartments. Recently, she brought a group of tenants to a county commission meeting, where their emotional testimony moved the board to vow action on subpar housing.
“I wanted to make sure renters knew they have a voice,” DeLancy said. While it doesn’t wield nearly as much political clout as the major homeowners associations, We Thrive in Riverside is gaining momentum with seven “captains” representing different apartment communities. DeLancy hopes to get that up to 25 by the end of the year.
That can be a challenge in communities like Six Flags where many residents are transient. Of the dozen or so Trinity Parkview residents who spoke to a reporter, most were trying to move out. Some are facing eviction because they withheld rent over unresolved maintenance issues, which is illegal in Georgia.
Fair-housing advocates say the issue boils down the state’s lack of protections for renters. Georgia is the only state that has not adopted a “warranty of habitability,” which gives tenants certain rights such as breaking their lease or refusing to pay rent over serious habitability issues.
Elizabeth Appley, an attorney and lobbyist for the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, said that while landlords here have a legal obligation to maintain rental properties up to code, “the tenant has no effective way to enforce that.”
“The only remedy a tenant has is to sue for damages after the fact, and that’s a tremendous burden and not a realistic remedy,” she said.
Some piecemeal legislation has been proposed. HB346, sponsored by Cobb State Rep. Sharon Cooper, would ban retaliatory evictions, giving some protection to renters who file complaints with code enforcement.
Carson, the woman with the hole in her ceiling, shared a copy of a letter she wrote to the county about the problems in her apartment. She said she has not heard back and has been threatened with eviction. A county spokesperson said it did not have a request for inspection at her address.
The owners of the three Trinity Parkview complexes have sought 313 evictions since Jan, 2018, according to court records.
Attorneys for Cobb Legal Aid said they have been in touch with dozens of tenants of Trinity Parkview, which they called “by far the worst” landlord they’ve seen.
“It really is a business model based on some of the most disadvantaged folks in our community,” said attorney John Gainey. “These folks don’t have a ton of options with their housing and landlords know that.”
Commissioner Lisa Cupid, who represents the area, has expressed grave concern about the living conditions at the three apartment complexes and recently announced she had reached out to the district attorney about having them condemned. But she acknowledged that wasn’t a solution to the bigger issue of the lack of affordable housing in Cobb.
Some residents of Trinity Parkview properties have already been displaced, after Cobb and the city of Marietta tore down similarly troubled apartments.
Dan Immergluck, a housing expert at Georgia State, said there is simply more demand for affordable housing than there is supply.
“I don’t think the right approach is to just condemn the properties and get them knocked down,” he said. “Those people have to go somewhere and they may be preyed upon by the same kind of property owner.”