Rickety, burnt-out condos crumble into piles of debris. Windows shattered by gunfire look out over mounds of trash. Worn mattresses and old tires litter the streets.
At Brannon Hill Condominiums, located in the shadow of the DeKalb County Jail, more than 100 residents and squatters live in deteriorating conditions that neighbors say attract gangs, drugs and poverty.
DeKalb officials judged the situation to be so bad that they recently sued for legal permission to clean up the private property that’s been called the “worst neighborhood in America” by a local nonprofit group.
The problem is, even if they are successful in court, officials know that picking up trash is just a first step on the long road toward making the area more livable. More permanent solutions haven’t been decided, but they could include condemning the property or negotiating a purchase, and then seeking contractors to redevelop the area.
Improving the 368-unit complex will pose a significant challenge for DeKalb County’s government, which has few options when it comes to forcing lax or absentee property owners to take care of their property.
“This may become a test case, or a model, for how we could pursue other cases where we have similar conditions,” said DeKalb Planning Director Andrew Baker.
The county has to deal with hundreds of individual owners, many of whom are difficult to find to hold accountable. Only about 20 owners pay homeowners’ association fees, which leaves the complex without funding to make repairs.
Though owners can be cited for code violations, such as missing doors or collapsing roofs, the county has little recourse if owners don’t address the issues. Placing liens on properties would mean they can’t be sold.
Those who live there say they feel trapped in horrid conditions that they can escape only by saving up to move. Some own their condos; others rent from landlords.
Olympia Thompson, whose family has resided at Brannon Hill since 2011, said she’s tired of raising her children amid drug dealing, gang wars and garbage.
“It’s disgusting,” said Thompson as she shooed one of her five sons away from a trash pile. “I’m really sick of this place.”
Some in Brannon Hill get by without running water or electricity. Wayne Jackson, who lives in a partially burned-down unit, said the condos need to be better maintained, and some properties should be demolished.
“We’re just trying to survive. This is the cheapest place we know of to live,” said Jackson as he was drinking a beer in the condo’s parking lot last week. “I ain’t got no money, and I’ve got nowhere else to go.”
Thompson, Jackson and many others welcome the government’s assistance.
“We need help from DeKalb County,” said Warsameh Bured, who sits on the community’s board of directors. “The problem is the people who own these units destroyed this place because of lack of management. The first step is the cleaning. Then we’ll negotiate with the owners.”
The county struggled to find a way to intervene before settling on the lawsuit, which was filed Jan. 28.
The lawsuit asks a judge to declare common areas of the property a public nuisance, which would give the government permission to remove trash, overgrowth and burned debris. The county still wouldn’t be able to do anything about private properties.
For communities without many options like Brannon Hill, part of the solution is to provide affordable housing alternatives, said Deirdre Oakley, a Georgia State University sociology professor with expertise in urban issues.
“When you don’t have a lot of money, you’re constrained on where you can live, which means you’re very vulnerable to ending up in substandard housing,” she said. “It’s a very delicate situation. The residents have very little resources to fight or to move.”
While Brannon Hill is in bad shape, government officials said it isn’t unique or the nation’s worst neighborhood, as it was called by Deen Media Center, a Lilburn-based nonprofit organization that made a YouTube video about the community.
DeKalb Police Major Greg Padrick said he sees many vagrants in the condos, but it isn’t one of the highest-crime areas in the Tucker precinct.
“Cleaning up a lot of those damaged buildings would at least help make the location less conducive for criminal activity because they can hide in those buildings and do drug transactions out of sight,” Padrick said. “It’s going to have to be a long-term strategy, and it’s going to take community involvement too, but right now that’s what’s missing.”
If DeKalb condemned Brannon Hill, it would have to find housing for displaced residents. Reversing the community’s downward spiral will require collaboration between residents and multiple government agencies, said Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton.
“There are so many problems that need to be addressed that are outside the reach of the county government,” said Sutton, whose district includes Brannon Hill. “We’re trying our best.”
Though some Brannon Hill residents said the condos should be torn down so the community can start over, others said they want to see the area improved.
“We need a good complex and a nice neighborhood to live in. We need law and order,” said Deeqa Abdi, who emigrated from Somalia and has lived at Brannon Hill for 10 years. “It will take a lot of work, but not just from the government. The people have to change too.”