Amid outrage, DeKalb vows to help 'slums' plagued by violence and squatters

Residents of Creekside Forest Apartment Homes felt left behind – all but forgotten as the complex off I-20 collapsed into itself, with garbage strewn about and squatters making it home.

But after complaints from a county commissioner and media coverage this week, changes could be underway at the Ember Drive development.

Burke Brennan, DeKalb County spokesman, said the owner, who was cited for code violations in July, has agreed to turn the battered, vacant leasing office over to officials to use as a service center to assist residents in finding new housing.

“We’re going to help as many people as we can," Brennan told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday afternoon.

The situation at the complex, where residents say violence and vandalism has left them fearful for their children’s safety, came into public view Tuesday.

DeKalb police were on hand with armed security guards who said they were tossing squatters. The process appeared in part spurred by the presence of media and County Commissioner Nancy Jester. Jester met reporters to tour the apartments, which she said have been failed by management and the county.

“DeKalb County let it get like this," Jester said.

The complex is emblematic of the struggles of south DeKalb, which has been plagued by crime and ramshackle apartments with often absentee landlords.

Jester's decision to call attention to Creekside Forest is unusual because it isn't in her district. But she said having such a development in a potential growth area is a concern for all of DeKalb. Commissioner Larry Johnson represents the area but didn't respond to requests for comment.

Many of Creekside Forest’s challenges are obvious: used diapers, beers cans, muddy clothes and various bit of trash are littered throughout. The pool water is brown. The mail has stopped. Buildings are boarded up, damaged by flooding and vandals. In one battered unit, someone put out cigarette butts on the carpet and left empty liquor bottles and a bag of an unknown crystalized substance.

“We don’t have air. Half of us don’t have water. There’s mold everywhere,” Olivia Hines, who lives in the complex with her children, said Wednesday morning. “Nobody comes out here to check on us.”

Residents said conditions went down drastically when Creekside Forest was sold last year and they stopped paying rent because no one knew where the money was going.

According to the county, the owner is a man named Nisels Cheskel. He couldn’t be found for comment.

The DeKalb spokesman, Brennan, said Cheskel seems committed to cleaning up — and DeKalb has been pushing “aggressively,” issuing 228 citations in July and setting a court date for Sept. 27.

Residents will take some convincing to believe change is truly coming. Most burst out laughing Wednesday when told the county feels the owner is cooperating.

A day later, Brennan said trucks were at the apartments working and would be back Friday morning.

“The taxpayers are not paying for that,” he said. “The owner of this complex is paying for that.”

For those who spend time at the apartments, changes can’t come soon enough.

Security guard Francis Johnson said squatting brings myriad problems. He claimed he recalled seeing a body on the pavement one morning while kids loaded a school bus.

The issues brought to mind another complex for Commissioner Jester: Brannon Hill, the notorious burned-out condos in Clarkston.

Creekside Forest might be “Brannon Hill 2.0,” she said.

"We’ve got to hold negligent owners accountable and our employees have to do their jobs," she said.

Brennan released to The AJC a preliminary resident relocation plan, which was dated Tuesday. It said the county intends to work with Decatur Cooperative Ministries and a local housing authority to help residents and even some squatters.