- By Joshua Sharpe The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Two years ago, conditions at Creekside Forest Apartment Homes drew outrage. The grounds were covered with old diapers, beer cans, syringes. Families had no water and power, and spoke of squatters and gangs taking over, of gunshots and the blood of a dead boy staining the pavement.
But Thursday, the complex smelled not of garbage, but of sawdust from the construction crew renovating a development once so bad DeKalb County officials wanted to tear it down and arrest the owner — if they could just find him.
At the gate, security guard Lavarus Smith said he hadn’t had issues with squatters in recent months while the renovations have been underway. He said there are no residents at all in the development, which property records say got a new owner, Falcon GA Investments, in 2017.
County Commissioner Larry Johnson, who lived in the complex years ago before its decline, said the progress is an example of more to come in DeKalb, where officials are getting aggressive against blight. He hopes the work will spur development in the Candler Road, I-20 area, which has long struggled with crime and poverty.
“It will help a lot,” he said Thursday. “It’s a great area for investment.”
Johnson was among the officials who worked for months in 2016 with then-owners, Creekside by TAG, to get the complex cleaned up. Code enforcement issued hundreds of violations. The leasing office sat empty, vandalized. The post office stopped bothering to deliver mail, residents said, and tenants complained they didn’t even know who to pay for rent. One man said he had mushrooms growing from his carpet and the living conditions caused so much stress it helped end his relationship with his fiancé.
The broader public was unaware of the conditions until September 2016, when DeKalb Commissioner Nancy Jester, stepped far out of her northern district, into Johnson’s, to call attention to the problems.
The county released detailed plans for relocating residents.
Workers at DeKalb County Schools suddenly had to scramble to help students find new housing and deal with the uncertainty. Fifty students from Flat Shoals Elementary alone were among the evicted.
That November, a judge issued a bench warrant for the owner when he didn’t show up to court to answer to code violations. He reportedly lived in New York, and officials couldn’t even agree on his name. It’s unclear if he was ever arrested.
But his company relinquished the property in February 2017, according to property records.
Since then, Johnson and Jester, who have often clashed, agree the county has a strong commitment to fighting the decline of such properties.
“DeKalb was ignoring blight like this property for years,” Jester said Thursday. “Now, we have new ordinances, more compliance officers and even a blight court to hold property owners accountable.”
One thing, Johnson said, that must be kept in mind is keeping housing affordable while also safe.
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