Almost half of the Brannon Hills condo complex is uninhabitable, much of it heaps on the ground. Photo by Bill Torpy
Photo: Bill Torpy
Photo: Bill Torpy

In a hellish DeKalb landscape, hope survives

It’s hard to pick the right word to describe Brannon Hills, the derelict condominium complex off Memorial Drive in DeKalb County: Miserable? Sickening? Dumbfounding?

Hellish might work. That image struck Seth Jacobs, an architect called there by a refugee association to offer ideas on cleaning up the site.

“This, this, this, is….” he paused, standing in front of the trash-strewn ruins of a building while struggling for a description. “This is unhealthy. This is living in hell. DeKalb County should be ashamed of itself.”

The county is pretty hard to shame. And officials say the shame is not theirs. But they do say they’re working on it. There’s a task force, I’m told. It’s been on the job for a year.

The landscape is one of burned-out apartments with malingering denizens, jumbles of debris that once were buildings, mounds of tires, piles of trash. There are feral cats. Scores of them.

Some call the complex Third World but that’s an insult to that part of the planet.

Brannon Hills has been a toe-hold on the American dream for refugees and immigrants for a couple decades. During that time, it has slipped from worn to dingy to outright desperate. I visited during the morning, afternoon and at night. The residents are largely east African immigrants, mostly Somalian, and most of the 15 or so I spoke with are working.

Cab drivers and truck drivers seem to be the jobs of choice. Those I spoke to have a total of more than 20 kids — children who live in this deplorable, unsafe complex. But the rent is relatively cheap and most residents rent from individual condo owners, immigrants themselves who bought units years ago and moved up and out.

The 368-unit complex, built in 1973, is down to around 200 thanks to spontaneous combustion that continually eats away at the housing stock. Interestingly, about 200 units there were condemned by the county in 2001. Some now are worth so little their annual property tax bill is $25. (No, I am not missing a zero.)

The fire department should probably embed a pumper truck at the complex. And keeping a police squad car nearby might not hurt, either.

Last year, a man was found shot to death inside a burning condo, and a pregnant woman broke her leg jumping from the upper floors. A wounded man was found outside. But that is nothing new.

Here are some news reports I found going back 20 years: Man shot at pool, bank robber caught, fire, bullet-ridden body in breezeway, body behind building, fire, Taser death, teen killed, fire, dead teen found in trunk of stolen car, fire, even bigger fire, etc.

It’s like the movie “Groundhog Day” was spliced with “Friday the 13th.”

A police official said crime is not as bad as at some other complexes. And it has improved here. Last year, there were three murders at Brannon Hills. So far this year? None. “We had three arson cases in 2014 and we only had one this year,” said Greg Padrick.

I suppose everything is relative, although I’d note the arsonists and vagrants may be running out of vacant buildings to burn.

The AJC profiled the dire complex in 2001. Channel 11 was outraged by it in 2010. And the local paper, The Champion, weighed in in 2011.

A recent article on the Website Vice.com by local rabble rouser George Chidi inspired media interest in it once again.

The state of disrepair can be employed for political purposes.

Conservative commentator Phil Kent brought a BBC crew here last month to show “the dark side of refugee resettlement.”

The complex also fits the narrative that Nancy Jester, the commissioner from North DeKalb, has expounded — that the county is dysfunctional. She has come to the complex to complain about a “vulnerable community that has been abandoned.” The county needs to be “creative” about its efforts to clean up the mess, she says.

Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton says Jester is “grandstanding.”

The main problem, said Barnes Sutton, is that there are scores of different owners and the responsibility for the mess is on them, legally. But the owners are hard to find, have no money or don’t give a damn, so those who are stuck there are the ones bearing the brunt of it all.

She said she has proposed having the county come in and haul away the mountains of trash and debris, but county lawyers say that would be spending public money to benefit private owners. It could also open the floodgates.

“There’s illegal dumping all over the county,” she said. “If we were doing something ad-hoc, we could be accused of favoritism.”

So what? says Jester. Let’s do it and if someone has a problem, let them complain.

Residents are banding together to recreate a condominium association, although the numbers of residents paying into it is said to be few. Some complain about past mismanagement and funds disappearing. Others are talking about renting forklifts, but the scale of the problem is far beyond the reach of their resources.

My visits there keep finding earnest, if sometimes bewildered, residents.

There’s Essa Said, a 74-year-old Somalian immigrant retired from working at Rooms to Go, who worries about “the drug people” there.

There’s Gul Agha, an Afghan who was an interpreter for the U.S. Army and given a visa because of feared retribution. He has three children who do not play outside. He works two jobs and wants to get his kids in a better school.

And there was Abdelmonim Ahmed, a Sudanese refugee who was dressed in a suit as he walked to his taxi to start his 15-hour shift. The father of four bought his unit for $17,000 four years ago.

“I buy the cheapest one,” he said. “I fix things. I keep working.”

He invited me into his three-bedroom unit, waving and saying “welcome, my friend,” as he offered a Sprite.

Somehow, he fits a couple nights of tech school into his schedule because he knows, “in this country if you work hard to succeed, one day you will succeed.

“We are thankful with this country’s people, allowing us to share their life.”

If only the surroundings could be a little cleaner, a little safer.

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