Credit: Hyosub Shin

DANGEROUS DWELLINGS: An editorial for our legislators

Gold Dome: At-risk apartment tenants need your help

For the past year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has documented the alarming and dangerous conditions in hundreds of the metro area’s apartment complexes. In the wake of our investigation, we have a clear message for state legislators: You don’t have to accept Georgians living in dangerous dwellings. You can change that.

To the members of the Georgia General Assembly:

As you begin another legislative session, we have a request: Visualize the places too many of your constituents call home.

See the rats running across floors and perching in cabinets of these apartments — their walls discolored by mold and their floors buckled from leaking water or raw sewage.

Step outside — that is, if the door even works — and view the boarded-up windows, the overflowing trash bins and the burned-out shells of some of these living units.

Look at the missing gates and broken fencing that highlight a lack of security.

Listen, and you’ll soon hear nearby gunfire and the police sirens that follow.

As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported in our ongoing investigative project, “Dangerous Dwellings,” such scenes are reality for too many Georgians,

It’s time for that to change.

You can make that happen.

It’s unacceptable for a thriving state to be complicit in this kind of routine daily life within these dilapidated and dangerous apartment complexes, and we think you’ll agree.

When it comes to crime, please keep this fact in mind: 272 persistently dangerous apartment complexes account for at least 281 homicides and 20,000 serious crimes in the past five years, according to a database assembled by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Want to solve the crime problem? Start with its breeding grounds.

Please don’t forget that promises of even-tougher enforcement won’t be nearly enough to make a real difference. Know that Georgia’s law enforcement agencies are already locking up plenty of criminals who boldly ply their trade at these troubled apartment communities.

Across metro Atlanta, hundreds of deplorable and dangerous multi-family housing communities are petri dishes for crime. Too many vacant apartments grant criminals the cover they need to prey on people. The boldest do their deeds in the open.

The vulnerable families who live in these dangerous dwellings pay the price — physically, mentally and financially.

Worse, we will all pay a price, too — now and in the future.

That is why it’s up to you, as Georgia’s lawmakers, to make a difference.

No other governmental entity here has the reach, resources or legal authority to make the comprehensive changes that are needed.

Georgia’s Constitution stresses the necessity to “promote the interest and happiness of the citizen and of the family.” Our state’s Bill of Rights reads that “Protection to person and property is the paramount duty of government and shall be impartial and complete.”

But is our state really fulfilling that obligation when more than 13,000 school-age children live in dangerous apartments complexes in just Atlanta, Cobb and DeKalb counties alone?

Far too often, gunfire claims young lives — and their potential — in and around these places. As a society and as a state, we’re paying a stiff and terrible price.

Lives lost.

Human suffering.

Changing that must begin with this legislative body.

None of what needs to be done should prove unduly burdensome to responsible landlords who are maintaining their properties in decent, safe condition. They should be able to continue profitably operating their businesses without excessive interference.

But, please, focus your attention on the bad actors in residential real estate. Many of them are out-of-state players and care little about the safety and health of Georgians who live in their ramshackle dwellings.

The irresponsible owners’ business model depends on spending as little as possible on security and upkeep — and on collecting government subsidies for low-income housing. Many flip the properties, nearly doubling their money in two or three years.

They’re apparently dismissive of the hefty costs they shift onto Georgia’s taxpayers, who must pay to clean up the messes these owners have created through their neglect.

Police, fire and EMS services don’t come cheap; neither does the cost of funneling criminal cases through an already strained justice system.

It’s up to you, Georgia lawmakers.

We urge you to look out for us Georgians and to begin to shift the cost and accountability back where it rightly belongs – on negligent landlords.

There are multiple ways to improve accountability and facilitate better living conditions for the most vulnerable Georgians.

One big point: It simply must no longer prove profitable here for negligent landlords to allow deplorable dwellings to persist.

Georgia’s laws on tenant protections are among the nation’s weakest.

Unlike 41 other states and the District of Columbia, tenants can’t withhold rent to force repairs, no matter how dangerous or unsanitary a rental property is.

Change those laws.

Human decency and our common desire for public safety demand that you act.

Please don’t let us down.

The Editorial Board of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Read Dangerous Dwellings

Check out what the AJC investigation found for conditions in hundreds of metro Atlanta's apartment complexes