A letter from AJC Editor Kevin Riley
Dear readers and metro Atlanta leaders:
For the past year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution documented the alarming and dangerous conditions in hundreds of the metro area’s apartment complexes. Against the backdrop of ongoing deadly violence in Atlanta and other communities, this investigative journalism makes this much clear: We won’t solve our crime problem without addressing the terrible conditions that attract crime and expose children to an unimaginable amount of violence.
As our journalists worked on the story, the tragedy of life in one of these complexes played out. Natosha Hinton was quoted in a story we published about her family’s struggles amid the deplorable conditions of The Retreat at Greenbriar complex in southwest Atlanta. The next day, her youngest son was shot and killed there.
It’s a too common occurrence.
As our year comes to a close, it’s time to acknowledge the damage these apartment complexes do to our community. It’s time to recognize that while our most vulnerable citizens suffer from lack of affordable and safe housing, this problem costs all of us.
It’s time to demand reasonable changes in laws that would prevent absentee, irresponsible and opportunistic landlords from exploiting us.
The work of our investigative journalists brings to light terrifying facts. A potent mix of lax security, deferred maintenance, governmental inertia and Georgia’s weak tenant-protection laws has rendered much of the region’s affordable housing barely habitable in the complexes we examined.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution analyzed records from local police, courts and code enforcement offices, as well as state and federal sources, to identify 273 persistently dangerous apartment complexes. We published the list earlier this month.
A brief summary:
It is time for change. None of us should be willing to tolerate a system that exploits the vulnerable, while taking advantage of taxpayers.
People face horrific living conditions: rats and garbage, leaking pipes and unmitigated mold.
To drug dealers, gang members and squatters, unsecured vacant units, inadequate lighting, broken doors and windows and fences in disrepair are a signal that no one pays attention. They move in, taking advantage to victimize tenants.
And people living there are relatively helpless.
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.
What little protections state law may provide, the standard lease used by many apartment complexes forces tenants to sign away their rights, and renters have little leverage to negotiate. Walking away from a rental typically means forfeiting $150 in application fees.
Georgia has no minimum standards requiring owners to maintain their rental properties. That has led to a confusing patchwork of local ordinances, with enforcement left to local code compliance officers, prosecutors and municipal courts.
You should contact state officials and demand reform. Find yours at openstates.org/find_your_legislator/.
You should contact officials in your city and county and demand the same.
In the meantime, I promise you that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will remain focused on this issue. You can expect us to report on action in the Legislature and to ask questions on your behalf.
There’s no reason that we should put up with this.
Kevin G. Riley