Our Opinion: A hopeful first step toward safer apartments

The city of Atlanta is targeting apartment complexes because of crime and code violations. As a result, the city is planning a crackdown on Atlanta’s most dangerous and unhealthy apartment complexes.

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The city of Atlanta is targeting apartment complexes because of crime and code violations. As a result, the city is planning a crackdown on Atlanta’s most dangerous and unhealthy apartment complexes.

THE EDITORIAL BOARD’S VIEW

As we all know, the most effective way to tackle any vexing problem is to take that first step.

That’s why the decision by Atlanta and Fulton County prosecutors to target 43 complexes in a campaign against persistently dangerous and unhealthy apartments is so symbolic.

The move follows our series, “Dangerous Dwellings.”

During our investigation, we examined more than 1,000 apartment complexes in Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton counties – and found many residents endure a horrific reality: The frequent crack of gunshots. Nonfunctional plumbing. Rotted floors or ceilings. Drug markets operating in and around these dilapidated apartments.

The conditions, we reported, comprise a “potent mix of lax security, deferred maintenance, governmental inertia and Georgia’s weak tenant-protection laws (that) has rendered much of the region’s affordable housing barely habitable.”

The crackdown by the Atlanta and Fulton County prosecutors will lean heavily on Georgia’s anti-gang and anti-human trafficking laws, as well as the state’s RICO statute. That means authorities can move to seize properties from negligent landlords.

Most importantly, the joint effort acknowledges that a fragmented approach to overseeing rental housing has failed to protect tens of thousands of residents – many of them children.

Keisha Sean Waites, an at-large member of the Atlanta City Council, put it this way: “There are so many jurisdictions and so many nuances to this problem. Everybody’s doing something, but nobody knows what the other person is doing.”

In Atlanta, the solicitor’s office prosecutes violations of the city housing code in Atlanta Municipal Court, while the district attorney’s office handles cases involving violent crime, drug trafficking, prostitution or gang activity.

For the first time, the two offices have shared information that showed crime problems and code violations often plague the same complexes.

In doing so, they have addressed a major issue: The lack of coordination among code enforcement, the police and some state and federal agencies.

If there is any hope of solving this issue, agencies can no longer operate in silos. A genuine crackdown on persistently dangerous complexes will require ongoing communication and coordination.

But again, it’s a first step.

Sure, the plan is short on details.

The list of 43 apartments doesn’t include some of the very worst complexes we identified in our investigation.

And plenty of questions remain.

In spite of the tough talk – Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis said her office is going into “war mode” – will the two agencies have the staffing, infrastructure and political will to stick with it?

Time will tell.

Another issue also looms: If these crackdowns are not conducted in a thorough and thoughtful manner, they could result in the permanent displacement of longtime Atlanta residents.

The announcement, we hope, shines a brighter spotlight on the issue. And maybe, just maybe, it could prompt legal authorities elsewhere in the region to do everything within their power to ensure bad landlords answer for their actions in a court of law.

That’s exactly what we demanded in the days after we first published our investigation. Negligent landlords, we wrote, should not be able to operate so comfortably. They should be held accountable in fulfilling the most basic of requirements – providing livable housing in exchange for rent.

This metro area, and this state, owe far more to those of little financial means and even-fewer options for decent, affordable housing. The crackdown is a first step. But it’s an encouraging one.

The Editorial Board.