Opinion: ‘Dangerous dwellings’ demand real, rapid fixes

May 10, 2022 Atlanta: Atlanta police work the scene at the Forest Cove Apartments on New Town Circle. Investigators are working to learn what happened before a gunshot victim ended up dead Tuesday morning, May 10, 2022 at a southeast Atlanta apartment complex. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

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May 10, 2022 Atlanta: Atlanta police work the scene at the Forest Cove Apartments on New Town Circle. Investigators are working to learn what happened before a gunshot victim ended up dead Tuesday morning, May 10, 2022 at a southeast Atlanta apartment complex. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

THE EDITORIAL BOARD’S VIEW

It should be an ordinary business transaction – apartment landlord is paid in exchange for providing livable housing.

The shocking and often-dangerous reality is far different for residents of more than 250 barely habitable apartment complexes around metro Atlanta, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found.

In these places, many residents endure a horrific reality that can include the frequent crack of gunshots that often strike victims, nonfunctional plumbing, rotted floors or ceilings and the dangers of drug markets operating in and around dilapidated apartments.

Those were some of the findings of “Dangerous Dwellings,” our special investigation that debuted Sunday. This newspaper examined more than 1,000 apartment complexes in Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton counties. As we reported, the conditions 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.”

These conditions are a disgrace to metro Atlanta and Georgia, given how we pride ourselves on being a wonderful place to live and do business. This growing metro and state owe far more to those of little financial means and even-fewer options for decent, affordable housing.

Worse yet, taxpayers are unwittingly helping pay for these conditions through rent subsidies and tax incentives given to property owners. We are getting far, far less than we are paying for.

As our reporting pointed out, steeply rising rents have foreclosed decent housing options for many. In metro Atlanta, an unskilled worker would have to hold more than three full-time jobs at minimum wage to afford a market-rate, two-bedroom apartment. An annual income of $47,000 was needed in 2021 to afford the $1,185 monthly rent at such a place.

An affordable housing crunch is one thing; and Atlanta’s steady population growth has exacerbated the shortage of affordable units.

Outright neglect by apartment owners is another. And it should be unacceptable to anyone or any entity concerned with maintaining a bare-bones level of human decency toward the neediest among us – many of whom do work for a living at low-wage jobs that help hold up the services upon which broader society depends.

Which makes it all the more shocking that people are routinely living in raggedy apartment buildings, some of which have sustained serious fire, water or other structural damage. Broken plumbing can create public health issues from improperly handled sewage. Rodents and roaches endanger residents’ health as well.

The worst of these landlords don’t consistently provide even minimal security services, such as working gates -- let alone guards or functioning cameras. These shortcomings effectively present a “y’all come” sign for criminals. The high number of calls for police service to these places back up this point.

Negligent landlords should not be able to operate so comfortably. When they fail at – or even flout – the most basic of duties in providing minimally habitable, reasonably safe housing – it is up to government to step in.

That’s not happening nearly enough here. Bureaucratic inertia and Georgia’s weak tenant-protection laws have stumbled far short of providing timely, effective oversight and enforcement.

This dangerous status quo fails spectacularly at providing what the preamble to Georgia’s Constitution calls for, to “insure justice to all, preserve peace, promote the interest and happiness of the citizen and of the family.”

Those words and what our reporting has found should be a call for local, county and state agencies to assertively step up and do better by vulnerable Georgians.

The Editorial Board.