Atlanta investor Rick Warren guilty in trials over squalid houses

A Buckhead real estate investor facing prosecution for squalid conditions at houses in an impoverished west Atlanta neighborhood faces almost certain jail time after being found guilty on two housing code violations Tuesday.

Rick Warren has stood trial in Atlanta Municipal Court three times since May on citations issued during a November 2014 code enforcement sweep on his properties, but Judge Crystal Gaines withheld verdicts on all of the cases until Tuesday, when the businessman was scheduled to stand trial on charges related to a fourth house.

Instead, Gaines announced guilty verdicts in two of the trials, and found Warren not guilty on three counts relating to the third. Charges for the scheduled fourth trial were dropped because prosecutors think Warren no longer owned that house when he was cited.

As a repeat offender, Warren faces a mandatory sentence of at least 30 days in jail on both guilty verdicts. Sentencing is set for Oct. 20, and Warren is out on $2,000 bond pending appeal.

The convictions are victories for Atlanta’s over-worked code enforcement division and Mayor Kasim Reed, who made an unusual public appeal for Warren’s conviction.

Reed attended Warren’s early hearings and called the developer a “predator.”

Through a spokeswoman, Reed said Tuesday that Gaines’ decision is “a significant step forward in the revitalization of Vine City and English Avenue.”

“Rick Warren is an admitted repeat offender of the City of Atlanta’s housing code, and he has engaged in a level of lawless behavior with little to no regard for the quality of life of residents in the community. Our Administration said that this behavior would not be tolerated and we are pleased with the ruling of the court,” Reed said in a written statement.

Warren and his attorney George Lawson declined comment after the verdicts were read. Warren faces trial again for another property on Oct. 20, the same day he’s to be sentenced on Tuesday’s verdicts.

Warren was found guilty even though the houses were owned by limited liability corporations that were not listed under his name. Lawson argued that his client was not responsible for their conditions because he was not their owner or operator. But witnesses testified that Warren was in charge of day-to-day operations at those businesses, and records showed he had an ownership interest.

Code enforcement officers targeted Warren after an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation that found that he had purchased some 10 percent of the houses in and around the historically black English Avenue neighborhood, leaving many vacant and crumbling. For years, Warren paid fines when he was cited for vacant houses infested with rats and overgrown with weeds, then continued to re-offend. Neighbors complained that drug dealers set up shop inside his properties, undermining attempts to revive the neighborhood.

English Avenue, which has been scarred by the heroin trade, was the victim of rampant mortgage fraud during the housing boom. It then became the site of aggressive property speculation because it sits next door to the construction of a new Atlanta Falcons stadium and a planned segment of the Beltline.

Warren became perhaps the neighborhood’s biggest speculator. He purchased dozens of properties at a time for as little as a few hundred dollars a piece from other investors who fell on hard times during the housing crisis. While some were kept vacant, he rented some of them out and tenants complained of unsafe conditions.

“I think justice was served here,” said Michael Lucas, deputy director of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, which sued Warren on behalf of tenants. “We don’t think Mr. Warren’s business model is one that works in the City of Atlanta.”

English Avenue residents now wonder what will happen to Warren’s properties. He tried to sell some to the Fulton County/City of Atlanta Land Bank Authority, which is working to revitalize the neighborhood, but the deal fell apart under Reed’s objections. Warren owns so much of the neighborhood that redevelopment may be difficult without his cooperation.

State Rep. Mable Thomas, D-Atlanta, hopes that Warren works with community groups to turn the properties into affordable housing.

“Hopefully he sees the light, whether in jail or not, to do something positive,” Thomas said.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Local

Robotic assistant company opens Atlanta office
Robotic assistant company opens Atlanta office

An Israeli company that makes software that allows some tasks to be automated is opening an Atlanta office, calling it its U.S. headquarters. The company, Kryon Systems, is hiring 15 workers in sales, marketing, business development and support. It plans to double its workforce in the next year. Kryon is also opening a New York office. The company...
Police: Suspects in Cobb drug incident linked to other crimes
Police: Suspects in Cobb drug incident linked to other crimes

A drug-related shooting and stabbing incident near a Circle K parking lot led to three Marietta men being arrested on various charges, police said. About 8:30 p.m. Jan. 10, officers responded to calls about gunfire near Bells Ferry Road and Williams Drive, Marietta  police spokesman Chuck McPhilamy said in a news release. During a dispute over...
5 things to know about Amazon
5 things to know about Amazon

The bidding war is in full-swing as cities across the United States and beyond compete for Amazon’s second headquarters. Now the company has narrowed its list to a final grouping that includes Atlanta and 19 other metro areas in the U.S. and Canada.  » RELATED: Atlanta named to Amazon’s shortlist for HQ2 On Thursday...
Major roads still closed in DeKalb after snow
Major roads still closed in DeKalb after snow

On Thursday, DeKalb once again has bad driving conditions, with roads closed around the county due to the cold. Officials, who are recommending residents stay home and don’t drive, released a list of closures at 11:30 a.m.: Rockbridge Road at Susan Creek Waldrop Road at Kingswood Run  River Road between Bouldercrest Road and Panthersville...
Lawrenceville begins search for new chief of police
Lawrenceville begins search for new chief of police

With Lawrenceville’s recent announcement of Police Chief Randy Johnson’s plans for retirement, the city is now seeking qualified candidates to fill his shoes. The new chief of police will oversee the day-to-day operations of Lawrenceville’s police department, working to ensure public safety for the community. Qualifications include...
More Stories