In November, site managers for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s new movie about a rogue DEA squad needed a backdrop that said Gritty Urban Drug Wasteland. They picked Chappell Forest apartments, a series of two-story brick apartments northwest of downtown Atlanta that more than fit the bill.
In fact, the apartments were so grubby that crews had to fix up several units before filming commenced. And as crews readied for a staged shoot-em-up, residents of the surrounding units and management were engaged in an off-camera battle of their own.
A group of residents at the complex say they organized to meet the new owner to demand conditions be improved. The owner, one in a revolving door of landlords, responded, they say, by calling police to break up “an illegal gathering” and then served several of the supposed ring-leaders with eviction notices.
The complex, in serious decline for years, has recently gone into a death spiral with perhaps 30 of the 216 units occupied. The ongoing standoff between a new owner who wants people to again start paying rent and residents who have demanded improvements has just about sealed Chappell Forest’s fate.
From a Google Earth aerial view, the complex of sturdy brick buildings is just what the city needs: Affordable housing — $395 for two bedrooms — a little more than a mile west of the Georgia Aquarium and adjacent to a park.
But the property is representative of intractable issues that have long bedeviled Atlanta: absentee or feuding landlords, recalcitrant residents, sub-standard housing, erratic code enforcement — all set against a drug-infested, criminal backdrop.
The complex is a drain on city resources. Firefighters recently battled a mysterious blaze there, one of several residents say, and cops continually chase off vagrants and drug dealers. All the while, the owners of the complex have not paid property taxes since 2007 — an estimated $350,000 — and the water bill is approaching $1.2 million due to long unpaid bills and a water break that continually sends water downhill through the parking lot.
The man who identified himself as the owner, Edwin Mitchell, a former Atlantan living in Las Vegas, faces several city codes violations and is scheduled for arraignment Monday in municipal court. In an interview last week, Mitchell said he and an investment partner were simply trying to change the direction of the dying complex but has been thwarted by residents who insist on living for free and a city treats him like the villain.
Mitchell said he was trying to sort out the paying, legitimate tenants from non-paying squatters when he issued the eviction notices late last year. But the evictions were successfully challenged by a lawyer provided pro-bono from the powerful Atlanta firm, Troutman Sanders. And the residents are now being represented by the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation.
“The lunatics have literally taken over the asylum here with the aide of the city,” said Mitchell. “They won’t let me get people out. They destroy the buildings. Then they give them power. (The complex) is salvageable but at the tipping point. Or maybe it’s past that now.”
A bleak landscape
A drive into the Chappell Forest is a journey into a troubling, even frightening world. Before reaching the 30 or so occupied units, one passes scores of boarded-up vacant units, piles of trash and a fire-scorched building with stained couches out front. Then, almost surprisingly, there are signs of life, people emerging from barely inhabitable apartments.
A visit to the complex last week found resident Brittie Davis outside conferring with AVLF lawyers Tamara Serwer Caldas and Michael Lewis and a group of other residents. Davis, 38, a resident since August, works in food services at the Fulton County Courthouse and is an organizer of the effort. She said she wants to again pay rent — she last paid in December — but has asked owners to make repairs. But the effort seems to have switched from waiting for repairs to biding time to move out and find other housing.
Davis said the effort to organize was not a ruse to skip rent payments. She said the constantly switching ownership — records indicate at least four different owners since January 2012 and seemingly as many property managers — made it hard to know who was legitimate.
“It wasn’t we didn’t want to pay; we didn’t know who to pay,” Davis said. She now wants to move but, like many others, has a hard time coming up with a security deposit for a new place.
Nikki Jefferson, 28, at the complex for nearly a year with her husband, said relocating is difficult for many. “I have a record, a history, it’s not easy for me to get an apartment,” she said. “A lot of us don’t have a lot of options.”
As they spoke, five Atlanta police patrol cars rolled into the complex followed by solicitor’s office investigators, codes inspectors and water workers. As they exited their cars, four vans filled with college students pulled in. The lead van, from the Smyrna-based 7 Bridges to Recovery, had a sign on the side; “They call us Super Jesus Freaks.” They’ve come for 18 months to provide food, life and job skills since encountering dozens of unsupervised children one afternoon. Their visit was not in conjunction with the city’s coordinated blitz.
Cops asked people if they lived there and threatened to tow off cars parked nearby, one with two flats. Minutes later, a resident sauntered to a boarded up vacant unit, opened the door and returned carrying a spare tire. “What you got, a storage unit there?” Jefferson asked, laughing.
Word spread through the complex the city came to turn off the water to stop the stream flowing through the parking lot. People emerged from apartments. The rumor — that the complex was being shuttered — turned out not to be true. A city investigator took a census of who lived there. Davis, an informal block mother, ticked off about 25 households by memory.
“It makes no sense for you to live under these conditions,” the investigator said. “If it were me and I was living here, I wouldn’t pay any more money.”
Just as quickly as they came, they left: The cops. The investigators. The codes inspectors. The water guys. The ministry squad.
“We just want the city to do its job,” Davis said as the motorcade pulled away. “This all didn’t happen over night.”
Davis is right, the decline has been steady, as has been the tragedy there. Three teens were shot to death in an apartment in 2000. A resident died in a fire in 2008. Kren Booker, a former apartment manager there, came by last week to talk to an old friend. Her son was shot to death there in 2009.
“In the 1990s, this was still clean here, then came the 2000s,” Booker said. She shook her head. “It’s a shame for this to happen to a community.”
As late as 2005, Chappell Forest was still worth $4.25 million, according to what a North Carolina man paid an elderly Atlanta woman who had owned the property for years, according to real estate records. But then the ownership trail gets cloudy.
In the last 13 months, the complex has gone through at least four ownership changes, some between the same people, property records indicate.
“It’s a mess,” said Musa Azeem, Mitchell’s brother, who owned the complex for six months last year, according to real estate records. “That property is the graveyard of some smart investors.”
Mitchell said his brother hoodwinked him and his Nevada business partner into getting involved and claims the property. Mitchell complained that the property gets deeded over frequently “to cloud the title.”
Mitchell, who said he has invested $150,000 into the property claims he is being squeezed by the city for the sins of his forerunners. “I’m not even legally of title,” he said. “I’m just trying to liquidate it.”
Atlanta police Major C.J. Davis, who heads code enforcement, said, “There are a lot of moving parts in the this scenario. We have had a hard time finding the property owner because it has changed hands so often.” Still, the city must try to find someone responsible and Mitchell “has collected (rent) from some people, so until he proves otherwise, he’s the owner.”
Tamara, the residents’ volunteer attorney, said the entire episode is astounding on many levels.
“This name-changing shell game, the catch-me-if-you-can attitude is going on all over the West Side,” she said. “I think it’s a strategy that has held off the city for a while. It’s a complete hands-off approach (by the landlord) and the city hasn’t flexed any muscle. As a taxpayer, I don’t want this to be a business model in Atlanta.”
Tim Eberly contributed to this article.