AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Buckhead real estate investor reneges on donation to struggling neighborhood

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed's vow to hold a Buckhead real estate speculator accountable for conditions in a struggling neighborhood has put the breaks on a cleanup program there, a leader of a nonprofit said.

Rick Warren has reneged on a $15,000 pledge to launch a summer jobs program for the English Avenue community, citing legal bills, said John Gordon, a founder of Friends of English Avenue. Warren made the pledge soon after the AJC published "Betting on 'The Bluff'," which showed how his 150 or so derelict properties fostered hazardous conditions  and overwhelmed efforts to revive the neighborhood. Gordon, also a Buckhead businessman, had planned to use the money to hire local youths to clean up properties owned by Warren and others.

While some observers were skeptical that Warren truly meant to give over the money, it's clear that Warren's legal fortunes have changed. The AJC story put Warren in Reed's sights. The real estate speculator faces 14 housing code enforcement cases, any one of which could put him in jail as a repeat offender.  Reed attends the hearings personally.

For Warren, skimping on property repairs isn't as cheap as it used to be. His legal team has at times included a criminal defense lawyer, a civil real estate attorney, and a public relations expert.

Gordon sees the program as a victim of Reed's tactics. In a neighborhood like English Avenue, you can't put politics over pragmatism, he said.

"It strikes me as a complete waste of time for my elected official to have him sitting there in municipal court on a bench in front of TV cameras, twiddling his thumbs," Gordon said.  "I would so much prefer that the mayor put on his work clothes and come down to English Avenue and help clean it up."

Gordon's thoughts aren't representative of opinions of those who live in the neighborhood, but they do touch upon some themes that keep arising during my conversations with residents. Residents want accountability. They also want change. They don't want one to come at the expense of the other.

Warren's next court appearance is July 28.

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