Every day, Ismael Shahid fills five-gallon jugs of drinking water from a nearby building to haul to the burned-out shell that's providing the roof over his family's heads. Shahid and his teenage son Taha put the jugs in an Office Depot shopping cart and push it up the charred stairs—past their neighbors, some of whom use crack—into Brannon Hill, a condominium complex near Atlanta that by all rights should just be torn down before it collapses.
Technically, they're squatters. So are most of the people around them.
"For us, we're just dealing with the situation as it is," says Shahid, a 42-year-old Iraq War veteran whose second career as a truck driver was derailed following being struck by a disability (he won't get more specific than that). "I would rather have my family in something than in nothing," he says.
The condo complex where they live offers a reliable scene of open-air drug dealing, sex work, gang warfare, arson, and killings. Most of the residents who have not fled at this point are immigrants from east Africa—Somalia, predominantly—who settled there in part because of the proximity to the nearby refugee community in Clarkston, Georgia.
Brannon Hill represents the result of several levels of institutional failure, starting with the condominium association and rising up through the county government. It's outside of incorporated city lines, leaving DeKalb County with jurisdiction over it. Up until this year, when confronted with the increasing social disorder of Brannon Hill, county leaders have cited the legal complexity of negotiating with more than 100 separate property owners, the futility of enforcing housing codes when those owners have no money to pay fines, the sensitivity of displacing a poor immigrant community, and the financial cost of eminent domain or condemnation. Meanwhile, things have continued to get worse.
Nationwide, the housing market has bounced back since the real-estate bubble burst in 2008—but the recovery has been unevenly distributed. Zillow's most recent negative equity report shows that higher-end housing in Atlanta is about as likely to have equity as anywhere in America. But inexpensive housing—which is to say, housing in predominantly poor black neighborhoods—is about twice as likely to be underwater as middle-value and top-value housing. The problem persists across America's urban landscape.
According to Zillow's negative equity data, about 38 percent of homes in Clarkston's 30021 zip code had underwater mortgages last year. And though DeKalb County's average housing values are above what they were during the depths of the crash, they're only about two-thirds of what they were ten years ago—for reference, metro Atlanta's average home values have nearly returned to what they were pre-housing crisis.
The foreclosure crisis created graveyards of abandoned homes. Hard-hit municipalities from Fresno, California, to Atlantic City have been struck by blight—unfilled buildings no one wants. But as long as housing values remain low, local governments remain starved of property tax revenue. There's less money to hire code enforcement officers, retain experienced cops, or condemn and tear down places like Brannon Hill, regardless of what the law says.
Local police and officials generally acknowledge Brannon Hill as the worst place in the county, if not all of metro Atlanta. "The living conditions are unbelievable," says Andrew Baker, DeKalb County's director of code enforcement. He's got five binders full of photographs and citations and code violations for the condo complex. When I spoke with him at the DeKalb County government headquarters in July, he recited a litany of abuses—siding peeling off buildings, structures coming apart at the corners, rotten wood, balconies falling apart, exposed outlets and wires, holes in the roofing, holes in the walls, doors missing, windows missing, bullet holes, unsecured units, unlicensed vehicles, and burned-down buildings. Right now, he says, about 400 people live in the complex.
One building's hallways are filled with two inches of stagnant water, turning the floors into a sooty, garbage-filled paste. The stench is like being locked in a bathroom with a toilet that hasn't been flushed in a year. Some of the units are partly burned out. Make one bad step in certain areas of the complex, and the floor gives way.
Still, outside, there's a bright orange extension cord leading to a second floor balcony. Someone is trying to live here.
Most of the complex's buildings aren't quite that bad, but according to Baker, none meet code.
"We can send our code officers to look at the property, but our officers can only look at the physical exterior, the common areas, and so forth," he says. About 162 of Brannon Hill's 369 units are burned, while about 71 others are unoccupied, he adds. "They can't go into any of the units unless they're invited." The law does not allow an inspector to enter without permission. And no one in Brannon Hill gives permission because they're afraid of being put out of their homes, according to Baker.
Somalis began coming to Clarkston in the late 80s. White flight around Clarkston left the area relatively underpopulated, and refugee resettlement groups liked the relatively easy access to the last stop on Atlanta's MARTA rail service. Over the course of the next two and a half decade, agencies resettled thousands of refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, Nepal, and elsewhere in and around Clarkston.
The refugee influx radically changed the economic makeup of the area. A thriving network of immigrant-owned shops emerged; the Dunkin' Donuts a mile up the street is still a gathering spot for Somali cab drivers. A mini-mall of Somali clothing stores, insurance agencies, and restaurants now sits a mile from the center of Clarkston. There's fantastic Nepalese restaurant next to an Ethiopian grocery and across the street from a Somali café.
About 7,000 people of Somali descent live in and around Clarkston today, according to Omar Shekhey, 55, who runs the nonprofit Somali American Community Center in Clarkston. A relatively small number are still in Brannon Hill—maybe 400 or 500, he says. Some people move here to reunite with family, and will take housing where they can get it, especially if there's a question about the legality of their immigration status.
"People invested in these properties because Muslims do not pay interest and they don't take loans on mortgages," explains Faiza Mohamed, a Somali-American who renovated property there when she bought a unit in 2014. (Many observant Muslims view money as strictly a means of exchange, which means most mortgages aren't sharia-compliant due to the fact that they charge interest.) Since the condos were relatively cheap, Mohamed says, "this was their only option to live in a place where they owned it outright and wouldn't have to pay rent."
The community's troubles began in the early 2000s, when fires claimed some condominium buildings. Owners stopped contributing to the condominium fund, sending the association into a financial death spiral. Subsequent fires left half-burned buildings to become garbage-filled squats, driving down the value of the rest of the property. One by one, owners abandoned their investments and were replaced either by renters or no one at all.
The housing crash made things worse, as the declining real estate market opened up opportunities for some condo owners; property elsewhere started to look as affordable as Brannon Hill. "A lot of people had saved enough money to buy property elsewhere, and then they moved, and then things got worse," Mohamed says.
Brannon Hill's decline has mirrored that of the surrounding area. Decades ago, nearby Memorial Drive was an idyllic middle-class suburban promenade, the site of the first-ever Home Depot. One by one, major businesses and anchor tenants for strip malls left and were replaced by tire shops, cash advance places, and dollar stores. The largest stores along Memorial now are a new Walmart and Nam Dae Mun, a well-regarded Korean farmers' market that slipped into space once occupied by a Publix grocery store.
Churches in the area have a quarter of the congregations they've had in years past, according to Pastor Randal Palm of Rock of Ages Lutheran Church, which sits across Memorial from Brannon Hill. A college group wanted to come volunteer there recently, he says. "It was a young group of college girls, all dressed very nicely, and they wanted to work cleaning up right here in front. And I told them no, unless you want to really experience what it feels like to be propositioned, because that's what's going to happen. Well, they wanted to go in the back, along the fence line. But I know that that's where the drug deals go on."
Residents say a three-bedroom Brannon Hill apartment rents for $300 a month, about $700 under the local average, per Realtor.com. That's cheap enough to still occasionally attract tenants, as long as they don't mind the occasional gang assassination next door. That is not an exaggeration: A police report indicated that detectives believe gang members at Brannon Hill deliberately burned down one of the buildings last year to facilitate a murder.
Brannon Hill might be right next to the city of Clarkston, but it's policed by DeKalb County, which is grossly understaffed and underpaid. DeKalb has been bleeding talent to other agencies for years: officers have told me that rich cities nearby, like Sandy Springs or Marietta, can offer experienced officers much better compensation packages. According to Politifact Georgia, the county has been relying on police academies to fill the ranks, but the departure of veteran cops have actually led to a 2 percent decrease in the overall number of officers. The result is a police force that is understaffed and inexperienced.
As the number of tenants in Brannon Hill declined, so did its finances. On paper, the condominium association should take in about $880,000 a year with all units in compliance—that's 369 units, each paying $200 a month in association dues. The number today is apparently closer to $50,000, because only about 20 units are paying their fees now. Most of that goes to pay for electricity, gas service during the winter, and wholly insufficient trash services, according to Haji Said, who administered affairs for the homeowners association in the past. There's no money for infrastructure repair, or to bring units up to code, or to obtain fire insurance, or even to sue people for failing to pay into the community fund.
Not that a lawsuit would have been especially easy even with a barrel of cash. Most of the property owners of record can't be contacted, Said explains. He holds up a fistful of mail. "All these letters are returned letters where we could not find the homeowners."
Said says the complex has not been insured for at least ten years. Until early August, the condo association had been long defunct. But community meetings held by neighborhood advocacy group PRISM last year in the area around Brannon Hill caused the county government to take set its sights on Brannon Hill again. A county government group met with residents, who then decided to try to reconstitute the homeowners association.
Meanwhile, the complex shut off water to several buildings to prevent catastrophic leaks, Said tells me. Not to avoid damage to the buildings—the units with bad pipes are too far gone to repair in any case—but to stop a comically high bill from becoming even worse.
Last November, the county hit Brannon Hill with a $700,000 charge for water. Shedding that debt has, understandably, been a bit difficult. "We've asked everyone who owns a unit to pay something," Said says, but realistically it will never be paid back.
Brannon Hill has been nobody's problem for so long that now it's becoming everyone's problem. A few years ago, what remained of Brannon Hill's now-defunct board commissioned a $10,000 report to assess the cost to renovate the condominium complex properly. The renovation price they came up with was $10.5 million. And no one around here has that kind of money.
If the county fined property owners with code violations into penury, says Luz Borrero, deputy chief operating officer for DeKalb County, it would just mean another lien on the property, making it unsellable if an actual developer wanted to fix it up.
And if DeKalb condemned Brannon Hill, by law it would be obligated to find housing for every displaced family, according to Georgia's Relocation Act. And neither the housing supply nor the money to fund such a migration exists, Borrero says. "Obviously, we cannot just take money from the General Fund and say that the rest of unincorporated DeKalb County taxpayers are going to pay for (mass relocations)."
A local rumor maintains that Georgia Perimeter College in Decatur would buy out the property for use as student housing—but that's not in the cards, according to the college itself. "We do not have any plans or interest in this property," says Andrea Jones, a spokesman for Georgia State University, which recently consolidated with Perimeter.
Until someone does something, Brannon Hill will remain home to a network of dealers, addicts, squatters, and the truly lost. Ismael Shahid's take on Brannon Hill is stoic to the point of being ascetic, and filtered through his Muslim faith. He says he believes he has found peace in Brannon Hill, but he's ready to take his five children out of there. His wife received an associate's degree from Georgia Perimeter this year and is studying at Georgia State now. Though managing his disability, Shahid's thinking about becoming a truck driver again. "You look at the structure and you'd say, 'How can you do this?' But I don't have someone threatening to throw me out," he says. "It's brought more peace for ourselves. Despite all of these things, we've always been protected. God has always protected us."
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