Slumlord City: AVLF Attorneys Stand Up for Tenants

My client, Mary Jackson, and I stood in the hallway outside Fulton County Courtroom 1B – eviction court. Ms. Jackson rubbed her reddened eyes. She had just finished describing the conditions inside her rented home: a broken furnace that forced her and her children to huddle around space heaters; a non-functioning oven; uneven floors that dipped dangerously downward; holes in the doors that let the cold air in. She listed all of the times she called her landlord for help, only to be brushed off. The landlord listened placidly, his face unmoving. Finally he leaned in toward me. “It’s not,” he said with disdain, “like I’m a slumlord.”

Until that moment, no one had used the word “slumlord” in our conversation. Of course, the word had crossed my mind – I knew this man owned more than twenty properties throughout Fulton County, and several other tenants in those properties had called AVLF for help with the terrible conditions that he refused to repair.

In fact, “slumlord” is a word that is often used in Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation’s office and in conversations with our volunteer attorneys. There is no better term to describe the property owners who ignore caving roofs, active leaks, proliferating mold, faulty wiring, cockroach infestations, and other hazards. The term describes landlords who show up only to collect their rents, tucking the cash into their wallets while looking past the walls literally crumbling around their tenants.

Slumlords traffic in broken promises. They induce unsophisticated tenants to sign leases by making assurances that repairs are imminent – assurances that are never put in writing. After the first few tenant complaints, slumlords insist that the problem will be fixed soon. “This weekend,” they promise. “First thing Monday morning.” Tenants skip work, waiting at home for at home for repairmen who never arrive. Sometimes slumlords make shoddy repairs, like the landlord in Carpet Cent. v. Johnson, 222 Ga. App. 26 (1996), who repeatedly patched a chronically leaky roof – a remedy that only lasted until the next rain. The Georgia Court of Appeals dismissed the landlord’s token efforts, holding that “repair” is a broad term meaning “to make good” – and only a complete replacement would make the roof good.

Slumlords thrive in high-poverty neighborhoods where tenants lack better options, where desperation can lead to hasty housing decisions and little bargaining power. In 2012, the City of Atlanta’s Strategic Community Investment Report found that a cluster of neighborhoods in South and West Atlanta have a disproportionately high percentage of “blight” – that is, homes in a state of neglect or disrepair. In the Bankhead/Bolton neighborhood, a whopping 68% of residential properties are in poor or deteriorated condition. My client, Ms. Jackson, lived in one of those extreme-blight neighborhoods.

Back in the hallway outside Courtroom 1B, Ms. Jackson’s landlord repeated himself. “It’s not like I’m a slumlord,” he insisted. “If your client was so unhappy with the conditions in the house, she should have just asked for her money back, and I would have given it to her. My tenants ask me for their money back all the time,” he blurted. Ms. Jackson glanced at me to make sure I heard him, and I nodded. Only deeply frustrated tenants ask for their money back.    

Georgia laws do not permit landlords to ignore their properties or their tenants. Slumlords persist because they are not held accountable. When tenants withhold their rent in disgust and the landlord files a dispossessory – as in Ms. Jackson’s case – most tenants are unrepresented and fail to raise counterclaims for the lack of repairs. But by representing the victims of slumlords and filing lawsuits or raising counterclaims, AVLF’s volunteer attorneys can lift their clients out of slums and onto stable ground.