Broken homes 

Public housing shortages and lax oversight by the Atlanta Housing Authority are placing hundreds of Atlantans in ratty, possibly unhealthy apartments -- all at taxpayers' expense.

Page 5 of 6

In plain English, Section 8 is a hassle for landlords.

The commission responded by urging Congress to raise the Fair Market Rent -- and to "experiment with giving [housing authorities] greater flexibility in applying the Housing Quality Standards to attract owners to the program." Put a different way, the commission suggested that less rigorous inspections will draw more properties into the program.

It is ironic that the commission is advocating less stringent inspections of Section 8 properties. If it's successful in convincing Congress this is a good idea, legislators could open the door to more catastrophes like the one at Moreland Woods, where current guidelines did not inspect enough.

Glover has a different plan for Section 8.

"I think that it's a very important program," she says. "I think it does in fact create potentials and opportunities for families. It's absolutely critical that we do everything we can possibly do to help this program become wonderfully successful, not just marginally successful."

With the real estate market softening, she expects to lure more Section 8 landlords -- she already has contacted those who run more upscale developments -- and to cut out ones who own the worst properties. She plans to aggressively recruit more inspectors -- there are currently six who handle all 10,500 annual inspections. She plans to improve the inspections themselves with "additional checks and balances." And she says the authority will come up with a new set of standards -- above and beyond HUD's -- to make sure Section 8 attracts the best properties.

"We have to ask how many layers of protection are needed in order to achieve the outcome that we're all seeking to achieve," Glover says, "which I think is providing the best housing available in healthy neighborhoods."

On June 26, residents of Moreland Woods packed the stuffy rec center at Covenant Ministries south of Grant Park. The church teemed with sweaty bodies and hot tempers. Attorney Charlie Peebles tried to hold court over the crowd, telling them he's worked out the first part of their settlement with the apartment complex's lawyers.

Peebles, who began taking mold cases in 1999 and typically represents homeowners suing shoddy builders, calls Moreland Woods the most pervasive mold problem he's seen. Fifty apartments have toxic mold and 15 have sickening bacteria levels, according to test results from Aerobiology Laboratories in Virginia.

Peebles is passionate about his work, jokingly referring to himself as "bad cop" when it comes to bullying those who bully the poor. He and his assistant know most Moreland Wood residents by face, name and what they were wearing last they saw them. And what symptoms they have.

Peebles told the crowd about the deal he arranged with Moreland Woods' attorneys: Each family soon will be able to pick up a $4,000 check from the company that owns Moreland Woods. That money has nothing to do with compensation for their sicknesses.

"What that compensates," Peebles says, "is the furniture and other things you leave behind."

To get the checks, the families must give up the majority of their possessions -- including clothes, mattresses, televisions and stereos -- because those things are contaminated with bacteria and may continue to make them sick, according to Peebles.

He told the crowd that once he finishes documenting their illnesses, he'll start negotiating the rest of the deal with Moreland Woods attorneys. "When we're ready to talk about it, they're willing to talk about settlement," he said.

Robyn Ice, an attorney representing Moreland Woods, says the complex owners are "attempting to implement" a plan to deal with the mold problems at the apartment house.

"The owner, in entering the settlement, was primarily concerned ... that the tenants who accepted the settlement would have an opportunity to move to other apartments and get a fresh start."

Meanwhile, Peebles hasn't decided whether he'll also sue the housing authority. "Right now, I need their help getting everyone relocated. I don't want to get into any adverse posturing."

Housing authority officials announced a plan in May to quickly terminate its contract with Moreland Woods and to relocate the families who lived there. In the same breath, they deflected any responsibility for what happened. The authority stated in a press release: "AHA holds the owner wholly responsible for the conditions of the property."

Never mind that the authority was supposed to annually inspect Moreland Woods for substandard conditions.

Moreland Woods residents say they repeatedly complained about the mold. But the housing authority couldn't provide the complaints, just as it couldn't provide the inspection reports.



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