Tenants from Forest at Columbia — the Panthersville-based apartment complex at the center of an alleged illegal eviction controversy — have gained new allies in their fight to keep their homes.
DeKalb County Commissioner Larry Johnson arranged for staffers from the county’s Community Development Department to visit Forest at Columbia on Aug. 5, less than a day after residents from the complex confronted him on stage during an outdoor concert appearance in Decatur.
Johnson clarified on stage that his office doesn’t typically handle eviction-related issues, but he agreed to help the tenants and spoke with them at the event. “I was able to meet with them to address their concerns and determine how to best move forward,” Johnson said. “I let the residents know we are here to help them wherever possible.”
The next day, at Johnson’s request, DeKalb staffers and reps from multiple civic aid groups visited Forest at Columbia. Street Groomers, a progressive advocacy group that works with underprivileged communities, and Community Boutique with L.A. Pink, a nonprofit homeless aid organization, joined Johnson and his team during their visit.
The groups spent about six hours collecting residents’ contact information and assessing their specific needs. Johnson himself was there for two hours.
The aid groups are scheduled to return to the complex Aug. 15 to address housing, food, and clothing needs, and to help residents seeking employment secure new jobs.
Sydney Clark was among the Fighters of Forest at Columbia Tenant Association members who confronted Johnson, but she later expressed gratitude for his aid and regret for yelling at him in front of a crowd of concertgoers.
“I felt bad because all we had to do was call and talk to the man, and we didn’t do that,” Clark said. “He agreed to do something that’s not in his line of work. … He kept his word.”
Staffers for Meridian Management Group, the property management company that owns Forest at Columbia, delivered lease termination notices to the complex’s majority Black residents in late June.
Multiple tenants said a property manager has told them they have to move out by Aug. 31 so the company can begin making renovations before dramatically raising rent prices. Many of the residents are low-income individuals who say they don’t have the savings needed to move on such short notice. Some receive public assistance benefits from the federal government that make it harder for them to get approved for new leases elsewhere.
The tenants also said their property manager told them they won’t be getting their security deposits back. Some were offered the chance to renew their leases at a much higher monthly rate.
Meridian’s notice to tenants said utilities would be cut off by Sept. 1 so repairs can be made. Lindsey Siegel, an attorney with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, says Meridian’s actions could be considered an “illegal eviction.”
“Turning off utilities, forcing tenants out, the landlord is not allowed to do that,” she said.
Records show the U.S. Housing and Urban Development also lists Forest at Columbia as a participant in its low-income housing tax credit program, according to Siegel, who said the property’s status may entitle its residents to added legal protections.
Landlords who own tax-credit properties in Georgia face limits on how much money they can charge for rent and under what circumstances they can remove a tenant from a property, she said.
“The landlord is very clearly not following these restrictions in the notices that they sent tenants,” Siegel said. “Even if a tenant is outside their 12-month lease, the landlord may still not have grounds to terminate their month-to-month tenancy.”
Meridian Management hasn’t responded to requests for comment. Attorneys from the Atlanta Legal Aid Society are scheduled to visit the residential community later this week to meet with tenants and explain their rights to them. Siegel said it appears Meridian is trying to intimidate its tenants to leave before they know all their legal options.
“Everyone has a right to the [court] eviction process,” she said. “Anyone who wants to challenge what their landlord is doing, they have to stay in their property. It’s much more difficult to challenge it when you leave.”