Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis signaled Friday that she will work with the city of Atlanta to prosecute residential property owners and landlords who allow their properties to fall into dangerous disrepair and, in many cases, become havens for gang activity and human trafficking.

The Atlanta City Council passed a resolution last week urging Fulton to crack down on “grossly negligent” and predatory practices.

In response, Willis met Friday with 10 of the 15 council members, as well as City Council President Doug Shipman and city solicitor Ericka Smith, to hash out a plan to identify and prosecute the worst city code violators, who are often absentee landlords. 

“If you are a negligent property owner, we’re coming for you,” the legislation’s sponsor, City Councilmember Andrea Boone, said in an interview Friday. 

The July 5 council resolution asking Fulton to provide prosecutorial muscle arose in response to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation that found hundreds of metro-area apartment complexes were uninhabitable—ridden by pests, mold, and violent crime.

The city solicitor’s office has the authority to impose civil penalties for housing code violations, but it can’t criminally prosecute landlords who ignore them. The city can levy fines, but that can be ineffective against deep-pocketed repeat offenders. Boone said working with Fulton County prosecutors “will give us the strongest tools possible to bring negligent landlords to justice.”

Willis asked the council members to alert the Fulton district attorney’s office to two problem properties in each of the 12 council districts by next Friday, Boone said. Fulton will make those the initial targets for the new clean-up and punitive effort.

Willis assigned a county prosecutor to work specifically on this issue, Boone added.

The district attorney’s office will give negligent landlords the chance to make repair plans, said another of the resolution’s sponsors, City Councilmember Dustin Hillis. “Civil forfeiture is the tool the DA would use in the worst-case scenario,” he added. 

Law enforcement is able to seize civil assets if it deems they’ve been used for criminal activity. Unlike criminal asset forfeiture, that does not require criminal charges or a conviction.

Essentially, the aim of the new city-county collaboration is to give these negligent, often absentee landlords an ultimatum, Hillis said: Get your act together and bring your properties up to city code or forfeit your assets to the county government.

If successful, the logic goes, the program could curb some of the city’s criminal activity at its root.

“There are several high-profile apartment complexes located in the city which are advertised and listed under the pretense of ‘affordable living,’’’ says the resolution, “but the property owners and landlords continue to neglect basic maintenance and security provisions that everyone is entitled to, and these practices have led to a surge in crime against both the persons and property.”

Roughly 160 of the more than 250 complexes the AJC probed accounted for one in every five homicides in metro Atlanta in recent years.

But well before the AJC’s investigative series uncovered widespread landlord absenteeism and negligence, the squalid conditions at Forest Cove, a Section 8 apartment complex, have served as a glaring example of how this kind of negligence has gone unprosecuted, in part because the city lacked the tools. Nearly 200 families are still living at the Southside apartment complex after an Atlanta judge condemned it in December. 

When the city notifies some property owners of code enforcement violations, Hillis said, they “will come promising the world,” guaranteeing quick fixes and crime remediation. But in many cases, he said, “they’ve literally done nothing.”

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