The morning of Aug. 17, Travis Champion was lying in bed playing a game on his Xbox, when he heard a knock at his bedroom door through his gaming headset. At first, he ignored it, thinking one of his seven housemates was yet again bugging him for a ride.
“All of a sudden, I heard a cracking sound,” Champion said in an interview. The door burst open, spraying wood shards across the floor, and in walked two fire marshals from the Morrow Fire Department. They were there to evict him.
But this was no normal eviction. No one had filed a dispossessory action against Champion in court; he was current on his rent. The longtime Morrow resident had just moved into the small, single-family house on Navaho Trail a few months earlier.
No one had even told him that the city had previously raised concerns about the building’s safety, or that he was at risk of being kicked out. All the fire marshals said was the house had been deemed uninhabitable, Champion recalled, and that he and the other tenants had to go.
In just 15 minutes, Champion went from relaxing in bed before work to standing in the yard, watching city authorities board the place up and wrap it with yellow caution tape. And he was not alone.
A fleet of Morrow city vehicles first arrived at the house where Champion rented a room with seven other tenants shortly after 9 a.m. Fire marshals cut the power, boarded up the windows and doors, and removed the tenants who were at home. (The rest wouldn’t find out they were evicted until they returned later.) Then, the city team drove to a home on nearby Patricia Drive and another on Oxford Drive, and did the same thing.
By the end of the day, the city had uprooted 22 low-income renters living in properties managed by the housing startup PadSplit, which rents individual rooms to tenants on behalf of homeowners. The city instructed the displaced tenants to go to a local motel, a Days Inn, where it would put them up for two nights. Then, they were on their own.
Champion said the upheaval cost him his job as a forklift operator. After the brief motel stay, he moved back into a nearby apartment he had previously shared with his mother. It’s cramped, since his mom has a roommate now, but it’s a place to stay, he told Atlanta Civic Circle. Others weren’t so lucky.
“Before I got a place with PadSplit, I was living on the streets,” Jerralyn White, an Atlanta airport employee who had lived at the Patricia Drive home, said in an affidavit filed in Clayton County Superior Court, where PadSplit and its tenants are suing for damages. “When I heard about the two nights in the hotel, I was thinking, this isn’t even enough time for me to find a new home.”
“I had to sleep outside, and I was homeless for seven days,” White said of her experience after leaving the Days Inn. “I sat on the benches at the park on Jonesboro Road behind Wendy’s … I missed four days of work because of this.”
The surprise Aug. 17 evictions were an improper attempt by the city to force PadSplit out of town, the housing startup’s CEO, Atticus LeBlanc, told Atlanta Civic Circle.
The city of Morrow’s abrupt eviction actions arose from an ongoing legal feud with PadSplit over local zoning laws—specifically, whether it was legal for the company to pack so many renters into the homes.
The city had previously cited PadSplit and the property owners for zoning code violations—but no fire code violations. What’s more, the Morrow Fire Department didn’t cite any zoning issues to justify the evictions.
When asked for comment on the evictions earlier this month, the fire department supplied an Aug. 19 press release that alleged fire code violations and safety concerns over renovations to add bedrooms to the three- and four-bedroom houses.
The dispute reflects nationwide challenges with adding affordable housing in the face of NIMBYism—the “not in my backyard” urban planning philosophy that often complicates nontraditional residency in neighborhoods zoned single-family.
PadSplit rents out single-family homes by the room to provide much-needed affordable housing in fast-developing metros like Atlanta, but it does not own the properties. Different investors based in Norcross, New York, and Oregon own the three Morrow houses and lease them to PadSplit.
Detractors, including the city of Morrow, say the company manages boarding houses, or even slums. But LeBlanc contends that his company is creating “naturally occurring affordable housing”—units that rent for cheap without any government subsidies—where it otherwise would not exist.
PadSplit’s Morrow renters were paying about $150 a week for a furnished room, with a shared kitchen and bathrooms, laundry facilities, utilities, WiFi, and access to telemedicine. The tenants typically make around $32,000 a year or are on fixed incomes, LeBlanc said.
The homes the company manages have narrow hallways, small rooms, and shared amenities, but there are no apartments in Morrow that rent for under $1,000, according to Apartments.com.
A tangled legal drama
Morrow’s legal dispute with PadSplit began last December, when the city inspected the three properties and filed two code enforcement citations against the company, its executives, and the investors who own the homes.
By April, it had filed 18 violation notices against the three houses, citing PadSplit for unlawfully managing boarding houses and skirting occupancy taxes. On Aug. 22, the Morrow Municipal Court convicted on all of the citations.
But the Morrow Fire Department kicked PadSplit’s tenants out five days before that Aug. 22 municipal court hearing, scheduled to address the city’s claim that the startup had squeezed too many unrelated people into the three single-family properties and created unsafe living environments. PadSplit and the property owners say they intend to appeal the municipal code violations.
PadSplit quickly responded to the surprise Aug. 17 evictions; the company sued Morrow in Clayton County Superior Court on Aug. 21, saying its tenants were deprived of housing without due process.
A Clayton judge immediately issued a temporary restraining order against Morrow, ordering the city to allow the residents to move back in, remove the boards from the windows and doors, and repair damages from the fire marshals’ entry.
The city has removed the plywood, but the damage remains, according to LeBlanc. He said PadSplit has rehoused most of the 22 tenants at other properties it manages, but hasn’t been able to reach some of them. (The city believes the properties are too dangerous to enter, it said in emails to PadSplit obtained by Atlanta Civic Circle.)
“The city acted unconstitutionally by summarily evicting residents from their homes without notice, without court process, and without regard for the procedures required by Georgia law,” PadSplit’s lawyer Michael Caplan said in a statement to Atlanta Civic Circle. “The city’s actions resulted in some residents becoming homeless and at risk of losing their jobs.”
But Morrow officials say they did everything by the book: In the Aug. 19 press release, Fire Chief Roger Swint said the sudden evacuation of the PadSplit homes was in response to a “life safety inspection,” authorized on Aug. 16 by Morrow Municipal Court Judge Tom Kirkbride. Swint claimed the houses had “inadequate means of egress for occupants,” lacked smoke detectors and fire alarms, and were shoddily constructed.
“These structures were designed and built as single-family residential homes with three or four bedrooms,” the fire chief said in the statement. “Significant alterations have been made, including but not limited to adding several bedrooms, bathrooms, electrical components, and replacing water heaters and HVAC units.”
Caplan contested those claims in an interview with Atlanta Civic Circle: For one, PadSplit doesn’t own the homes and is not responsible for whatever renovations were done before it began renting them out, he said. What’s more, the city didn’t mention the fire code in its 18 citations for code violations.
Even if the homes were not up to code, the way the fire marshals raided them was highly unusual and “aggressive,” according to Randall Slaughter, the city of Atlanta’s fire chief from 2018 until 2021.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said in a Sept. 7 email that PadSplit shared with Atlanta Civic Circle, after he had reviewed video footage taken by LeBlanc of the evictions’ aftermath. “The brash, aggressive, and unprofessional actions of the fire marshal are totally unacceptable.”
The houses looked “clean and uncluttered,” Slaughter said in the email to PadSplit; there were smoke detectors in each house and fire suppression systems over the stoves; and the exits appeared to be adequately accessible in the event of an emergency.
In other words, the three houses seemed to meet the usual fire safety standards, Slaughter said in the email. He found Morrow’s response to the “life safety inspection” unusual, saying 15 minutes for tenants to vacate was insufficient, the forced entry seemed unnecessary, and it was odd that authorities boarded up the doors and windows while tenants were still collecting their belongings.
“While the safety and wellbeing of the community is always a top priority for any fire marshal, common courtesy, decency, and respect for humanity must not go by the wayside in the performance of his or her duties,” Slaughter concluded.
PadSplit has engaged Dwayne Garriss, the state of Georgia’s fire marshal between 2011 and 2019, as an expert witness in its lawsuit against the city of Morrow alleging unlawful evictions. In a Sept. 1 affidavit, Garriss attested that the concerns raised by the Morrow fire marshal weren’t an “imminent and severe threat to the life or safety of occupants”—as a gas leak or exposed wiring might be.
A hearing on PadSplit’s unlawful eviction claims is scheduled for Oct. 3 in Clayton Superior Court. PadSplit and its tenants are asking to extend the restraining order against the city and urge it to fix what it broke at the three houses.