The city of Morrow and housing startup PadSplit will have to wait until Oct. 13 to resume their battle over 22 renters’ evictions from three homes managed by the company, Clayton County Superior Court Judge Jewel Scott decided Tuesday.
That was after a contentious hearing had dragged on for nearly four hours in the case over PadSplit’s allegation that the city acted unconstitutionally when it suddenly displaced the 22 low-income renters from the shared homes without notice in August.
The Morrow Fire Department on Aug. 17 abruptly conducted an emergency evacuation of the renters, told them their homes had been deemed uninhabitable, and boarded the properties up. After the city paid to put them up in a motel for two nights, the 22 uprooted tenants were on their own. Some lost their jobs and became homeless.
PadSplit sued on Aug. 21. Scott immediately issued a temporary restraining order against Morrow, ordering the city to allow residents to move back into the three properties. She also ordered the city to remove the wooden boards and fix the pried-open doors.
The city of Morrow’s attorneys kicked off the Oct. 3 hearing over extending the restraining order by complaining that the judge lacked jurisdiction over the case because PadSplit’s legal team failed to properly notify the city that the housing startup had filed suit.
Scott promptly shot that idea down, saying the “very presence” of the city’s lawyers in court implied that Morrow had been adequately notified of the lawsuit. (After the hearing, she ordered Morrow’s city manager to take official receipt of PadSplit’s lawsuit by the end of the week.)
PadSplit’s lawyer, Michael Caplan of Caplan Cobb, called it ironic that Morrow’s attorneys were so concerned with due process, when PadSplit’s lawsuit was prompted by a barrage of evictions that he said were conducted without proper notice.
Illegal boarding houses?
The Clayton Superior Court case stems from a separate feud between the city and PadSplit over the legality of crowding so many unrelated renters into what were built as single-family homes. The three homes PadSplit manages in Morrow are located in residential areas on Navaho Trail, Oxford Drive, and Patricia Drive.
“These three buildings are a threat to health and safety,” said the city’s lawyer, Michael Huening, at the Oct. 3 hearing. He called PadSplit “predatory” for renting out small rooms to low-income people in houses that are “akin to a motel,” noting the company’s short-term lease agreements allow it to boot residents for nonpayment of rent without having to file for an eviction in court.
By last April, the city had filed 18 code violation notices against the three properties in Morrow Municipal Court, claiming that the housing startup was running illegal boarding houses and skirting occupancy taxes.
On Aug. 22, the municipal court ruled in favor of the city on the citations, but PadSplit has appealed.
Morrow also alleged that the homes flouted the zoning code, saying they’d been modified without proper permitting to turn three- or four-bedroom structures into dwellings with eight or 10 bedrooms apiece.
“The reason for permitting is to ensure that when somebody goes to build something in their house it’s done up to code, so it doesn’t collapse later and cause damage to human beings,” Huening said at the hearing.
Morrow Fire Marshal William Piper testified that PadSplit’s three houses posed an “imminent threat” to their inhabitants—or, at least, the potential for one. But he admitted that the 22 tenants received no formal warning before the fire department pried open their bedroom doors and evacuated them.
PadSplit’s lawyer, Caplan, contended that if the city really cared about these people’s health and safety, it wouldn’t have put them out on the street.
What’s more, he said, the dispute in Clayton Superior Court wasn’t about zoning and permitting; PadSplit and the city are battling over that in municipal court. Instead, the question at hand was whether Morrow violated 22 people’s rights to housing and due process.
“Whether we’re right or wrong on the zoning issues, that has nothing to do with this,” Caplan said, later adding, “We don’t want to give the government power to go into people’s houses and kick them out.”
Caplan said Morrow had also failed to comply with the Aug. 21 temporary restraining order, because there were still wooden boards on windows and damaged doors from the fire department’s Aug. 17 evictions. The city’s actions caused over $6,000 in damage to the properties, he added.
Huening, the city’s lawyer, disputed that, saying PadSplit couldn’t demonstrate the damage was from the city’s emergency evacuations.
Piper, the fire marshal, subsequently testified that it was easy to crack the doors open with a pry bar, which could be evidence of shoddy and unsafe craftsmanship. “They were falling apart very easily,” he said.
The hearing over the allegedly unlawful evictions and disputed home repairs will continue Oct. 13 in Clayton Superior Court.