The city of Atlanta was back in court with Millennia Housing Management on Wednesday to continue its campaign to penalize the Ohio-based mega-landlord for its role in the Forest Cove Apartments’ steady decay—but it remains unclear whether or when the long-condemned complex will face the bulldozers.
At a Wednesday hearing in Atlanta Municipal Court over new housing code violations the city filed against Forest Cove, Deputy Solicitor Erika Smith urged Atlanta Judge Christopher Portis to fine Millennia for letting the property continue to slip into dangerous disrepair long after he condemned the property and ordered it demolished.
Nearly two years after Portis deemed Forest Cove a public nuisance and ordered it leveled, the complex has only further deteriorated and become more welcoming to squatters and crime, she said.
Millennia’s lawyer, Kurt Lentz of Baker Hostetler, countered that the company was “at the end of our rope with what we’re able to do with this property,” because the city’s nuisance actions against Forest Cove disqualified it from government tax credits and other financing needed for cleanup and restoration efforts.
The condemnation also ultimately cost Forest Cove its rental assistance contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which allowed low-income Atlantans to use Section 8 vouchers to pay rent.
Although the Atlanta judge ordered the 50-year old complex razed back in December 2021, Forest Cove is still standing, because Millennia appealed the demolition order in Fulton County Superior Court. That led to a preliminary settlement agreement with the city in March 2022 to void the demolition order. Instead of knocking it all down, Millennia insisted, it would undertake a $60 million renovation.
At the housing code violation hearing, Smith voiced skepticism that Millennia, which manages 280 low-income apartment complexes across 26 cities, doesn’t have the funds to refurbish Forest Cove.
She added that the national company obviously has the money to pay high-priced lawyers to litigate the demolition order for almost two years. “If they say they cannot afford [renovations], how can they afford defense counsel?” Smith asked. “This is a multi-million-dollar company.”
Lentz countered that the March 2022 settlement agreement—and Atlanta’s own housing code—empowers the city to step in and clean up Forest Cove in the event that the owner cannot. “The city has the right, essentially, to abate that nuisance” and bill Millennia for it later, the lawyer said.
Lentz added that Millennia, which owns Forest Cove under the name Phoenix Ridge, can’t afford to remediate the code violations. “Phoenix Ridge is unable to secure the property,” he said.
Smith rebutted that Millennia’s “credit is no good with the city.”
Millennia already owes the city roughly $10 million to cover the cost of relocating and defraying rent for almost 200 families still living at Forest Cove when it was condemned. Or so said the initial 2022 settlement agreement, which noted that if Millennia reimbursed the city for that expense, it could renovate Forest Cove instead of tearing it down.
The demolition order is back in effect
Complicating matters, the city and Millennia’s negotiations derailed last month over the final settlement deal to stay the wrecking ball. Now the city wants Forest Cove torn down because of the ongoing dangerous conditions, which prompted it to file the additional housing code violation actions last spring.
Consequently, Millennia gave up on settling with the city and changed course. On Sept. 29, it voluntarily dismissed its Fulton appeal, then sued the city on Oct. 3 in federal court. The company is now arguing that the city’s action to condemn Forest Cove in 2021 derailed its renovation plan, and it’s seeking at least $21 million in damages.
The city responded on Oct. 6 by calling a press conference with nationally known plaintiffs attorney Ben Crump to announce it will launch a class action suit against the mega-landlord, with Millennia renters from across the country as plaintiffs.
Back in municipal court, the city’s lawyer, Smith, noted that Millennia’s withdrawal of its Fulton County appeal case reactivated Judge Portis’s demolition order, since it negates the settlement agreement with the city.
If that’s the case, though, will Millennia actually have to reimburse the city, as the settlement deal said, for the roughly $10 million it spent to rehouse Forest Cove’s former residents? The city can’t have it both ways, Lentz said at the hearing.
Neither side disputes that the demolition order is once again in effect. Instead, they disagree over who would pay to tear down—or rehabilitate—the 22-acre complex. Bulldozing it could cost millions, Smith said.
Portis said he would rule on the city’s bid to fine Millennia soon.
Meanwhile, many of Forest Cove’s neighbors are anxious to see the unsightly safety hazard reduced to rubble.
Anne Phillips, the chairperson for Neighborhood Planning Unit-Z, said the community organization is “definitely in favor of demolition of the entire Forest Cove complex.”