Eleven weeks after the city of Morrow abruptly evicted 22 low-income renters from three shared homes managed by affordable housing startup PadSplit, the doors that firefighters smashed upon entry remain broken, rendering bedrooms unsecure and uninhabitable.
PadSplit’s attorney, Michael Caplan of Caplan Cobb peppered Morrow Fire Marshal William Piper with questions in Clayton County Superior Court on Monday to find out why the city hasn’t yet repaired the properties, despite a judge’s order. Piper authorized the impromptu evacuations on Aug. 17 after conducting an emergency “life safety inspection” at the three PadSplit homes and deeming them unsafe.
PadSplit sued Morrow on Aug. 21, claiming the city unconstitutionally deprived the company’s tenants of housing without due process. The startup rents rooms in single-family houses to tenants on behalf of homeowners. In an expensive rental market, the PadSplit tenants were able to pay about $150 per week for furnished rooms in the Morrow homes, sharing kitchens, bathrooms, and common areas.
The Clayton County case stems from a separate feud in Morrow Municipal Court between the city and PadSplit over the legality of crowding so many unrelated renters into what were built as single-family homes. A city judge in August found PadSplit had been unlawfully managing boarding houses and skirting occupancy taxes—a ruling the company is appealing.
In response to PadSplit’s lawsuit, Clayton County Superior Court Judge Jewel Scott immediately issued a temporary restraining order instructing Morrow to allow the renters to return—and to “return the properties to the condition they were in prior to the city’s actions.”
But Morrow’s attorneys contend that the city isn’t obligated to repair PadSplit’s properties, because its fire department found them unsafe.
Caplan, the PadSplit lawyer, disagreed. “The notion that it is impossible for the city to comply with your order is simply ridiculous,” he told Scott during the Nov. 6 hearing, urging her to penalize the city for skirting her directive and make it pay for the damage to the three houses.
“It should not get lost that, as a result of what the city did, people had to sleep on the streets,” he added, referring to the multiple tenants whose lives were upended by the surprise evictions. “People lost their jobs.”
The Nov. 6 hearing centered on Caplan’s cross examination of Piper, the Morrow fire marshal, after a contentious and inconclusive Oct. 3 hearing.
Piper obtained a warrant for the inspection on Aug. 16 from Morrow Municipal Court Judge Tom Kirkbride. He said that was prompted by concerns that the single-family homes had been illegally and dangerously modified to fit more people.
But the fire marshal acknowledged he did not obtain permission to evict anyone after inspecting the properties.
That’s where the city messed up, Caplan said. “You didn’t consider it such an emergency that you would bypass the requirement that you get a warrant to conduct an inspection, correct?” Caplan asked Piper.
“No, I got warrants for each property,” the fire marshal responded.
“But you did not get any kind of warrant or judicial order for the evacuation, correct?”
By law, a fire marshal can only conduct an emergency evacuation without a warrant if a structure poses an immediate threat to the health and safety of its inhabitants—and Piper said that’s just what he found at the three homes PadSplit manages.
Piper said each house had fire extinguishers and smoke detectors, but he claimed that “most did not meet the code” for a commercial building—Morrow recognizes the PadSplit homes as boarding houses, not conventional single-family residences—and they also lacked sprinkler systems.
“As long as you have the permits, you have the proper zoning, you have everything that you need to do, [the city will] leave you alone,” Morrow’s attorney, Michael Huening of Lazega & Johanson, said at the hearing. But PadSplit has ignored the city’s regulations for nearly a year, he added.
Caplan countered that the Clayton County case hinges on whether the city was right to assume the three PadSplit houses presented imminent safety threats to the people inside, not the permitting and zoning issues.
Piper admitted that he had never evacuated anyone else in Morrow over the lack of a sprinkler system—or over inadequate smoke alarms or carbon monoxide detectors. However, he claimed, his August inspection caused him to believe the homes could collapse at any moment.
“But you don’t have an architectural license, and you did not obtain any expert opinions regarding the structural integrity of these homes, did you?” Caplan queried.
“No, sir,” Piper said.
The fire marshal acknowledged that the city had made no attempt to fix what it broke during the Aug. 17 evictions. “Repairing doors is not something I typically do,” he said.
Still, Huening said, PadSplit’s lawsuit over the constitutionality of the evacuations is “dubious.”
Piper simply exercised his official duties, he said. “As stated by state law and city code, the fire marshal has the authority and discretion and responsibility to try to ensure that all properties are safe for habitation.”
Now the judge must determine whether the city violated her temporary restraining order, and the case could proceed to trial thereafter.