Credit: Grant Blankenship/GPB
When a landlord lets housing conditions falter, the penalty is difficult to exact
A two-bedroom apartment at Miga Villa Apartments in Macon runs just under $600 a month.
That’s Tyree Styles’ rent. He said he has not been getting what he pays for.
“You know, we got a couple of outlets that are out in the house,” he said at the foot of the stairwell of his two-story building recently. “Little minor things like that.”
He said that’s nothing compared to what some of his neighbors in the 15-unit apartment building have dealt with.
“I hear there's many people that have been having to use the bathroom in the tub and they don't have heating or AC,” Styles said. “I think that's terrible.”
It appears that Bibb County Code Enforcement recently agreed with Styles. It deemed most of the apartments at Miga Villa “unlivable.”
Taking rent for an apartment not fit for humans is against the law, a violation of the binding contract between a renter and a landlord known as the basic lease agreement.
But Tyree Styles said even after the determination from code enforcement, it doesn’t look as though property owners at Miga Villa are in a hurry to get square with the law. He has heard nothing from the property manager about fixing things.
“They don't face no consequences for disrupting people's lives like that,” Styles said.
A little over a mile from Miga Villa is a place with a similar story .
Back in 2019, the Crystal Lake Apartment complex was deemed unlivable.
That came after a long stretch of intense media coverage in which residents, some of whom were paying in excess of $800 per month, complained of power and water outages. Some residents in the high-rise building in the heart of the complex were carrying bottled water up to their apartments just to flush the toilets.
Eventually, the fire department was called in to evacuate the building. About 70 people were left scrambling for a new place to live.
Like Miga Villa, the property was owned by a limited liability company. LLCs are set up to protect real property owners and their core assets. Sue an LLC in court and you could win whatever money is in the bank for the LLC, but the name behind the LLC, and their money, will remain untouchable.
Even so, eventually the man behind Crystal Lake LLC, an Atlanta area man named Steve Firestone, was summoned to court.
He asked for a jury trial, which meant the case landed on the desk of the Bibb County Solicitor General Rebecca Grist.
“We do everything from small traffic tickets,” Grist said by way of explaining what makes her office different from a district attorney’s office. “We do vehicular homicide in the second degree, we do a lot of family violence.”
Grist said her office prosecutes almost anything that isn’t a felony.
In prosecuting Steve Firestone, Grist said she only looked at Crystal Lake code violations beginning on the day Firestone set foot in court and ending the moment the case landed on her desk. It was still a long list — 108 violations of state building, plumbing and electrical minimum standards.
Assistant solicitor general Kristen Murphy said each one of those violations could have meant its own $1,000 fine and added up to jail time for Firestone.
“But we did not feel like putting anybody in jail was an appropriate remedy,” Murphy said.
Instead, Murphy said the aim in the office was to get the apartments out of Firestone’s hands — quickly — and into the hands of someone who would make the repairs necessary to make the Crystal Lake livable again.
So Firestone instead pleaded guilty to 20 counts.
“So $20,000 was was the sentence,” Murphy said.
That amounts to about a month’s worth of rent paid by the 70 or so people who were evacuated from Crystal Lake, many of whom, at least for a little while, were left homeless. Murphy said she agrees that doesn’t seem like a lot.
“$20,000 doesn't seem like a lot for for what happened,” Murphy said. “But also our job in the court, we can't do restitution to every single one of those people.”
Back at Miga Villa Apartments, Tyree Styles talked about moving before conditions forced him out. He said he is not surprised by what happened to the landlord down the road.
“They got more money and more power of attorneys, you know, to represent them,” he said. “So they get away with things like this.”
As in the early days of the case against Crystal Lake, just who owns Miga Villa, and whom county code enforcement could hold accountable for conditions there, is a bit of a mystery.
According to Bibb county tax records, Miga Villa is owned by another LLC, Miga Villa LLC. But back in 2015, a man named Miguel Boyadjian deeded the property to Miga Villa LLC for exactly zero dollars.
Meanwhile, more than 20 families were forced out of Miga Villa and had to fall back on services from the Macon-Bibb County Economic Opportunity Council for temporary housing while they looked for a new place to call home. That help ends in a few more weeks.