City of Atlanta and property owners battle in court over the fate of Forest Cove
GPB's Peter Biello speaks with Kurt Lentz, attorney representing the owners of the troubled Forest Cove apartments in Atlanta.
The City of Atlanta and the owners of Forest Cove apartments are battling in court over the fate of the now-vacant subsidized housing complex. For years, Forest Cove had been a crumbling hazard for its occupants. Its new owners hope to avoid having to demolish it so it can rebuild the nearly-400 units. A pending lawsuit the city of Atlanta announced earlier this month argues it’s owed millions for relocating Forest Cove’s former tenants. Kurt Lentz is counsel for Millennia, which owns Forest Cove through its subsidiary, Phoenix Ridge. He spoke with GPB’s Peter Biello.
Peter Biello: I understand you're still waiting for the lawsuit to be filed, the one the city announced earlier this month. But Millennia/Phoenix Ridge is suing the city of Atlanta. You're saying the city harmed your clients by seeking to demolish Forest Cove. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Kurt Lentz: So Forest Cove is a Section 8-based housing project, which means that HUD rental subsidies run with that property. In order for those rental subsidies to continue to run with the property, the property has to be there.
Peter Biello: Meaning to preserve those rental subsidies, it can't be demolished. It has to be renovated. Is that what you're saying?
Kurt Lentz: Yes. It can't be completely razed. Phoenix Ridge was set to spend $60 million tearing it down to the joists and the studs in building back the same 396 affordable housing units in Forest Cove that were existing when we purchased the property in April of 2021. What happened was that the city filed an action against the property seeking to demolish it, and once they obtained that demolition order, it put a halt to everything that we were trying to do with the property.
Peter Biello: After your client purchased Forest Cove in April of 2021, the problems didn't go away. Three months later, police found 150 code violations, including broken windows, open vacant units, severe overgrowth, burned buildings, trash. This was months before the order to demolish the property. Could your client have worked harder to make it a better living environment and in some ways avoided the demolition order altogether? I mean, the conditions were pretty bad after Millennia through Phoenix Ridge took ownership.
Kurt Lentz: The code violations were there, and I think that speaks to the scope of what Phoenix Ridge was going to do. Forest Cove had been allowed to deteriorate for decades under previous ownership, under lapsed code enforcement. It had gotten to the point that it was in April 2021 and then in December of '21 or July of '21, when those code violations were cited because of decades of neglect. I don't know what the 150 code violations were. I'd have to check to see what they were.
Peter Biello: Just to be clear: Some of those violations were trash. Broken windows. Broken windows can be fixed in a day. And there were people still living there. In fact, the last resident moved out in the end of September 2022. That's more than a year and a quarter later. And I also will add Millennia was managing the property in 2017, four years before that point. And those problems like crime, mold, trash, broken windows persisted for that long. Why wasn't Millennia stepping up when residents were asking for help back then?
Kurt Lentz: I think Millennia was doing—Millennia was doing what it was able to do and Millennia, even though it wasn't the owner at that point, spent millions of dollars on the property, infused capital. But again a lot of these things—You know, you mentioned windows being a quick fix. A lot of the other persistent issues are not quick fixes. They're not...You know...Meant to be...The property, if you've seen it, needed to be completely rebuild. And that is what Phoenix Ridge and Millennial came to the table to do.
Peter Biello: In May of 2022, Mayor Andre Dickens committed to use more than $9 million in federal funds to pay for the relocation of those residents. Was there an agreement at the time that Millennia would reimburse?
Kurt Lentz: There was. What the agreement said was that we would reimburse the city of Atlanta once we were able to close on the financing for a rehabilitation, rebuild or sale of the property. And the conditions that would require us to do it, that the city agreed to, haven't been met. And they haven't been met in large part because of the city's own actions and inactions under that agreement.
These apartments are in the Thomasville Heights neighborhood of Southeast Atlanta. Last month, the Atlanta City Council passed an ordinance to adopt the Thomasville Heights Neighborhood Plan as a non-binding guide for future development in the community.
That plan includes developing parcels of land surrounding Forest Cove. Lentz says this plan shows the city’s motive for knocking down Forest Cove. He says the city wants mixed income apartments and townhomes because it believes Thomasville Heights is the next Grant Park or Ormewood Park—meaning, a neighborhood with lots of valuable property.
Mayor Andre Dickens declined GPB’s in-person request for an interview earlier this week and his team has not responded to follow-up requests.