The graffiti-adorned sign and boarded-up guard shack at the entrance of Brannon Hill Condominiums are symbolic of the rest of the residential community just off of Memorial Drive near Clarkston.
Just past the entrance, rubble from a condominium building leveled by the community’s homeowners association in 2006 has weeds growing in it. Another building, devastated by a fire in May, is in need of demolition.
Scores of units have been uninhabitable for years and are boarded up. But in many of those condominiums, residents say the boards have been removed by homeless people seeking shelter.
One problem is the lack of money in the community, which is populated mostly by Somalian refugees.
“There is very little income here,” said property manager Haji Said.
The 30-acre site in 1973 was once a vibrant community with 31 buildings, 368 residential units, a pool and two tennis courts.
Now, due to the cost of ongoing maintenance and liability insurance, the pool is filled in with grass growing on top. Grass-filled cracks cross the tennis courts—now converted to basketball courts surrounded by a rusty, dilapidated chain-link fence plagued by holes and weeds.
Many of the condominiums are owned by investors who do not pay association fees. According to Said, one man, Tavakolian “George” Gholamreza, owns 14 units and has never paid the monthly association fees, which range from $135 to $245, depending on the number of bedrooms in the condominium. In addition to general maintenance and staffing, the fees cover sanitation, water and sewer bills.
“He drinks water and we take his trash,” Said stated.
When asked about his nonpayment of association fees, Gholamreza said, “That’s my business.”
According to Said, other units are owned by people who are currently unemployed and who pay what they can afford in association fees.
“What they have, they give. These are poor people,” he said. “They cannot move from here. They don’t have jobs.”
Based on the number of occupied units, the association should collect $66,000 each month in fees. Instead, the association usually collects $17,000-$18,000 monthly. Compare that with Brannon Hill’s July water bill of $13,000.
County records show that the association is $347,000 behind on its water bill, although Said and other residents said the bill was approximately $200,000.
“If people were all paying monthly [association fees], I think we could afford it,” Said maintained.
On Aug. 9 DeKalb County code enforcement officers descended on the complex, issuing 28 court summons to the Brannon Hill Condominium Association, Inc. The violations cited included: overgrowth of grass and weeds, failure to remove a dead tree, inoperable vehicles, open storage of trash and debris, failure to repair exterior walls, failure to remove graffiti, failure to replace damaged windows, failure to secure vacant structures, failure to replace damaged fascia and soffit boards, failure to repair or replace railings, and failure to demolish deteriorated buildings.
Crime is also a problem. The Crimetrac website, which has a link on the DeKalb Police Department’s website, lists 28 crimes in the community between February and August, including simple assault, armed robbery with a gun, car theft, possession of cocaine and loitering for drugs.
In May, a 17-year-old male, Mohamed Hussien, died after being shot while he and another man were walking between two buildings in the community.
Gunshots are common in Brannon Hill.
“We don’t have gates,” Said explained. “We don’t have security. We can’t afford security.”
In 2009, the Brannon Hill Homeowners Association commissioned a $10,000 physical needs assessment. The bottom line in the 13-page report is that $10.2 million is needed to “bring the property and buildings up to what would be considered a well-maintained complex.”
“I could build, but if you don’t have money you can’t build,” stated Said, who was an engineer in Somalia. “We would be willing for the government to rebuild the place, otherwise we would sell it.”
Worried that their properties may one day be condemned, residents are eager to sell.
“They have no where to go,” Said added. “If you give them some money, they have some hope.”
“We want the county to give us an offer,” said Brannon Hill resident D. D. Guster, who has been living in Brannon Hill since 2004. “Don’t tell me what the county can’t do. The county can do whatever it wants to do.”
Guster, who has spoken at county Board of Commissioners meetings about the complex, said another idea is that the county could use some of its federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds to fix up the community.
Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton said the public health and safety of the community needs to be a top priority.
“It’s dangerous over there,” Sutton said. “Some people say it’s better there [in Brannon Hill] than where they come from, but they’re in America now.”
Sutton said a coalition of county government and public health officials along with leaders from the surrounding communities needs “to go in there and just demand that something be done.”
“It will be a fight, but we have to take on the fight,” Sutton said. “I’m ready.” Like many residents, Guster, who owns four units in the community, believes “the county has been wanting to get rid of Brannon Hill.”
“I can’t stop worrying about it,” Guster said. “There are hundreds of people here that really need help.”