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  • Writer's pictureAngie Tran-Uddullah

Behind closed doors

After navigating unsafe living conditions for more than a decade, my family escaped the perils of renting in Georgia. What about the tens of thousands of people who can’t?

 
Illustration by Yiyi Chen

A strong odor greeted me as I walked through the front door. It was not the homey smell of my mother’s cooking, accented with fish sauce; the stench came from mold and mildew on the walls. I saw trickles of water on the floor and made my way to our laundry room. It had flooded with water from our neighbor’s pipes again, another issue the apartment complex had yet to fix. Each winter and summer break, I would come home from my elite private university and step into a completely different world—not just different, unlivable. I walked up the stairs to my bedroom and saw bits of chewed wood where rats had found their way to my old dresser. I entered my sister’s empty room and shuddered as I stared up at the ceiling, remembering how, years earlier, it had collapsed while we were at the movies. 


This photo, taken in 2017, shows just one of the numerous times our apartment flooded because of broken pipes. This continued, on and off, until we moved out in 2020.

My family spent more than a decade, from 2009 to 2020, navigating uninhabitable living conditions inside a Buford Highway apartment complex rented predominantly by immigrants. My mother, a single mother of two, worked full-time and was not fluent in English. She didn’t have the time or the capacity to ask for help. We stayed because we felt there was no alternative. The apartment was affordable compared to the skyrocketing costs of those around us, and, as bad as it was, it was an improvement over what our housing situation had been when we first arrived in the U.S. We weren’t alone: Atlanta is filled with apartment complexes and informal rental units in deplorable conditions inhabited by vulnerable populations: low-income people, single parents, and immigrants.


Atlanta is filled with apartment complexes and informal rental units in deplorable conditions inhabited by vulnerable populations: low-income people, single parents, and immigrants.

As a law student and a Canopy Atlanta fellow, I share my story to embolden others to speak on their own experiences and demand accountability. Though my family has since found safe and stable housing, the indignities we suffered remain for people across Georgia, which is home to some of the weakest tenant protections in the nation. While most states have some statutory requirements detailing minimum living standards for renters, Georgia does not. 


Much of the metro’s rental market is controlled by private equity. Officials struggle to track down these property owners when renters raise safety concerns regarding housing conditions because, according to Atlanta Civic Circle, “corporate landlords tend to hide their identities beneath layers of limited liability companies—or shell companies.” What makes this even more difficult is that, in Georgia, cities and counties are prohibited from tracking and logging identifying information on landlords. According to an investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, investors like these reap millions of dollars from the metro’s neglected apartments, leaving “tens of thousands of people in Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett counties to live amid violence and unhealthy, unsafe conditions.”


•••


During my first seven years in the U.S., my family moved from one place to another along the Buford Highway corridor, sharing rooms with other Vietnamese immigrants and, often, hordes of vermin. From 2003 to 2006, we rented a room in a decrepit basement in Doraville. Our bodies moved silently in the dark, cautiously evading the rats and roaches that scurried along the corners of our dimly lit room. I slept next to my sister while our mother worked overtime at a food-packing factory. For many years, books were our guardians; our Title I school was a haven, where we were sheltered, where we could simply learn. 


Fulfilling our mother’s deferred dreams, my sister and I graduated high school with honors, countering bleak narratives of poverty and urban education. She and I moved away to attend college on full-ride scholarships. During breaks, we’d return to find our mother’s floor littered with slugs and pellets of rat poop. Water would be streaming out of the laundry room. Every time we came home, my sister and I would put on our gloves for a deep clean and hold our breath as we scrubbed the walls. We petitioned the apartment complex to take action. After three years, we finally persuaded the manager to replace the water-damaged floors. However, they did not fix the source of the flooding: the pipes. The problems began again. 


During the pandemic, like millions of others, we were forced to leave school and return home full-time; leaky pipes, mold, and pests disrupted our ability to study and work. Our apartment complex’s failure to meet basic health and safety standards motivated me to buy our first house. We knew nothing of homeownership, but, for us, there was no alternative. We pooled our resources, put on face masks, and searched for a place where we could have the freedom and power to live in peace.


During the pandemic, like millions of others, we were forced to leave school and return home full-time; leaky pipes, mold, and pests disrupted our ability to study and work.

Even Georgia’s meager housing standards require that tenants know their rights and can advocate for themselves, which is extremely challenging. Our landlords violated the law when they refused to address our concerns. Because flooding from those broken pipes caused mold and major damage to our living space, we could have pursued legal action. Instead, worn down from years of fighting, we moved out. Afterward, we were forced to pay more than $800 for “cleaning, trash, and repainting the walls.”


•••


The Safe at Home Act, currently awaiting the governor’s signature, calls for Georgia landlords to provide habitable living conditions. The act includes cooling as a utility that cannot be shut off before an eviction and allows a tenant three days (following a written notice) to pay owed money before an eviction proceeding is filed. It would prevent landlords from aggressive tactics such as requiring renters to pay a deposit equivalent to three months of rent. 


According to Georgia’s existing primary property law—titled “Landlord’s Duties as to Repairs and Improvements”—the landlord must keep the premises “in repair”; a landlord is “liable for all substantial improvements placed upon the premises by his consent.” This law works in tandem with a common property-law doctrine called “implied warranty of habitability,” which requires that a landlord keep rental premises livable. The implied law requires essential services such as heat, water, and plumbing, but what constitutes habitability beyond heat, water, and plumbing remains a gray area. The Safe at Home Act still fails to define habitability; nevertheless, it signals to me that, maybe, our lawmakers are on the path to establishing better protections for tenants. In the future, I hope Georgia addresses issues such as pests, mold, mercury, and lead—pollutants that can be dangerous and even toxic.


My mother and I (along with our real estate agents) close on her first home.

Today, I’m a proud homeowner. I’m also a law student with an interest in immigration and civil rights, committed to protecting low-income people and immigrants. In class, conversations about negligent landlords and tenant rights bring back unpleasant memories: Had we known our rights, my family and I would have negotiated and demanded action rather than suffering and shouldering those burdens for a decade. 


Had we known our rights, my family and I would have negotiated and demanded action rather than suffering and shouldering those burdens for a decade.

Hoa Trên Đá. This phrase means "flower on rock" in Vietnamese, and it's my mother's favorite saying. Here, she is watering the roses in our old apartment's backyard. To me, this photo speaks to her positivity and enduring optimism.

The dramatic drop in mortgage rates during the pandemic enabled us to buy a home. Now, because this country is seeing its highest rates in more than 20 years, hovering around 7 percent, millions cannot afford to follow in our footsteps and are forced to rent. We need better laws and public policy for them. We need laws that clearly define and expand the parameters of habitability, policies that make homes affordable, and measures that protect tenants and their children. Housing is a human right. As elections loom, we need to hold our representatives accountable and uproot soiled policies. Collectively, we must bargain for something better. •



1 Comment


bmartist54
Apr 23

Excellent article! Profound is an understatement…thanks for sharing 🙌🙌

Bernadette Artist

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