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Records chart downward path for Grove Way apartments

Calls for rehabilitation extend back to 2017

  • Updated

ROSWELL, Ga. — Karen Parrish, chairwoman of the Housing Authority of Roswell, said she’s in discussions with the mayor and City Council to redevelop 199 Grove Way, but their focus right now is on the safety of the residents.

“That’s why we’ve been fighting so hard since we found out about this to try to help them land a new place the best way that we know how, given the circumstances,” Parrish said.

The board, she said, learned about the building’s structural issues in 2019, a year after she became chair. The complex, formerly known as Pelfrey Pines, includes 55 other income-based housing units owned by the Housing Authority of Roswell.

Parrish said because the agency is so small and has faced numerous challenges over the years, a previous board called on the Marietta Housing Authority to help the complex pass inspections. The Marietta agency is providing the Section 8 vouchers to help the residents relocate.

Parrish said the board also commissioned an engineering report in 2017, which revealed several structural issues at 199 Grove Way, but it wasn’t until 2019, when the Gainesville Housing Authority got involved, that it was brought to her attention.

“After that, we just got to work as quickly as we could,” Parrish said.

Report reveals issues

In a March 9 letter to Beth Brown, executive director of the Gainesville Housing Authority, Roswell officials stated multiple reports on the facility’s conditions have been produced between summer 2017 and this past January, all citing deficiencies that affect the viability and safety of the building.

Appen Media obtained a copy of the March 9 letter from Roswell Community Development Director Jason Gaines and Chief Building Official John Boland through an open records request.

It states the most concerning deficiency is advanced corrosion at exterior stairways, which was identified in a July 7, 2017, letter from Norton, Schmidt & Warden Consulting Engineers LLP with the recommendation they be removed and replaced.

But, as of March, the letter states the recommendation had not been followed and was even cited in a subsequent Sept. 30, 2019, report by NOVA Engineering and Environmental LLC as being in “immediate need of removal and replacement due to severe corrosion.”

It states NOVA identified it as a “life safety item.”

The letter also states each of the buildings on site have multiple instances of distress to the exterior brick veneer, cracks and displacement of elevated balconies and interior walls, displacement of entry porch concrete floors and other visual signs indicative of “significant structural deficiencies.” However, none were deemed as being in “need of immediate attention or as a life safety issue.”

A NOVA geotechnical report, dated October 2019, alludes to potentially under-compacted soil beneath the building foundations that may be contributing to settlement issues, requiring further, in-depth investigation of its footing and support systems to determine the long-term stability of the structures and any need for immediate repairs, the letter states.

On Feb. 28, city staff toured the property, which they said corroborated much of the information in the reports. The letter states that during the tour, staff also noticed one of the two on-site elevators was out of service, “leaving but one functioning elevator in a complex that houses 100 percent senior citizen and/or physically disabled tenants.”

To date, the elevator has not been fixed.

AR 0721 Roswell apartments folo more (8).JPG

Then, on March 8, Parrish and the Housing Authority of Roswell’s attorney, Stewart Duggan, met with city officials to review a new report from NOVA. The report reiterated concerns with the structural integrity of the egress paths and recommended that maintenance staff perform monthly inspections of all the stairs to ensure they were safe.

It also recommended for soffit finishes to be removed from all the walkways and stairs to expose the underside framing so a structural inspection could be conducted and for shores to be installed to temporarily support any deficient walkway and stair components for 120 days.

In a letter from city officials to Brown, dated March 23, the city agreed to a deadline extension beyond the initial 14 days it had to set to implement the recommendations.

Board members resign

Andrew Leonardi and Trent Perry were appointed to the Housing Authority of Roswell’s six-member board last year. They resigned months later because they disagreed the building had to be demolished, based on their understanding of the NOVA reports.

Leonardi and Perry said they tried to convince Parrish to repair the building so the residents wouldn’t have to move, but they were turned down.

“The thought process was to replace all of the buildings at Pelfrey Pines … and everything was going to look great, but there was never an option, really, to repair what was going on,” Leonardi said.

HUD then called one Friday afternoon in April, Leonardi said, and announced the complex was unsafe, and everyone needed to get out within 72 hours. Leonardi said that caused a mass panic, but the board quickly began calling around to try to find a hotel for the residents.

Parrish said HUD backed off after the housing authority did further research. She said the agency was very open to working with them to try to find a proper solution.

But, Leonardi said, he took issue with Parrish meeting with the mayor and City Council in private, allegedly leaving the board “in the dark.”

“That freaked me out to be honest with you,” Leonardi said. “That was one of the reasons I resigned – there was a huge lack of transparency. … I love helping people. That’s why I volunteered to be on the board, but then I [asked] why is the board not being told information?”

Leonardi resigned one month after Perry. They said that while on the board, they don’t remember ever voting on any course of action for 199 Grove Way.

Perry, a 35-year resident of Roswell, previously served on various other committees and even authored the final report of the East Roswell Economic Action Committee. He said Parrish recruited him based on his experience.

But, when he read the technical reports and learned that the housing authority was applying for the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program to enter into contract with Penrose development to demolish and replace its existing housing stock, he thought “none of them, in my opinion, defined a catastrophic situation.”

The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program provides tax incentives on new construction and substantial rehabilitation on existing properties with an eye toward the underprivileged. It would have provided the Housing Authority of Roswell with about $18 million to redevelop, Parrish said, but it failed to meet the requirements by half a point.

Perry said his time on the board should have been very fulfilling and satisfying, but it wasn’t.

“The housing authority has the power to do a lot of good and meet a lot of needs for mid- and low-income disabled and elderly residents,” Perry said. “I just don’t think, in my personal opinion, that it has met its goals … or that they have the right idea of what they’re there for. It’s not a real estate business. It’s a residential rental business for the people that need the most help.”

Parrish turns to Roswell for help

As chair of the Housing Authority of Roswell, Parrish said the plan has always been to either significantly modify the complex or tear it down, with more units added to it.

The agency had hoped to build a new complex across the street and have the residents move there while 199 Grove Way was being redeveloped, but those plans changed after their application for the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program was denied.

Then, in May, Parrish said the board found out their application for $9 million in American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, funds from the state had also been denied. The funds would have gone toward addressing some of the deferred maintenance needs of the property.

That same month, the City Council awarded $450,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds to city water line replacement projects instead of local nonprofits.

Records show the Housing Authority of Roswell applied for $36,758 for security cameras, roofing repairs and an intensive after-school program targeting reading and math skills for children in kindergarten through sixth grade.

Parrish said none of it was for 199 Grove Way, because the board was already in conversation with the city “about getting millions of dollars.” She estimates the project could inject $40 million into the area.

“In the meantime, we are still working and calling every legislator from the city, county, state and congressional representatives to help us in our situation,” Parrish said. “… I’ve seen some say we haven’t done anything, and that’s interesting because we may not be in the media, we may not be pounding podiums, but we’re definitely pounding doors and making calls to move the ball forward.”

Parrish said the city is encouraging the board to move forward with a 4-percent Low-Income Housing Tax Credit application due Oct. 14.

If approved, the funds would come from the city and local charitable organizations to redevelop the property, add more units and even do some “significant rehabilitation” on some of the other units that house individuals and families, including a total gut rehab.

As of July 18, Parrish said 18 residents are in the process of moving and 15 are still looking for units that meet their needs or wishes.

Elected officials get involved

Mayor Kurt Wilson said that until now, the Housing Authority of Roswell’s pleas for help have fallen on deaf ears, but he promised during his campaign to do whatever he could to help.

Wilson said there has historically been little engagement between the mayor and City Council and the housing authority. That’s because while the housing authority has the city’s name in it, the City of Roswell does not have any purview. The agency is responsible to HUD.

Roswell is the only city in North Fulton County with a housing authority. It was established in 1950. Wilson said unless the federal government under HUD takes action, the city is not allowed to, which is why it cannot legally put up a loan to help finance a project.

Wilson said the plan now is to help the housing authority attain enough points to qualify for a development deal under the HUD program, with the condition that there be a “higher level of engagement” between the city and the housing authority within all the legal boundaries.

“I have lauded Karen Parrish’s efforts in the past as a resident who’s gotten highly engaged, highly informed and highly active in trying, in my mind, to save that housing authority single-handedly,” Wilson said. “… This is a person that’s doing superhero work with, frankly, almost no love or help from her city.”

Wilson said some of the agency’s financial issues stem from a deal struck almost a decade ago with a local developer to build the Veranda Groveway apartments to the west of 199 Grove Way, which “basically bankrupted” the Housing Authority of Roswell.

“The people that were perhaps knowledgeable about the system got an incredibly favorable, super profitable deal for themselves, and that includes local people here in Roswell, and took advantage of the housing authority and left it in a financial mess,” Wilson said.

What he wants to avoid now, he said, is an incident like the 2021 Surfside condominium collapse in Miami in which 98 people died.

“We don’t have a lot of legal jurisdiction here, but we’re not going to have a Miami where we have a building collapse and 40 people die,” Wilson said. “That’s not going to happen. … We got to find a way even if includes reaching out to the press, reaching out through churches and synagogues and mosques.”

State Rep. Mary Robichaux said she only learned about the situation this month. Since then, she’s contacted Christopher Nunn, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, and state senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock to explore their options to help the residents. DCA serves as a state liaison to HUD.

“I’m just opening as many doors as I can,” Robichaux said.

However, Parrish said calls were placed to Robichaux’s office last year. She provided Appen Media with a letter, dated Oct. 28, from Robichaux’s office to state officials in support of the housing authority’s request for ARPA funds.

Ossoff and Warnock’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment by press deadline July 19.

The Housing Authority of Roswell meets at noon on the second Tuesday of every month in the Community Room at 199 Grove Way.

Reach Chamian Cruz at 770-847-8079. Follow her on Twitter @xchamian.