Atlanta Residents Fight Back Against 'Greedy' Landlords

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

DAN BOLING pays $475 a month for his small one-bedroom apartment in Virginia-Highland, a trendy and eclectic Atlanta neighborhood. But next summer, when the Olympics come to town, he will have to shell out $3,000 a month.

The Olympic-sized rental increase is one of three options Mr. Boling's landlords, Intown Properties Inc., have given its tenants, who live in more than a dozen apartment complexes around the city. Besides staying put and paying $3,000, renters can also move out for good or allow the company to sublease their apartments for up to four months during the Games. Those who sublease would receive 30 percent of the gross profits but would have to leave behind their furniture.

Boling and other renters are roiled. ''What they're doing is unethical and immoral,'' Boling fumes. ''Hundreds of people are going to be out on the streets because they won't have any place to go and they can't pay those inflated prices.''

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''Rent gouging'' has emerged as one of the hottest topics as Atlanta gears up for the 1996 Summer Games, now less than a year away. Many local residents say the get-rich schemes of some landlords could even damage the city's reputation.

The plan by Intown Properties in particular ''is so contrary to the Olympic spirit that it tarnishes all the goodness here,'' Mayor Bill Campbell said last week.

In response, Atlantans are seeking solutions both at the legislative and the grass-roots level. Concerned that thousands of people, including the elderly and disabled, will be displaced, a handful of renters have started a revolt against rent gouging. They've formed ROARR, Residents Outraged Against Rental Rates and have established a complaint hotline.

So far, ROARR has received dozens of phone calls and compiled a list of 25 apartment complexes and property management companies that it says are engaging in questionable practices. Some landlords are asking tenants to vacate once their lease is up or are offering only six-month leases. Others are giving month-to-month leases and increasing rent each time. Intown Properties, which has declined interviews, sent out a three-page question-and-answer form to the media last week. It contends what it is doing is fair because it is giving residents a full year's notice to find alternative housing. It also says elderly and seriously ill residents will not be thrown out on the streets but will be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

Not all landlords are taking such action, however. ''We're working with the Atlanta Apartment Association, and most of their members are not doing this,'' says state Sen. Ron Slotin, who represents Atlanta. Indeed, many landlords are making Olympic sublease plans voluntary, allowing renters to remain in their apartments at the same rental rates.

Residents and legislators hope landlords will voluntarily change their policies in response to public pressure. In the meantime, they are pressing the Georgia Legislature to address the issue when it meets for a special two-week session starting Aug. 14.

But crafting a legal remedy may be tough this month for several reasons. First, the special session deals specifically with redistricting, and Gov. Zell Miller (D) says he is reluctant to expand the agenda. It would also be difficult to enact any kind of law against rental increases because Georgia currently prohibits rent controls.

Many here wish Atlanta had more foresight in dealing with the problem. Seven months before the 1984 Olympics, Los Angeles, which already had a rent-control law, passed a stricter ordinance that further regulated landlords during the Olympics. ''Landlords weren't just allowed to raise rents arbitrarily,'' says Claudia McGee Henry, a senior assistant city attorney for Los Angeles. ''I just don't recall that [people being evicted] was a major problem.''

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