On Nov. 18 around 5 p.m., a fire engulfed one of the buildings at the University Oaks Apartments complex in Athens, Georgia. Luckily, no injuries were reported. All 14 units, 12 of which were occupied, were severely damaged, and tenants lost nearly all of their personal belongings.
While the cause of the fire has not yet been officially determined, victims were told that it started from the heating and air conditioning unit, which needed repairs. Many in the community believe the history of negligence by the owners and management made this fire inevitable.
In a statement from the Athens-Clarke County Fire and Emergency Services, Battalion Chief Nate Moss stated “…the fact that these apartments had in-date and working smoke alarms contributed to early warning and time for escape.” However, when Liberation News spoke to one of the affected residents, Theresa White, she said that was a lie.
“No smoke detector went off… no sprinkler, no nothing went off. If it wasn’t for my one-year-old baby waking me up, I would be dead,” said White. “They’re treating us like we caused the fire.”
Another resident at University Oaks, who asked to remain anonymous, told Liberation that he once saw smoke in his apartment, but management told him not to call the fire department because the smoke filters were not up to date. This is just one of the many examples where University Oaks would rather risk the lives of their own tenants than spend the money necessary to bring their units up to safe conditions.
Community rallies in support of tenants’ rights
The Sunday following the fire, a rally was organized by the Party for Socialism and Liberation to rally the community to stand in solidarity with the affected tenants.
University Oaks resident Bernice Brown spoke at the rally: “If they don’t get their rent money on time, they’re… putting [eviction] letters all on your door, but I also need my stuff fixed too if I’m paying the rent… and I feel like everybody out here should get something from this ‘cause they’re the cause of [the fire].”
Despite the fact that the leasing office was closed on that day, and management had not yet secured long-term housing for all the tenants impacted by the fire, security personnel were onsite awaiting to disrupt the rally. Four Athens-Clarke County police vehicles were dispatched in attempt to intimidate tenants and activists, but the rally continued on.
On Dec. 3, another rally was held to which police were once again dispatched to disrupt the peaceful demonstration. After failing to shut it down, the officers threatened to issue citations for “breaking noise ordinances” with the sound equipment. The community responded by yelling the demands together as a crowd, as a human megaphone.
The main demands are:
1. For University Oaks management to unconditionally rehouse all affected tenants;
2. For management to pay for all property damage caused by the fire;
3. For maintenance to make necessary repairs to all units of University Oaks immediately;
4. For Code Enforcement and Fire and Emergency Services to ensure that landlords make necessary repairs related to health and human safety, including distributing fines if necessary.
A history of unsafe conditions at University Oaks
Eviction tracking by the Athens Housing Advocacy Team found that within the three month period of October-December 2021, University Oaks filed 18 evictions, making them the evictor of the greatest number of people in Athens-Clarke County.
In February of 2022, activists from Students for Socialism at University of Georgia went door to door to assist tenants with completing applications for the Georgia Rental Assistance program, in an attempt to combat the high number of evictions. What SFS found was a litany of maintenance issues including leaking water pipes, mold, pest infestation, and even missing front doors.
“The conditions at University Oaks were some of the worst I’ve ever seen,” SFS organizer Trey Holloway told Liberation News. “Most of the units lacked basic fire safety precautions like fire extinguishers or sprinkler systems, and some of the fire doors in the hallways even had missing door handles.” Volunteers also witnessed that most buildings had faulty smoke detectors.
“We only have air conditioning one month out of the summer,” said tenant Sharadi Perryman, “because it pulls too much energy from another nearby complex.”
University Oaks management is aware of the inhumane conditions at their units but chooses to do the bare minimum so they can maximize profits. An open records request was submitted to Athens-Clarke County Code Enforcement Division for all complaints submitted within the past two years. In total, there were 34 complaints, leading to 18 warning notices of non-compliance. The number of complaints made directly to management is likely much higher.
One of the most shocking revelations from the open records request was a case detail from June 2022 where University Oaks management admitted there is no written or computer system to track issues and repairs. ACC Code Enforcement regularly closes cases after speaking with management, which begs the question as to whether or not repairs are actually ever undertaken by management.
In May 2022, one resident submitted a complaint to code enforcement about a missing fire extinguisher and non-existent sprinkler system. The complaint was forwarded to the fire marshal. An open records request to ACC Fire and Emergency Services revealed that no inspection was conducted following this complaint. The most recent annual inspection at University Oaks was conducted in July 2021 when it was found that one of the buildings was missing an extinguisher. However, that report also stated that no violations were found.
The housing crisis in Athens
Athens, like many cities around the country, is experiencing an affordable housing crisis as rents skyrocket. Even though living conditions at University Oaks are unsafe for tenants, a two-bedroom apartment can still cost up to $950 per month. This would be considered “unaffordable” for any family earning under $38,000 per year, approximately the median household income in Athens-Clarke County.
Many University Oaks residents feel like the price of rent at the apartment complex is not justified. However, few options for affordable housing are available, particularly those that accept subsidized housing vouchers such as Section 8. When the alternative is houselessness, tenants will often pay high prices for substandard living conditions.
The government only exacerbates this imbalance. The ACC Police Department will rapidly respond to evict tenants who are behind on rent or to shut down a protest. However, even when code enforcement is called, repairs can take weeks to be completed and at most only warnings are given to landlords who refuse to provide safe living conditions for their tenants.
Many of the tenants affected by the University Oaks fire do not have renters’ insurance, primarily because they cannot afford it. Athens community has responded by raising some money for the victims, but the responsibility should be on owners and management to financially compensate the tenants since this wasn’t merely an accident, but a result of landlord negligence.
The residents of University Oaks are not going out without a fight. “Fourteen apartments are gone because of what?” asked Brown. “Management is nowhere to be found,” he added.