Inside Raphael Warnock’s secret low-income building

ATLANTA—A low-income apartment building owned by Raphael Warnock Church is plagued with pests, maintenance issues and dirt, residents say—and at least two people sued the building this year after the elevator collapsed on top of them.

Residents of Columbia Tower in MLK Village have complained about living conditions in the building, telling the Free Washington Beacon that trash accumulates in storage rooms for days, creating an “overwhelming trash smell”, common areas are not maintained, and air vents produce a “sickening” amount of dust.

Tenants also said elevators often broke down and residents with disabilities had to call the fire department to transport them to their rooms.

The allegations follow a Free tag report that found Columbia Tower had attempted to evict at least eight low-income residents for unpaid rent since the pandemic began, including a tenant who owed just $28. Warnock is senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, which, through a charity she controls called the Ebenezer Building Foundation, owns 99% of the Columbia Tower, according to documents obtained by the Free tag. Warnock’s role in overseeing the Columbia Tower is unclear. An Ebenezer Building Foundation repair grant filed in June, however, said Warnock “works closely” with Ebenezer’s executive pastor “in managing the overall vision, ministries and operations” of the church.

The news raises questions for Warnock, who campaigned as an ally of low-income Georgians and people with disabilities. It could also attract a fresh review of Warnock’s compensation from the church, which last year paid him a tax-free housing allowance of $7,417 a month – an arrangement that allowed him to circumvent the federal limits on the outside income of US senators.

Court records reviewed by the Free tag appear to support Columbia Tower residents’ claims that there are problems with living conditions in the building.

Two men filed separate lawsuits against the building in February and May this year claiming they were injured after the lift ceiling collapsed on them in May 2020.

One of the alleged victims said he ‘was in an elevator at Columbia at MLK Village Towers when the elevator ceiling suddenly dropped’, knocking him unconscious and resulting in injuries that cost him over $50,000 in medical expenses.

“The collapsed elevator ceiling struck the plaintiff in the head, neck and back,” the lawsuit said. “The impact of the collapsed elevator ceiling immediately knocked the plaintiff unconscious.”

The judge granted default judgment to the man in the case, after attorneys for Columbia Tower failed to respond within the required time. Lawyers for the building are currently trying to have the judgment overturned. The second case is still ongoing. A lawyer for the alleged victim said he was unable to comment as the matter “is still ongoing”.

The locals told a Free tag journalist who visited the building in October, the building’s only two elevators frequently break down. A resident said she saw firefighters physically transport tenants in wheelchairs to their rooms when both elevators were down at the same time.

“The firefighters will come and help them up and down the stairs,” said one resident. “For hours they are stuck waiting downstairs, or stuck on their floor for hours and hours.”

Another resident described an incident in which a police officer and firefighter had to “carry” an African-American man in a wheelchair down the stairs because the elevators were out of order.

The Atlanta Fire Department did not return numerous requests for comment asking if firefighters were called to Columbia Tower to transport people to their rooms. The fire department also did not return an open records request requesting copies of all incident reports at Columbia Tower since the start of 2020.

Residents said they had no idea their building belonged to the Ebenezer Baptist Church, or that it had just received a $5 million grant from Georgia in August to fund repairs to the building. The grant was funded by funds provided to the state by the US Bailout, legislation that Warnock voted in favor of in March 2021.

“You don’t see it here. They cut grass and bushes and sometimes fix the elevator,” said one resident. “But the air vents haven’t been blown out in years. The dust is sickening, actually.”

“They are changing the furniture. The furniture is new or different from when I moved here, but that’s all I’ve seen. I haven’t seen any improvements or anything like that,” added the resident.

Ebenezer ended 2021 with more than $1.2 million in cash and “cash equivalents,” according to audited financial statements obtained by the Free tag. Throughout 2021, the church received “unnamed general offers” of $4.3 million and rental income of $202,000, according to the financial statements.

Also in 2021, Ebenezer paid Warnock $120,964 in salary and housing allowances while he served in the Senate. In the same year, Ebenezer incurred just over $69,000 in “repairs and maintenance” expenses across all of its program areas, including pastoral services, local ministries and support services, according to financial statements. .

Warnock’s office did not return a request for comment.

Residents of Columbia Tower have expressed concerns about the building’s living conditions.

“We have a smell here,” said one resident. “The trash room has this overwhelming trash smell. As soon as you enter the building, it floods you. It’s right in your face. And it’s embarrassing.”

The 12-story building has a garbage chute on each floor that connects to the garbage room on the ground floor. But residents said no one emptied the bins over the weekend. With 96 rooms in the building, residents said the trash room quickly filled with trash on Saturdays and Sundays.

“They’ll leave on a Friday and the garbage chute will fill up to the 12th floor. And they won’t come back until Monday to clean it up,” the resident said.

“The garbage smell was so awful and ridiculous,” said another resident, who lives on the first floor of the building near the garbage room.

Photo of the Columbia Tower trash can in MLK Village provided by the resident of the building

Photo of the Columbia Tower trash can in MLK Village provided by the resident of the building

A resident described the horrific conditions of her life next to her former neighbor, who she said suffered from schizophrenia.

“We complained. He had odors coming out of the apartment. He never cleaned. Maintenance wouldn’t come in. Never mind the pests. I was totally infested living near him,” said said the resident. “After people complained so much, they asked someone to come and clean up.”

“There are a lot of changes in office management and of course building maintenance. They can’t keep anyone and they can’t keep the building in place,” the resident said.

Instead of regular maintenance staff, the building’s mostly elderly residents say they have to pool their own resources and labor to keep common areas clean.

Columbia Residential boasts on its website that the apartment has a community garden, but one resident said the garden was often littered with trash. The garden was nothing more than a patch of dirt and weeds when a Free tag reporter visited the property this month.

Columbia Tower’s “community garden”

Ebenezer himself acknowledged that the building’s lack of maintenance is a major cause for concern when he requested $5 million from Georgia to fund repairs to the building.

“The cost of increasing annual capital repairs to the property is impacting the lives of residents, making it increasingly difficult to fund necessary services for residents and to maintain housing stability for this population. vulnerable, formerly homeless,” Ebenezer wrote in the grant application. “The purpose of this grant application is to make necessary repairs to the building and preserve the ability to house and serve this specific population.”

The Ebenezer Building Foundation also revealed issues with the Columbia Tower elevators in the grant application, writing that “breakdowns are becoming more frequent.”

“When the elevator needs repair, it takes several days,” the group explained, calling the problems “harmful” to residents.

In a court filing responding to one of the elevator injury lawsuits, however, a Columbia Tower attorney suggested the machinery was damaged by an individual. The “problem with the elevator may have been the result of people taking the elevator just before the plaintiff,” the Columbia Tower attorney said.

Columbia Residential told the Free tag that Ebenezer “has contracted with Columbia Residential property management to manage the day-to-day operations of the property on their behalf”. The property management company said Warnock was not involved in the day-to-day operations of Columbia Tower.

“Due to the age of the property, the need for major repairs, and a desire to keep rents affordable for very low-income tenants, the landlords applied for the Georgia Investments in Housing Grant, which was specifically aimed at supporting housing people experiencing homelessness,” Columbia Residential told the Free tag.

The grant, which Georgia Republican Governor Brian Kemp awarded Ebenezer in late August, will be used to fund repairs to the building, as well as replacing all faucets and toilets with low-flow systems, installing LED lighting in the building and upgrade major appliances. in the Energy Star compliant building.

Ebenezer did not return requests for comment.

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