A local nonprofit’s controversial use of 33 condos as transitional housing has drawn a city zoning violation citation and new legal scrutiny amid complaints from other owners and tenants.
Mary Hall Freedom House, which helps women with homelessness and addiction issues, in May bought more than a third of the 90-unit Reserve of Dunwoody condos at 9400 Roberts Drive. MHFH said it would use the units as transitional housing and might seek to redevelop the property into a larger facility or headquarters.
The purchase immediately drew criticism for displacing many tenants, one of whom recently said she is now at risk of becoming homeless herself. Now other condo owners are complaining about MHFH van traffic and large groups of women congregating on the property. The city and an attorney newly hired by the condo association board say they are reviewing the legality of MHFM’s operation.
“Code Enforcement recently inspected the Mary Hall units, and a citation was issued for running an office within an unapproved zoning district,” said city spokesperson Sharon Kraun. “Our legal staff is also examining the appropriateness of the operation at this location.”
The city is also consulting the state Department of Community Health as to whether MHFH needs a license to operate a “drug treatment facility” there, Kraun said.
George Nowack Jr., the condo board’s attorney, said his clients believe MHFH is violating city codes, and he is reviewing the situation for violations of the association’s bylaws.
“We understand the use of the units is not a permitted use under the zoning ordinance,” Nowack said. “We are deferring to the city.”
MHFH founder Lucy Hall-Gainer, writing in an email, did not give specific responses to the complaints or to questions about the nonprofit’s operations at Reserve of Dunwoody.
“We continue to work closely with the city of Sandy Springs as we have for our 20 years of calling the city our home and providing services to the community,” Hall-Gainer wrote. “We will be meeting with representatives from the city and will let you know if we have anything of substance to share.”
MHFH previously rented nine units at Reserve of Dunwoody for transitional housing for homeless veterans. Hall-Gainer previously said that skyrocketing rents forced her organization to start buying units, and an opportunity presented itself at the Sandy Springs complex.
Other owners and tenants have said that MHFH’s original transitional housing use at the property was not a problem, but that the new, larger use is changing the conditions.
“They’ve got so many problems over there because they’ve turned this thing into something it was never intended to be,” said Bruce Nicklin, the condo board’s past president, who recently sold his two units.
Since MHFH turned the 33 units into transitional housing, Nicklin said, he saw groups of up to 60 women hanging out on the property. He said the board was concerned that MHFH might be violating a bylaw limiting occupancy to one person per 250 square feet. Another concern was that MHFH wanted to rent the condo’s clubhouse as an office, which the board’s previous attorney warned could be a “giant zoning violation,” he said.
Jan Williams, a condo board member, complained directly to the City Council at its Sept. 5 meeting, saying she recently lost a tenant due to the large groups of women and van traffic. She said the women hang out on benches and make such comments as, “Don’t ever go to rehab.”
“While I applaud Mary Hall’s mission…no one wants to live among people who make them uncomfortable,” Williams said.
“This community has not been very pleasant to live in since all those units became occupied,” said Brandon Bradley, a tenant who said he is trying to break his lease and move out due to MHFH’s operations. “The community is nothing like what it used to be like. It went from being peaceful and quiet to women and vans walking [and] driving around at all hours.”
Jarita Davis, a tenant forced to move out for the transitional housing, said in profanity-laced complaint email to the City Council that she found another apartment in Sandy Springs, but is at risk of losing it due to the financial turmoil of the sudden move. “I now face being homeless in less than 30 days if I can’t come up with the money,” she said.
In a response email, Hall-Gainer said Davis refused MHFH help and “chose to move on, riding out in a black Lincoln Navigat[or] with a bad attitude as I see you still have by the tone of your email. I pray you humble yourself to allow someone to want to help you or better yet get honest. MHFH hasn’t done this to you.”
Davis responded that the luxury SUV belonged to a friend and that MHFH had only offered her a short-term sub-lease on a “roach-infested dump.”