PadSplit attorney questions Morrow fire chief who authorized impromptu evacuations

Eleven weeks after the city of Morrow abruptly evicted 22 low-income tenants from three shared homes run by affordable housing startup PadSplit, the doors that firefighters broke down upon entry are still broken, leaving bedrooms unsafe and uninhabitable.

PadSplit’s attorney, Michael Kaplan of Kaplan Cobb, asked questions of Morrow Fire Marshal William Piper in Clayton County Superior Court on Monday to find out why the city has not yet repaired the properties, despite the judge’s order. Piper authorized the impromptu evacuations on August 17 after performing an emergency “life safety inspection” on the three PadSplit homes and deeming them unsafe.

PadSplit sued Morrow on Aug. 21, claiming the city unconstitutionally denied housing to the company’s tenants without due process. The startup rents rooms in single-family homes to renters on behalf of homeowners. In an expensive rental market, PadSplit renters were able to pay about $150 a week for furnished rooms in Morrow homes, sharing kitchens, bathrooms and common areas.

The Clayton County case stems from a separate dispute in Morrow Municipal Court between the city and PadSplit over the legality of crowding multiple unrelated tenants into what were built as single-family homes. A city judge in August found that PadSplit was illegally operating boarding houses and avoiding occupancy taxes, a ruling the company appealed.

In response to the PadSplit lawsuit, Clayton County Superior Court Judge Joel Scott immediately issued a temporary restraining order ordering Morrow to allow the tenants to return — and “restore the properties to the condition they were in prior to the city’s actions.”

But Morrow’s attorneys contend that the city has no obligation to repair the PadSplit properties, because the fire department found them unsafe.

Kaplan, PadSplit’s attorney, disagreed. “The idea that it is impossible for the city to comply with your request is simply ridiculous,” he told Scott during the hearing on November 6, urging her to punish the city for circumventing its directive and make it pay for the damages caused to the three. Houses.

He added, “We should not lose sight of the fact that as a result of what the city did, people were forced to sleep on the streets,” referring to many tenants whose lives were turned upside down due to sudden evictions. “People have lost their jobs.”

The November 6 hearing centered on Kaplan’s questioning of Piper, the Morrow fire chief, after a contentious and inconclusive October 3 hearing.

Piper obtained a search warrant on Aug. 16 from Morrow Municipal Court Judge Tom Kirkbride. He said this was due to concerns that single-family homes were being illegally and dangerously modified to fit more people.

But the fire chief acknowledged that he did not obtain permission to evacuate anyone after inspecting the properties.

That’s where the city got messed up, Kaplan said. “You didn’t consider it such an emergency that you would go beyond getting a warrant to conduct a search, did you?” Kaplan asked Piper.

“No, I got search warrants for every property,” the fire chief replied.

“But you didn’t get any eviction order or court order, did you?”

“No sir.”

By law, a firefighter can only conduct an emergency evacuation without a warrant if a building poses an immediate threat to the health and safety of its residents — and Piper said that’s exactly what he found in the three homes managed by PadSplit.

Piper said each home has fire extinguishers and smoke detectors, but claimed that “most of them don’t meet the rules” for a commercial building — Morrow considers PadSplit homes to be boarding houses, not traditional single-family residences — and they also lack sprinkler systems. .

“As long as you have the permits, you have the proper zoning, and you have everything you need to do, (the city) will leave you alone,” Morrow’s attorney, Michael Huening, of Lazega & Johansson, said during the hearing. He added that PadSplit ignored city regulations for about a year.

Kaplan responded that Clayton County’s case hinges on whether the city was correct in assuming that the three PadSplit homes posed imminent threats to the safety of the people inside, not permitting and zoning issues.

Piper admitted that he had never evacuated anyone else in Morrow because of the lack of a sprinkler system — or because of inadequate smoke alarms or carbon monoxide detectors. However, he claimed that his August inspection made him believe the homes could collapse at any moment.

“But you don’t have an architectural license, and you didn’t get any expert opinions regarding the structural integrity of these homes, right?” Kaplan asked.

“No, sir,” Piper said.

The fire chief acknowledged that the city made no attempt to fix what broke during the August 17 evacuations. “Fixing doors is not something I normally do,” he said.

However, PadSplit’s lawsuit over the constitutionality of the evacuations is “questionable,” Huening said.

He said Piper was simply carrying out his official duties. “As set forth in state and city law, the fire marshal has the authority, discretion and responsibility to attempt to ensure that all properties are safe for habitation.”

Now a judge must determine whether the city violated its temporary restraining order, and the case can then move to trial.

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