Brannon Hill: The Fires Keep Burning

Brannon Hill fire 4-9-16

Mohad Ragueh said he was one of the first people to respond to the fire Saturday. It started in a neighbor’s unit on the second floor, one inhabited by two sisters from Africa, their children, and a man they didn’t know well to whom they had rented one of the rooms, he said.

When the fire alarms went off — a miracle, since the power to the building’s common areas wasn’t on and maintenance at Brannon Hill is nigh nonexistent — the women rushed from the unit into the unlit hallway, looking for help, Ragueh said. “The ladies in the unit were hysterical,” he said.

He went for a fire extinguisher at his place and ran into the unit to the door of the man renting the room in the back.

He found a door padlocked shut.

“They asked me if I could spray it under the door.” He ignored that and kicked the door in, he said, to find he could do nothing. The room was engulfed. And the fire extinguisher didn’t work.

The unnamed fellow in the room went to work around 7 a.m., Ragueh said. The fire started around 2:30 p.m. Ragueh, a 31-year-old electrical engineering student living with his father, can only speculate about what might have caused the fire — a heater left on, perhaps, or a hot plate, or something more sinister. He didn’t exactly have a lot of time to look.

Welcome, again, to Brannon Hill. It’s a good day when nothing is on fire and no one got shot.

I spent the better part of a year going back to Brannon Hill over and over again, largely because what one sees on a first pass is enough to shock the conscience.

The condo complex outside of Clarkston is about 40 percent burned down — make that 43 percent now — and the buildings left standing look held together by paint, bailing wire and moral indignation. The fire trucks had to fight a sinkhole that could eat a Prius whole alongside the fire. A particularly obnoxious Crip gang from Memphis deals coke and weed from plastic chairs next to the main office. Many of the residents are former refugees from war-torn East African countries. What passes for a condominium association has only recently emerged from deep dysfunction. The finances are a catastrophe. There’s a million-dollar water bill that will almost certainly never be paid. Trash is everywhere. And the bleached and charred bones of burned buildings remain uncollected.

DeKalb Commissioner Nancy Jester has made slaying Brannon Hill her Moby Dick, despite the fact that it’s not even in her district. The political problem belongs to Sharon Barnes-Sutton, whose “task force” on Brannon Hill included no one who actually lived there. The broad conclusion of county government has been to say yup … that’s a mess … and to start court proceedings to try to clean things up. Condemnation is an ugly legal mess because each condo owner has separate legal rights. With 160-odd owners, that’s 160 individual condemnation cases.

DeKalb’s lawsuit asks for the common areas of Brannon Hill to be declared a public nuisance, so county sanitation can back garbage trucks up to the place and haul things away without being accused of offering a “gratuity” to private citizens. The county would bill the condo association $90,000 or so for the trouble — a bill they can’t afford, said Samia Abdullah, a community leader. The newly reconstituted condominium board will file an answer Monday.

Community organizers plan a clean up event on May 7. They are slowly, painfully, learning the ways of politics and activism — they’ve got Pepsi as a corporate sponsor, for example, and are looking for sponsorship for dumpsters, said Guled Abdilahi, a software engineer and community activist. “The event is targeting the idea of community life. There will be a clean up portion of it, but we want to take ownership of the community,” he said.

Meanwhile, the buildings keep burning down.

Eight units burned Saturday, with eight families displaced. Two of the units — including the one with the sisters where Ragueh said the fire started — belong to Berhe Tesfamariam, a Brannon Hill resident and Ethiopian immigrant. Tesfamariam owns nine units … on paper. All but three now have burned. We stood in the parking lot, watching three cops pull up in three patrol cars to answer a domestic dispute, talking about how none of the buildings are insured.

“The community is divided,” he said. “Many people are ready to just move out, if the government can take care of them,” he said. “The only people I can rent to are very poor, or have drug problems, or mental illness. People like me are suffering. I have mortgages on the line,” he said. Tesfamariam said he has been paying on $100,000 mortgages even though the properties are long lost. Those that remain are assessed by the county at less than $10,000 each.

“I’m not comfortable renting to people in a place where there might be a fire,” he said. “I don’t want to act like a slumlord. At the same time, I’m a human being.”

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