Pests, Filth, and Killer Elevators: Inside Raphael Warnock’s Secret Low-Income Apartment Building

October 17, 2022

ATLANTA—A low-income apartment building owned by Raphael Warnock’s church is plagued by pests, maintenance problems, and filth, according to residents—and at least two people have sued the building this year after the elevator allegedly collapsed on them.

Residents of the Columbia Tower at MLK Village complained about living conditions in the building, telling the Washington Free Beacon that garbage is left to pile up in the storage rooms for days, creating an "overwhelming trash smell," common areas aren’t maintained, and the air vents produce a "sickening" amount of dust.

Tenants also said the elevators often break down, and handicapped residents have had to call the fire department to carry them to their rooms.

The allegations follow a Free Beacon report that found Columbia Tower had attempted to evict at least eight low-income residents over unpaid rent since the start of the pandemic—including one tenant who owed just $28. Warnock serves as senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, which, through a charity it controls called the Ebenezer Building Foundation, owns 99 percent of Columbia Tower, according to records obtained by the Free Beacon. It’s not clear what Warnock’s role was in overseeing Columbia Tower. A repair grant Ebenezer Building Foundation 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 has campaigned as an ally of low-income Georgians and people with disabilities. It could also draw new scrutiny to Warnock’s compensation from the church, which paid him a $7,417-per-month, tax-free housing allowance last year—an arrangement that allowed him to circumvent federal limits on outside income for U.S. senators.

Court filings reviewed by the Free Beacon appear to back up claims from Columbia Tower residents that there are problems with the living conditions at the building.

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

One of the alleged victims said he "was in an elevator at Columbia at MLK Village Towers as the elevator ceiling abruptly fell down," knocking him unconscious and resulting in injuries that cost him over $50,000 in medical bills.

"The collapsed elevator ceiling struck the Plaintiff about the head, neck, and back area," said the lawsuit. "The impact of the collapsed elevator ceiling caused the Plaintiff to immediately lose consciousness."

The judge granted the man default judgment in the case, after lawyers for Columbia Tower neglected to respond by the required deadline. The building’s attorneys are currently attempting to get the judgment overturned. The second case is still ongoing. An attorney for the alleged victim said he was unable to comment because that case is "still being litigated."

Residents told a Free Beacon reporter who visited the building in October the only two elevators in the building frequently break down. One resident said she has witnessed firemen physically carry wheelchair-bound tenants up to their rooms during instances when both of the elevators were broken at the same time.

"The firemen will come and help them up and down the stairs," one resident said. "For hours they’re stuck waiting on the bottom floor, or stuck on their floor for hours and hours."

Another resident described an incident in which a police officer and a firefighter had to "tote" a wheelchair-bound African-American man up the stairs because the elevators were broken down.

The Atlanta Fire Rescue Department has not returned numerous requests for comment asking if firefighters have been called to Columbia Tower to carry people up to their rooms. The fire department has also not returned an open records request seeking copies of all incident reports at Columbia Tower since the start of 2020.

Residents said they had no idea their building was owned by Ebenezer Baptist Church, or that it had just received a $5 million grant from Georgia in August to fund building repairs. The grant was bankrolled by funds provided to the state from the American Rescue Plan, legislation that Warnock voted in support of in March 2021.

"It’s not being seen here. They’ll cut the grass and the bushes, and fix the elevator sometimes," a resident said. "But the vents haven’t been blown out for years. The dust, it’s sickening, actually."

"They change the furniture. The furniture is new or different from when I moved in here, but that’s the most I’ve seen. I haven’t seen any upgrades or anything like that," the resident added.

Ebenezer ended 2021 with over $1.2 million in cash and "cash equivalents," according to audited financial statements obtained by the Free Beacon. Throughout 2021, the church received "general undesignated offerings" of $4.3 million and rental income of $202,000, the financial statements show.

Also in 2021, Ebenezer paid Warnock $120,964 in salary and housing benefits while he served in the Senate. That same year, Ebenezer incurred just over $69,000 in "repairs and maintenance" expenses across all its program areas, including pastoral services, local ministries, and support services, the financial statements show.

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

Columbia Tower residents expressed concerns about the building’s living conditions.

"We have a smell here," one resident said. "The trash room has this overwhelming trash smell. As soon as you come in the building it inundates you. It’s just in your face. And it’s embarrassing."

The 12-story building has a garbage chute on every floor that connects to the trash room on the bottom floor. But residents said nobody clears out the trash over the weekend. With 96 rooms in the building, residents said the trash room quickly overflows with waste on Saturdays and Sundays.

"They’ll leave on a Friday, and the trash chute will fill up to the 12th floor. And they don’t come back until Monday to clean it out," the resident said.

"The aroma of the trash was so horrific and ridiculous," said another resident, who lives on the first floor of the building near the waste room.

Photo of the trash room at Columbia Tower at MLK Village provided by building resident
Photo of the trash room at Columbia Tower at MLK Village provided by building resident

One resident described horrific conditions living next door to her former neighbor, who she said suffered from schizophrenia.

"We complained. He had odors coming out of the apartment. He never cleaned. The maintenance didn’t want to go in. Never mind the pests. I was totally infested living near him," the resident said. "After people were complaining so much they did get someone to come in and clean up."

"There's a lot of turnaround when it comes to office management and, of course, with the upkeep of the building. They can't keep anybody, and they can't keep the building up," the resident said.

In lieu of regular maintenance staff, the mostly elderly residents of the building 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 is frequently littered with trash. The garden was nothing more than a plot of dirt and weeds when a Free Beacon reporter visited the property this month.

Columbia Tower’s "community garden"

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

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

The Ebenezer Building Foundation also disclosed problems with Columbia Tower’s elevators in the grant application, writing that the "failures are becoming more frequent."

"When the elevator needs repair, it takes several days," said the group, calling the problems "detrimental" to residents.

In a court filing responding to one of the elevator injury lawsuits, however, a lawyer for Columbia Tower suggested the machinery was damaged by an individual. The "issue with the elevator may have been the result of persons who rode the elevator immediately before the plaintiff," said the attorney for Columbia Tower.

Columbia Residential told the Free Beacon that Ebenezer "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 has no involvement in the daily operations at Columbia Tower.

"Due to the age of the property, the need for capital repairs, and the desire to keep rents affordable to extremely low-income tenants, the owners applied for the Georgia Investments in Housing Grant, which was specifically targeted to support housing for individuals experiencing homelessness," Columbia Residential told the Free Beacon.

The grant, which Georgia Republican governor Brian Kemp awarded to Ebenezer in late August, will be used to fund building repairs, as well as to replace all faucets and toilets with low-flow systems, install LED lighting in the building, and upgrade major appliances in the building to energy star standards.

Ebenezer did not return requests for comment.