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Warnock Denies His Church Evicts Tenants. Three Eviction Notices Were Filed Last Week.

Building has filed more than a dozen eviction notices during pandemic

Sen. Raphael Warnock (D., Ga.) / Getty Images
and • October 18, 2022 5:00 am

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Georgia Democratic senator Raphael Warnock forcefully denied the charge that his church is trying to evict chronically homeless tenants, telling Georgia voters on Friday that those are "false charges" and an attempt to "sully Ebenezer Baptist Church." But just two days earlier, the apartment complex owned by his church filed eviction proceedings against three additional residents, with the goal of ousting tenants who owed as little as $115 in past-due rent.

Columbia Tower at MLK Village filed removal proceedings against three tenants on Oct. 12, one day after the Washington Free Beacon broke the news that the church-owned building had filed a dozen eviction lawsuits against residents of the building since the start of the pandemic.

Residents told the Free Beacon that Columbia Residential, the building’s administrators, has become more aggressive in its rent collection policies, and sent out a notice in September saying it would no longer accept late fees and would start removal proceedings after five days of non-payment.

"If you don’t pay your rent by the fifth, a dispossessory notice comes out that week," a resident told a Free Beacon reporter who visited the building in October. "They won’t accept the payment after the fifth."

The latest evictions involved tenants who were just days late paying their October rent, and owed as little as $115, according to Fulton County Magistrate Court records filed by Columbia Tower.

The records conflict with Warnock’s statements over the past week denying that Columbia Tower—which is 99-percent-owned by the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he serves as senior pastor—has tried to oust anyone. Fulton County marshals carried out two court-ordered evictions on residents at the property, one in August 2020 and the other in February 2022.

"There have been no evictions, full stop," Warnock said when asked about the Free Beacon report during a debate on Sunday. Warnock claimed the news was "one more example of Herschel Walker and his allies lying" and "trying to sully the name of Dr. King's church, John Lewis's church, for short term-political gain."

Warnock did not respond to a request for comment.

MLK Village filed the proceedings against the three tenants last week, asking for "possession" of their apartments, plus $250 in filing fees, $75 in late fees, and additional water and sewage payments. All of the residents were late on just one month of rent for October, according to the filings, with one owing $610 and the other two owing $115 each.

Two other Columbia Tower residents who received eviction notices in September responded in court that their landlord refused to accept their rent payments.

"I offered and had money to pay my rent on or before the date I usually pay, but my landlord refused to accept it," the two residents said in their answers to Columbia Tower’s dispossessory notices.

One of the residents informed the Fulton County Magistrate Court in response to his eviction notice that Columbia Tower "drills locks in door with no probal [sic] cause didn’t give notice to vacate," and that he was "evicted for 1 night by lock change, incurred hotel fee."

The resident who said a lock was drilled into his door did not return requests for comment.

Warnock’s claim that there have been no evictions from Columbia Tower during the pandemic is not true.

Fulton County marshals carried out two court-ordered writs of possession against Columbia Tower residents during the pandemic, court records show.

One was carried out on Aug. 17, 2020, against a woman who was sued in March 2020 for just $28.55 in past-due rent, court records show. The tenant had vacated the building when the writ of possession was carried out. She would have been forcibly ejected from the apartment, however, if she was there when authorities arrived.

The second resident wasn’t so lucky. Fulton County marshals reported that they "ejected" the resident when they carried out a court-ordered writ of possession on Feb. 1, 2022, court records show. The resident was sued in September 2021 for $423 in past-due rent.

Columbia Tower dismissed four other eviction lawsuits it had filed against residents during the pandemic, but only after they paid excessive court fees that far exceeded their monthly rent.

One resident told the Free Beacon she received an eviction notice after she was just one day late paying her rent. She ultimately had to pay more than $300 in court fees—a figure equivalent to about two months’ worth of rent—to stay in her home.

Another resident, Phillip White, a 69-year-old African-American Vietnam veteran, said he had to pay $325 in court fees after Columbia Tower tried to evict him in September 2021 for $179 in past-due rent.

White received a second eviction notice in late September for failure to meet a $192 rent payment earlier that month. He told the Free Beacon he plans to fight the case in court.

Warnock contends on his campaign website that he has no day-to-day involvement in the management activities of Columbia Tower.

Ebenezer Baptist Church owns 99 percent of the property through a complex network of shell organizations connected to Ebenezer Building Foundation, a charity that delegates all management duties to the church and identifies Warnock as its principal officer.

Columbia Residential, the 1 percent owner of the building, told the Free Beacon that Ebenezer Building Foundation contracted with the firm to manage the property "on their behalf."

The church ended 2021 with cash and "cash equivalents" exceeding $1.2 million, according to audited financial statements obtained by the Free Beacon. It also paid Warnock a $7,417-per-month tax-free housing allowance in 2021 in an arrangement that allowed him to circumvent outside income limitations for U.S. senators.

All the while, residents of Columbia Tower told the Free Beacon their home is plagued by pests, maintenance problems, and filth.

The Georgia Secretary of State Office's Securities and Charities Division launched an investigation into Ebenezer Building Foundation last Wednesday to determine why the charity is operating in the state without an active registration. The charity has until Nov. 2 to bring forward evidence showing why it is exempt from registering with the secretary of state and is "therefore not in violation of the Act and Rules."

Ebenezer Baptist Church and Columbia Residential did not return requests for comment on the latest round of eviction lawsuits filed last week.

Mario Breedlove, the attorney who filed the lawsuits on behalf of Columbia Residential, also did not return a request for comment.

Published under: Feature, Georgia, Raphael Warnock, Senate