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Burned Out

Deadly fire marks the end of an artists' community

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Heidi Geldhauser watches a plastic, paper-thin, fortune-telling fish writhe in the palm of her hand as she talks on the phone to a potential landlord about the square footage of a loft space she might rent. Body heat makes the bright red fish twist, and Geldhauser is planning to use dozens of them in an upcoming art installation.

Having spent all day surfing the Net and calling rental offices, she's relieved to finally find a potential new home and studio. But it's far more expensive and smaller than her current digs. Right now, she pays a mere $250 a month for a bedroom and spacious art studio inside a warehouse-sized loft space that also houses record label Goodnight Records, practice space for the indie-rock punk band the Orphins, and the Orphins' living quarters.

Geldhauser and the 300 other people living in the Candler-Smith Lofts, most of them artists and musicians seeking shelter from the city's increasingly expensive rental market, have until 5 p.m. on Oct. 21 to move out.

None of the tenants of the sprawling compound in the shadow of the West End MARTA Station doubt that the events leading to their eviction were tragic -- and likely avoidable. Three people are dead: Tomiko Bonner, 32, and her two children, Jeremiah and Kevin, ages 3 and 7. They died from smoke inhalation after a fire broke out in their loft Sept. 26. The smoke alarm didn't go off, and the loft didn't have a working sprinkler system.

But in the wake of the horrible oversight, the Candler-Smith saga -- the mandatory eviction of hundreds of people, the seemingly impossible 10-day deadline to get out, the resounding silence from the landlord's office -- highlights a system that turns leases into meaningless scraps of paper and leaves tenants little recourse once city officials force landlords to give residents the boot.

What's more, the evictions threaten to scatter what's currently the most concentrated community of artists and musicians in the city. Rock bands, record labels, recording studios, art galleries, and dozens of the city's best known creative minds have called the 38-acre warehouse complex home. Kojo Griffin, whose paintings of pensive cartoon characters are some of the most sought-after works in the city, kept a studio at Candler-Smith until recently. Michi, Charles Nelson, Lance Lamont, and Jeff Conefry are just a few of the Candler-Smith artists whose work -- from graffiti-inspired oil paintings to ceramic installations -- is shown regularly at top galleries around town.

"There's no other place where 300 artists can go," Geldhauser says.

The first Candler-Smith unit to be converted for residential use in the 90-year-old building was C-11, which for nearly a decade has been a legendary spot for all-night parties. Most recently, C-11 has been home to a skateboard half-pipe, a recording studio and living quarters for 10 people, including members of the band the Close, who each pay $230 a month in rent.

On Oct. 7, the Close lead singer Brooks Meeks stopped mixing the band's third album to begin moving into his girlfriend's house. He says four or five other C-11 dwellers hadn't found places to live as of Oct. 11.

Meeks, a contractor by trade, put a good amount of work into C-11, building one of the bathrooms and a stairway to the second landing. That's typical of Candler-Smith. In most units, tenants build the bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens themselves, with plenty of studio space left over.

But the very rawness of the units -- and the landlord's alleged oversight in maintaining them -- likely contributed to the city's decision to force the tenants out.

On Oct. 4, following a series of fire and building code inspections that found several violations of city code, the manager of the lofts gave the tenants a notice simply stating, "City inspectors will be returning within 10 days to verify that your unit is no longer occupied for residential use."

The next day, tenants received another notice offering them $2,000 per unit in moving assistance if they vacated by Oct. 12. The manager also informed them that deposits and rent would be refunded.

On Oct. 6, the city's law department issued a statement on the Candler-Smith debacle: "[T]he residential units must be vacant until the warehouse owner meets the necessary permit requirements for a certificate of occupancy. The City understands the potential hardship on the tenants but its first obligation is to be sure that all tenants are provided a facility that meets the City Code."

Landlord Bill Smith has failed to return Creative Loafing's repeated phone calls. The woman who answered the phone at Smith's office, A Action Inc., refused to give her name, saying, "We have no comment at this time."

A Action also owns the Atlanta Self Storage and U-Haul lofts at the corner of 14th Street and Howell Mill Road.

City law states it's the landlord's responsibility to keep a property in compliance with housing codes. If the landlord refuses to repair code violations, criminal charges can be filed against him or her.

It's unclear what kind of warning Smith might have received from the city. While city code enforcers are required to regularly inspect rental properties, the city's law department won't produce previous inspections of the Candler-Smith Lofts until an agreement between the city and Smith has been approved by a municipal court judge. That agreement is scheduled to be approved Oct. 13.

Martin L. Ellin, executive director of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, says the city and landlord may have overstepped their authority.

"I don't think these people have to leave just because the city says, 'This place has to get cleaned up,'" Ellin says. "I think [tenants] have the right to insist on staying as long as they want to."

Gavin Frederick, who runs Stickfigure Distribution out of Candler-Smith, handling CD and record orders for indie bands such as Blame Game and Deer Hunter, says media attention following the lethal fire likely forced the city's hand.

"When you've got Fox 5 News running something about how dangerous it is to live here, you gotta kick us out," he says. "The city has to look like it's doing something. I just think they're being heavy-handed about it."

In response to the city's decision, Denise A. King and other tenants have formed the Candler-Smith Community for Fair Action to find out if they have a case against the landlord or city. "We want fair treatment and fair compensation," says King, an artist who works with ceramics and teaches at American Intercontinental University. "Ten days is not enough time."

King, who shares her 7,000-square-foot living and gallery space with four roommates paying a collective $2,360 a month, had planned to host an art exhibit later this month. She says the Candler-Smith evictions will reverberate throughout the entire arts scene well into the future.

"I'm realizing what an asset it is being able to rent these spaces for this amount of money and be able to produce records, and produce shows and make artwork," King says. "We're losing this whole creative community."

michael.wall@creativeloafing.com

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