Got rock? Gimme your house!

Fulton's Fresh Start ain't all it's cracked up to be

The crack epidemic has left addicts shaking and glassy-eyed, but its effect on the American lexicon has been just as pervasive. A "crack house" could be defined even by middle schoolers: a rundown building in a seedy neighborhood where drug dealers trade crack for cash with skinny crack heads, who can light up right at the point of purchase.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard has an additional definition: a place where a working mother lives with three of her children, two of whom sell drugs behind her back.

If the first crack house to fall under Howard's "Neighborhood Fresh Start" program is any indication, a mother who can't control her sons is essentially a crack madam. And she has no right to keep her home.

Fresh Start, a Fulton County program that began two years ago, uses the power of the DA's office to take property from landlords or homeowners who don't stop drug sales. Howard says he got the idea to force drug dealers to relocate — and make property owners pay the real price — after community members complained to him about dealers going unjailed.

Yet residents of West End, where the first "crack houses" are being targeted, are wary of the way Howard is using the seizure laws. They complain less about the drug trade than about the seizures themselves.

Under Fresh Start, the DA has to prove — to a judge, not a jury — only that the homeowner was aware of drug transactions taking place. The homeowner doesn't have to commit a crime.

The Atlanta Police Department has provided the DA's office with a list of about 90 houses that could be seized, based on alleged drug sales at those addresses.

One address was that of Imelda Balli, an Atlanta public school employee who lived for 15 years in a Craftsman-style bungalow on Atwood Street. A year ago, her younger daughter was just finishing high school and was preparing to head to college, as Balli's older daughter had already done. Balli's sons, however, had less collegiate ambitions.

Over the previous three years, Jashobeam, now 22, and Sannyasa, 21, had been accused of selling drugs at Balli's house at least 13 times. Yet the DA's office won a conviction in only one of those cases, and neither of the boys received prison time.

Balli, however, did receive a warning in 2001 to stop her son's activities. And after a trial in May 2002, she lost her home for not complying.

Balli couldn't be reached for comment. But her attorney, Tom Ford, argued at the trial that Balli had no way to foresee each alleged drug sale and had tried to put an end to her sons' behavior.

"Here's what you've got," Ford now says. "You've got the DA's office, which is going to target the low income and economically disadvantaged. ... In effect, it's legalized theft."

According to neighbors, the single mother had a hard time standing up to her sons. "We tried to talk to the mother," says Rufus Glover. "The boys just took over the house."

But they weren't exactly thugs in the eyes of next-door neighbor Jacqueline Ellis. Ellis says her 90-year-old mother liked to go for a stroll at times when nobody — except the Balli sons — were looking. "If they saw my mother out, they'd bring her back," Ellis says. "They're still good people, whether they sell drugs or not."

Now Ellis has a new neighbor. Atlanta police officer Harry Stephens began moving into Balli's seized house June 9. Stephens will live in the house rent-free. The county has paid off the mortgage with Fresh Start grants. And at the end of the police officer's year-long stay, the house will be sold at a reduced price to a low-income family.

Howard says he doesn't mind public scrutiny being leveled at Fresh Start. But in the case of crack house seizures, the public might have a hard time forming an opinion. An inquiry posed to the clerk's office as to the whereabouts of the seizure files resulted in a referral to Howard's office. Neither Wanda Dallas, a community prosecutor who worked to seize Balli's property, nor DA's Office spokesman Eric Friedly could say where the files are kept. They referred inquiries back to the clerk's office.

One of the big questions in Balli's case, a question that can't be answered in the court file, remains: Is it fair to take someone's house — and all the equity and appreciation built into it — if that person refuses to kick out her sons? And then there's even a larger question: Should people have their property taken if they themselves have committed no crime?

Ellis, Balli's former neighbor, is supposed to be empowered by the county's efforts to clean up neighborhoods like West End — a rapidly gentrifying pocket where crime hasn't stripped the appeal of renovated bungalows and Victorians.

On one hand, Ellis appreciates the county's efforts. She is at first reluctant to say much about the seizure. But her words come faster once she gets started — and reluctance gives way to condemnation of the DA's actions.

"They should have locked those boys up," she says, "and left the mother alone."