Did tenants of West End lofts have to leave after all?

The letter from the landlord of Candler-Smith Warehouses to his 300 or so tenants seemed sufficiently clear: You've got until Oct. 21 to move out.

The statement from the city of Atlanta looked to be equally cut and dry. Earlier this month, the city's Law Department wrote: "[T]he residential units must be vacant until the warehouse owner meets the necessary permit requirements for a certificate of occupancy." The letter and statement both followed a fire at the sprawling West End complex, famed for its gallery spaces and parties, that killed a 32-year-old woman and her two children.

But as this week's deadline loomed, the necessity of vacating the warehouses, which are home to dozens of the city's most well-respected artists and musicians, was becoming murkier.

Contrary to the Law Department's statement, city officials claim they didn't order that the entire property be vacated (though that might be a case of splitting hairs). An Oct. 13 court agreement between the landlord and the city regarding the future of Candler-Smith's tenancy has been sealed from public view. The city has not yet released copies of recent inspections and possible code violations at Candler-Smith, despite an Open Records request filed by CL. And a lawyer retained by several tenants is questioning the legality of the landlord's decision to give residents the heave-ho.

"There is currently not an eviction proceeding, there's no proper process of the law, and there's no court order that would require the tenants to leave," says attorney Lisa Kincheloe, executive director of Georgia Lawyers for the Arts. "We have entered into a two-week cooling-off period where both parties have agreed not to resort to judicial intervention. The tenants can stay."

Or can they? Landlord Bill Smith has not responded to CL's repeated requests for an interview. His attorney, Linda Finley, would only release a statement saying, "[O]ur thoughts and prayers are with the families affected. We are working closely with the authorities to assess the situation and gather the information needed to ensure our buildings are in full compliance with the law."

Now, some residents in the midst of scrambling for new digs — particularly artists looking for studios, and musicians looking for practice space — are unsure what to do. And those tenants who heeded the landlord's order to move out are wondering what would've happened if they'd stayed.

"If we hadn't had to leave, that would have been better, obviously," says Brooks Meeks, who lived with nine roommates — including the members of his band, the Close — in Candler-Smith. Leaving the space meant fracturing the band and having to find a new practice space and studio, all while in the process of mastering the Close's third album. "But things just got so crazy," Meeks says, "it's almost like there was no way to stick around."

Adding to the confusion, City Hall released a statement Oct. 14 that said, "At no time has the City required any particular unit be vacated. Such decisions are in the hands of the owners of the facility."

That statement seems to imply it was merely the landlord's opinion that the tenants should leave.

Not so fast. It turns out that the landlord hadn't obtained from the city a certificate of occupancy for each of the units he was renting, according to Catherine Woodling, a spokeswoman for Mayor Shirley Franklin. Therefore, the city — while not mandating evictions, per se — "is asking Candler-Smith Warehouse[s] to vacate" those units without certificates of occupancy, Woodling says.

Yet Woodling couldn't say how many units lacked certificates, and tenants themselves have no way of knowing.

Until further clarification from the landlord or the courts, many residents are vowing to stay. This weekend, Candler-Smith artist Denise A. King plans to host the exhibit Big Bang Disco in the gallery adjacent to the loft where she lives. All artists who live or recently lived at the lofts are invited to participate.

And should an eviction notice arrive before the exhibit's Oct. 22 opening, or shortly thereafter?

"Once Candler-Smith Warehouse[s] files eviction proceedings," Kincheloe says, "we will vigorously defend that action."

The opening of Big Bang Disco will take place Sat., Oct. 22, 7 p.m., in Candler-Smith unit A-6, 675 Metropolitan Parkway.

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