Agapions rebuked over conditions at complex marred by fatal fire

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Irene Agapion-Martinez, who represents the owners of the Summit-Cone apartments, listen as residents address the Minimum Housing Commission. (photo by Jordan Green)

The Agapion family must complete repairs on 42 units at a Greensboro apartment complex that houses Congolese refugees within 90 days, or the city will hire a contractor to do the work at the owner’s expense.

The decision came through a 5-1 vote by the Minimum Housing Commission on Thursday afternoon.

The repair order is the latest step in a process that began with a complaint triggering inspections after five children died in an apartment fire in May.

“One factor is the egregiousness of the violations,” said Peter Isakoff, the commission’s chair. “You have serious fire safety concerns, serious health concerns, with rodents in the property, with sewage, mold. Number two, I think time is of the essence here given that this is a large complex with people trying to get back in.”

Speakers, including two residents and a number of people who have been working with the refugees at Summit-Cone apartments, told commissioners about a long train of abuses.

“When you try to plug something in, there is a spark,” said Juma Juma, a former resident. “Also there is a shock when you are getting a little bit of water.”

“I witnessed children playing catch with rats,” said Mary Anne Busch of the Center for New North Carolinians at UNCG.

Busch said her agency declined to set up a program to work with the refugees because the conditions at Summit Cone apartments were so bad.

Guilford College set up a tutoring program for children at the complex in early 2018 through the Bonner Scholars. Susan May, the student employment coordinator for the Bonner Scholars, said the tutoring program expanded into a complaint-intake center when it became clear that the owners were not addressing maintenance problems.

“In many apartments I went into there were no working smoke alarms,” May said. “Many appliances were faulty. People got shocked when they opened their refrigerators.”

Danny Rodas, a Guilford College student, said complaints included broken railings, broken cabinetry and leakage.

“Most of the complaints that we filed were never addressed,” Rodas said.

Emily Wright, a social worker with Guilford County Schools, corroborated Rodas’ account.

“Despite innumerable requests by the residents they told me their repair requests were rarely if ever addressed,” she said. “The residents have told me that their apartments had chronic plumbing problems. You could see behind their cabinets where the water had been dripping from their toilets. In many cases, the wood had rotted and the cabinets were coming down, leaning off the wall. They had electrical problems — gnarly wiring in their kitchen area where their hot water heaters were. Mold, rats, roaches, faulty appliances.”

Commissioners made stinging assessments of the conditions.

“Some of the bathroom situations are abominable,” Vice Chair Robert Kollar said. “I think I’m being easy and kind on that.”

Commissioner Suzanne Nazim added, “For children to play with mice and rats is just appalling to me.”

Irene Agapion-Martinez, a representative and member of the family that owns the property, said she is working with the city to correct the code violations, but she reiterated a previous assertion that the owners were not responsible for the deaths of the five children.

“Four different agencies agreed [the fire] was not the result of any negligence or any fault of the building,” Agapion-Martinez said. An investigation by the Greensboro Fire Department, released in August, downplayed the possibility of a faulty appliance or wiring contributing to the fire, with the author writing, “There were no indicators that a malfunction of the stove was an ignition source.” Shortly afterwards, the police said they had no plans to press criminal charges in the matter and were ready to release the stove, which had been seized as potential evidence.

Agapion-Martinez sought to shift blame to relocation agencies, arguing that the residents haven’t received adequate assistance in adjusting to their new lives in Greensboro.

“They were left here living in another hemisphere, in another world, in places they’ve told me they’re not familiar with indoor plumbing, unfamiliar with Western appliances, and left to live on their own without any kind of assistance,” she said. “I’m gonna believe that that’s a huge source of the tragedy that took place.”

Juma and May disputed Agapion-Martinez’s claim, and by extension the conclusion of the fire investigation.

“Although there was a pot on the stove, they did not use that stove for a long time because it didn’t work properly,” May told commissioners. “So maybe it was unattended cooking, but the stove came on. That’s, to me, a very misleading line…. There were a lot of times when the burners would come on or go off by themselves.”

May said she believes that treatment of the residents at Summit-Cone apartments amounts to discrimination.

“I feel like newcomers, refugee families are targeted in a way,” she said. “I feel like there’s a lot of discrimination going on in this situation. I’ve felt that for a long time. They’re placed there. They know that they don’t speak the language well. They may not know that they have housing rights, so they don’t say anything. And the conditions get worse and worse; it’s never fixed. And then ultimately we had a fire that killed five children.

“There was a lot of fear of speaking out,” May continued. “People were afraid that they would be kicked out. Or their rent would be raised. In fact, during the summer there were two rent rate hikes. And a lot of the families felt like it was a direct result of them speaking out.”

Agapion-Martinez took exception to the allegation of discrimination.

“My family is actually immigrants,” she said. “We have people on staff who speak French, Spanish and other languages. To my knowledge, there’s not another agency that speaks these languages. I don’t think that’s an issue.”

Commissioner Quentin Brown endorsed the view that the chronic violations coupled with the unique vulnerability of the residents amounts to discrimination, while cautioning that the commission does not have the authority to address civil rights violations. (The Greensboro Human Relations Department is responsible for investigating fair-housing claims.)

“This is actually a form of discrimination,” he said. “What it is, is discrimination of fair housing, and some of the tools that are used against these individuals are language barrier.”

Commissioners questioned Agapion-Martinez on how quickly she was moving to make the repairs. Agapion said half of the units have either passed or are awaiting inspection. She repeatedly urged commissioners to direct questions to inspectors so they could corroborate her assertion that the project was making progress.

“The units that have passed, have passed the minimum standard,” Code Enforcement Officer Kenneth Taylor said. “It’s not always been a steady course. They have been making repairs. It’s been a sporadic process.”

Mark Wayman, the interim code-compliance manager, said the Agapions’ choice of contractors could have been better, characterizing some of the workers as “aimless.”

“Some of the work hasn’t been done in a professional manner,” he said. “We have to show them what to do. I have concerns about the quality of the work.”

As an example, he said that workers improperly installed mortar mix around a foundation vent, preventing the vent from opening and closing. They used interior-grade screws, brackets and hasps that lack corrosion resistance for exterior repairs. And they used screws to secure screens, which could prevent emergency egress for an elderly or disabled person.

Although the problems were corrected once he shared them with the Agapions and the city inspectors, Wayman said they’re the kind of mistakes that a contractor shouldn’t make in the first place.

Louis Mashengo said in a letter read aloud by Susan May that while many people in Greensboro have moved on, the residents will never forget the deadly fire that took the lives of five children in May.

“The negligence, ignorance and discrimination that we have been living in at Summit-Cone made people feel unwell and unwelcome,” he said. “The Agapions must explain to us why they have been doing that to us. Are we not human beings like them? And really we are human beings. Why have we been treated like animals?”

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