Safety concerns persist at complex that houses Congolese refugees

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Representatives of African Services Coalition and Church World Services address residents at Heritage Apartments. (photo by Jordan Green)

Congolese refugees, resettlement agencies and the owners of the Heritage Apartments give conflicting accounts of maintenance efforts in the wake of a deadly fire that took the lives of five children last month.

Representatives of two agencies that resettle and support refugees in Greensboro had given lengthy presentations about their menu of services to the group of Congolese refugees packed into a sweltering community room at Heritage Apartments on a recent Saturday.

One of the residents, the father of five children who were killed in a fire last month at the apartment complex, asked a pointed question.

“We are refugees from Africa,” said the man, who declined to give his name. “We want to know if we have rights.”

Many of the residents, who work low-paying and grueling jobs in chicken plants in Wilkes and Lee counties, complained about going to the hospital for treatment and coming home with insurmountable hospital bills. Others complained that their apartments lack air-conditioning units.

Earlier in the meeting, Lynn Thompson, outreach director for the New Arrivals Institute, ventured an answer to the question about refugees’ rights, alluding to widespread community concern about the deadly fire and poor conditions at the apartment complex, which is owned and managed by the Agapion family.

“We are very concerned about the conditions of the apartments that we’ve seen, like you are,” Thompson said. “If you aren’t sure how to contact the apartment owners, we could help you with that. I want to remind you of something you were probably told when you first came. You have a right to complain. You have a right to file a written grievance. You have a right to talk to people about your concern. Many people in the city of Greensboro are very concerned about what’s happened. But it’s a big problem, and one person can’t solve it. One agency cannot solve it.

“We are concerned and we do care,” Thompson continued. “It takes all of us to fix it, and it takes you having a voice.”

Thompson addressed the complaint about exorbitant medical bills by urging residents to meet with case workers, emphasizing that each person’s challenges would have to be addressed on an individual basis.

During the meeting, residents fanned themselves with brochures, and several complained about the lack of air conditioning in the complex.

“It’s really bad for us,” Anzuruni Juma said through a translator. “When we moved in we didn’t know we only had heating to keep warm in the winter, and nothing to keep cool in the summer. Sometimes we can’t even sleep and have to go to a neighbor’s place to cool off.”

Rachel Lee, a program coordinator for African Services Coalition — one of two resettlement agencies, along with Church World Services, responsible for placing refugees at Heritage Apartments — suggested the residents go to Lowes or Walmart to purchase window units for their apartments. The residents said they don’t earn enough money to be able to afford air-conditioning, prompting some talk that the refugee agencies might turn to churches for donations.

The meeting drew a number of advocates, including Greensboro International Advisory Committee Vice-Chair Saroj Patnaik, Guilford County Schools social worker Emily Wright, Guilford College Bonner Scholars Student Employment Coordinator Susan May, and Zaynah Afada, a rising senior at Guilford College who provides tutoring for the refugee children.

Some of the advocates directed pointed questions, alongside the residents, at the representatives of the two resettlement agencies.

“If the gas isn’t working, that’s a concern,” Joelle Begic, with African Services Coalition, told the residents. “And let us know.”

“We say we’re a welcoming community, but this is not welcoming,” May interjected.

“When one of my clients comes to me about, ‘My thermostat or my gas doesn’t work,’ I contact Arco Realty,” Begic said. “They’re not doing what they need to do.”

May shook her head.

“This is nothing new,” she said, noting that the family that owns Arco Realty holds a reputation for renting out poorly maintained apartments.

“I literally call them every hour of the day,” Begic said.

Irene Agapion-Martinez defended Arco Realty’s track record of responding to complaints in a statement to Triad City Beat on behalf of the company.

“Arco is committed to providing safe, affordable housing for its tenants,” she said. “Arco does not object to local officials inspecting properties. Arco fully supports the efforts of the city and other local officials to maintain standards and takes seriously any concerns raised by tenants or city officials.”

As to complaints about deficiencies in various units, Agapion-Martinez said the entire complex was renovated 18 months ago, and each unit was inspected by the city and received a certificate of occupancy.  She said the tenants at 3100-G, the unit where the children died, were the first to occupy it after its renovation.

“The fire department determined that unattended cooking caused the fire, not a maintenance problem with the stove, smoke detectors or a failure to meet any other life safety requirements in unit 3100-G,” Agapion-Martinez said. “The fire was a tragic accident unrelated to anything Arco did or did not do.”

Notwithstanding the Agapions’ defense of their maintenance program, safety concerns persist among the residents and their allies.

During the meeting, Kristian Hultgren, the refugee school impact coordinator with New Arrivals Institute, gazed out the window, watching with concern as children ran across busy Summit Avenue, and others rode bicycles through the parking lot for a tire-repair shop as vehicles backed out. He said residents have requested a fence along Summit Avenue and Cone Boulevard to prevent the children from running into the street.

“We’re asking the owner for repairs,” Juma said. “The [parking lot] is not in good condition. We’ve asked if they can put up a small fence along the street. When the children are playing the ball can go into the road, and they might chase it. We’ve been asking for those things, and we get nothing in response.”

Basil Agapion, one of the family members who owns the complex, said he hadn’t heard anything about a request for a safety fence, adding that the language barrier sometimes impedes communication.

“I haven’t heard it from one tenant, much less several tenants,” he said.

Five days before the deadly fire swept through 3100-G, setting off a cascade of complaints and demands for improvements, residents received a letter from management notifying them that their rent would increase from $500 to $530 per month. The letter justified the increase because of “today’s rising costs of water, materials, labor, and associated maintenance.” Juma noted that the tenants at Heritage Apartments pay for their own water.

In a statement to TCB, Arco Realty indicated that the owners are aware that tenants at Heritage Apartments pay for their own water, adding that the communique was a form letter that went out to all tenants receiving rent hikes.

“It is common for property managers to increase the monthly rent amount every couple of years to keep up with rising costs of living and maintenance,” the company said.

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