While Greensboro goes after one notorious landlord for almost $700,000 in uncollected civil penalties on housing-code violations, its neighbor Winston-Salem has several lawsuits going to collect much smaller amounts. As a result of steady litigation, the total amount of uncollected civil penalties in Winston-Salem is less than half of what’s owed in Greensboro.
In June, Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan vowed go after landlords who ignore ballooning civil penalties for housing-code violations on units deemed not fit for human habitation. At the top of the city’s list is the Agapion family, who recently sold the Summit Cone apartments where five Congolese refugee children died in a fire last year.
The city made good on the threat, filing suit last month to collect the civil penalties.
“It will send a message to the landlords that are out there who need prodding to do the right thing,” Vaughan told Fox 8 News in June. “That we’re gonna come after you and make sure that you do the right thing.”
As of June, city officials said the Agapions owned about $700,000 in uncollected civil penalties — more than half of the $1.3 million total owed to the city by all violators.”
In contrast, lawsuits by the city of Winston-Salem to collect civil penalties for housing-code violations are so frequent that they hardly warrant headlines. The city currently has 11 civil suits in play. In comparison to the Agapion family’s staggering liability, the highest outstanding penalty of any of the defendants in Winston-Salem is $59,400. And in comparison to the $1.3 million total for all outstanding civil penalties in Greensboro, Winston-Salem’s steady and consistent approach appears to have paid off with a significantly lower outstanding total — $555,662.
“My consistent instruction to staff over the years, mainly [Deputy Attorney] Al Andrews, has been to pursue collection of all outstanding housing civil penalties referred to our office for collection,” City Attorney Angela Carmon told Triad City Beat. “Normally, a notice is sent to the property owner, initially, to attempt voluntary compliance and to establish a payment plan. If that does not yield the desired result, then a lawsuit is filed.”
The landlord with the highest amount of uncollected civil penalties in Winston-Salem is Steven D. Smith, an attorney who owns two rental houses off Indiana Avenue on the north side of the city. Between the two properties, the city alleges that he owes $59,400.
After Smith, Eric Ellison — also an attorney and the former chair of the Forsyth County Democratic Party — owes the second highest amount: $48,550.
The city’s lawsuit against Ellison indicates that staff issued a complaint on his rental property at 1711 Harrison Ave. in the Boston-Thurmond neighborhood in July 2016. Ellison failed to appear for hearing held by Ola Brown, the city’s housing inspector supervisor, the following month. Acting as housing conservation administrator, Brown made a determination that the property was unfit for human habitation, and issued an order for repair or demolition.
The order provides opportunities for the property owner to make repairs or appeal the decision before any punitive action is taken. Two years went by before the city’s neighborhood & community development department issued a warning in October 2018, and the next month the city issued a citation for violation of Section 10-210 of the city’s Code of Ordinances, which imposes a $350 fine on an owner who fails to repair or improve a dwelling determined to be unfit for human habitation, adding an additional $100 for every day that the violation remains uncorrected.
The city filed suit to collect the civil penalties on July 2. On Aug. 12, Ellison filed a motion for an extension of time to respond to the complaint.
Ellison said in an interview that he simply ran into difficulty repairing a furnace, explaining that while he did walk away from the problem for a period of time, he’s now in the process of correcting it.
“I have this furnace that I probably paid three contractors several thousands of dollars, and it just couldn’t be fixed,” he said. “I grew very frustrated with the situation. I didn’t deal with it. It has been fixed — or, I’m in the midst of finishing my repairs. I think the city will be very happy.”
Ellison added that he has no quarrel with the city’s housing-conservation program. While acknowledging his personal frustrations as a property owner, he came across as an enthusiastic and sincere proponent of local government intervention to maintain safe housing.
“The city has to enforce their code and maintain sound residential housing; I don’t disagree with that,” he said. “I’ve found the city to be on top of it. We have a great housing rehabilitation office. They’ve done a great job over the years. They’ve got a job to do.”
Ellison’s travails surrounding delayed repairs on a single rental property in Winston-Salem’s Boston-Thurmond neighborhood stand in stark contrast to the picture of epic intransigence painted in the city of Greensboro’s lawsuit against the Agapion family.
“Over several years, defendants have incurred, but flagrantly refused to pay, civil penalties and fees assessed by plaintiff for defendants’ widespread violations of the Greensboro Code of Ordinances,” the lawsuit alleges. “Over several years, defendants have incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in civil penalties and fees for their repeated and widespread violations of the Greensboro Code of Ordinances.”
The suit goes on to allege that the Agapion family has disregarded city orders by continuing “to rent, offer for rent, and allow tenants and others to occupy buildings found unfit for human habitation.”
Basil Agapion, one of the defendants, referred questions about the suit to Nexsen Pruet law firm. In a statement to WFMY News 2 last month, the Agapion family said “they look forward to vindicating themselves in a court of law,” arguing that they “are entitled to offset many, if not all, of the alleged fines and penalties through its investments of hundreds of thousands of dollars in improvements to their properties.”
Carla Banks, the city’s director of communications and marketing, said the city of Greensboro plans to file suit against other property with the high amounts of uncollected civil penalties but hasn’t set a timetable to do so at this point.
In four out of 11 active civil complaints filed by the city of Winston-Salem to collect civil penalties ranging from $6,050 to $48,550, the city has indicated that the defendant has already brought the properties into compliance despite owing fines. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the houses are fit for human habitation: In one case, involving a house owned by Timothy Shawn Green on West 25th and ½ Street, the city acknowledged that a July 30 inspection confirmed that the house was vacant and secured. In four cases, the city has alleged that the dwellings were occupied in violation of the orders finding them not fit for human habitation.
In 19 other cases, the property owners subject to outstanding civil penalties have set up payment plans, according to a list provided to Triad City Beat by the city. The city is currently researching three cases, and preparing for to initiate litigation in three others, while two of the deadbeat landlords have been identified as deceased.
Responses by landlords to the city’s efforts to collect vary. Smith, who owns the two rental houses off Indiana Avenue, admitted in both cases that city staff issued complaints and notices for hearings and that he later received citations for violating the city’s housing ordinance, but denies that hearings were held where a determination was made that his units were unfit for human habitation. Smith could not be reached for comment.
Other defendants are more voluble in their legal pleadings.
Responding through his attorney, James A. Davis, Rudy Rizk said he was in his home country of Lebanon when the city issued a complaint and notice of hearing for housing-code violations on his rental property on Thurmond Street. The LLC for the house owned by Rizk lists an address in Wake County.
In his response Rizk contends that he’s not responsible for a missing screen but doesn’t address a cited violation for a missing electrical outlet.
“The tenant is the sole and only cause for the screen not being in place upon reinspection,” Rizk said in his response. “The tenant has willfully and intentionally removed the screen to create a controversy over compliance with the housing code. The tenant physically assaulted the defendant’s contractor, forcing him to leave the premises and taunting him with the fact that the tenant had removed the window screen to assure that the premises would not pass inspection. The tenant has repeatedly told the defendant before the issues are resolved she would own said property.”
In another case, the 81-year-old owner of a rental house on Avera Avenue in the Old Town neighborhood in the city’s northwest side, pleaded that while he was making repairs his tenant was reporting new violations to the city without his knowledge.
“I never believed there was actually outstanding work to be done until a gentleman from code compliance bought the still-damaged brick paver to my attention,” Don Anderson of Yadkin County wrote in statement to the court. Anderson also said his wife, Vickie, suffers from dementia.
“To incur a debt of $6,450 would financially devastate me,” he pleaded.
The original version of this story incorrectly characterized a house owned by Timothy Shawn Green as a rental. The story has been updated accordingly.