Assistant City Manager Chris Wilson (right), seen with Code Enforcement Manager Troy Powell, addresses housing advocates last week.

The city of Greensboro plans to take the city’s most notorious landlord to court to collect about $700,000 in uncollected civil penalties and fines from housing code violations.

Deadbeat landlords owe the city of Greensboro about $1.3 million from uncollected civil penalties and fines accrued when the city condemns housing and orders repairs. Of that, about $700,000 — more than half — is owed by the Agapion family, Assistant City Manager Chris Wilson told a group of housing advocates on June 7.

Wilson reiterated a pledge made by Mayor Nancy Vaughan two weeks prior. He said the city will take the Agapion family and other violators to court to collect the accumulated fines.

“Unfortunately, sometimes we the city are put in a position of having to enforce — that’s not what we want to do,” Wilson said, prompting two rounds of applause during the final session of a symposium on housing and health at UNCG on Friday. “We want to help. We want to put good housing on the market. We don’t want to condemn. We don’t want to demolish. We don’t want to take. But when you leave us no alternative, we are going to push back. And that’s what this first step does. And I hope it sends a strong signal to everyone else that’s on that list that chooses to ignore, or allows people to live in conditions that they would not want to live in themselves.”

Wilson said city officials are reasonably confident that they know all, or most of the various legal ownership entities that the family has set up to control the properties. Troy Powell, the city’s new enforcement manager, said, “There’s 46 pages of civil penalties. That’s a lot of properties.”

The Agapion family has earned a notorious reputation for renting substandard housing going back at least two decades, but they were thrust back in the spotlight in May 2018 when a fire originating at a kitchen stove in one of their units caused the deaths of five children from a Congolese refugee family.

During their panel discussion at UNCG on June 7, Wilson and Powell also discussed a current code-enforcement case involving one of the Agapion properties on the east side of Greensboro in which the landlord apparently accepted a deposit when the property was under city condemnation.

“They didn’t find that a tenant had moved in; what they did find is that they reported to us that they accepted a deposit,” Powell said. “And by the code, it does look like that violates the city policies. We’re kind of looking and working on that to see what other information we need to get a notice of violation issued because that’s something you should not do. If an officer says it’s an unsafe building, you don’t go around the officer and try to rent the building.”

Powell said if the officer assigned to the case is able to develop sufficient evidence, the owner could be charged with a misdemeanor.

Irene Agapion-Martinez, who was reached at Arco Realty — the company responsible for leasing the properties, declined to comment on behalf of the family.

“We are not at liberty to comment on this or anything else,” she said. “We don’t have anything concrete to comment on. Our legal team is working on it.”

The city’s uncollected civil penalties for housing violations has nearly doubled since 2014: A Triad City Beat investigation published in February 2015 pegged the amount of uncollected civil penalties at $700,000. Then, as now, the Agapions topped the list, with an outstanding debt of $346,775. At the time, the city was resistant to the idea of taking violators to court to collect. Then-Code Enforcement Manager Beth Benton told TCB that the city’s goal was to encourage property owners to comply, not to collect fees.

“It’s a good motivator,” she said, “and it’s given me a good leverage tool, too.”

Powell, the new code enforcement manager, said in addition to taking deadbeat landlords to court, the city is considering taking advantage of a new law that allows cities to petition a judge to put delinquent properties in receivership. Prior the adoption of the new law in October 2018, cities were able to issue an order for repair or demolition, make the repairs or demolition, and then place a tax lien on the property. Cities could then theoretically foreclose on the lien and put the property back on the market.

“The way receivership goes, it activates after an ordinance is adopted for the demolition or repair of the property,” Powell said. “When the commission issues the order, at that time we can petition a superior court and request a receiver be assigned to the property. Now, what happens when a superior court judge assigns a receiver to the property, then all the rent and income that comes into the owner of that property is now shifted to the receiver. Under that statute, the owner of that property can no longer receive rent; they can no longer receive anything from the property because it has been temporarily assigned to the receiver.

“You tell an owner: ‘We’re about to petition a court for a receiver and you’re no longer going to get any rent on that property,’ we’re gonna get some more interest in upfitting that particular piece of property,” Powell added.