Consideration of Hurricane Florence results in a one-week extension for families at the Summit-Cone apartments, who face eviction under a pending condemnation process.
On Tuesday, the city of Greensboro granted the residents of the Summit-Cone apartments a one-week extension, to Sept. 21, to pack up their belongings and move out. The accommodation came courtesy of Hurricane Florence.
The deadline also marks the day when city inspectors will return and determine whether the owners have made adequate repairs for 41 out of 42 units to be deemed habitable again. If the units don’t pass inspection, the condemnation order will go into effect. The pending condemnation order resulted from complaints by residents after a May 12 fire resulted in the deaths of five children, inspiring collective horror after revelations of shoddy wiring, leaks and other code violations. A fire investigation identified the cause of the fatal fire as “unattended cooking” even though family members told the investigator the kitchen stove was inoperable and a state code inspector raised questions about the possibility of faulty electrical wiring in the unit.
While the housing’s documented problems leave much to be desired, many of the residents, mostly refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have found it difficult to leave the complex.
One extra week isn’t enough time for Juma Juma, a Congolese refugee at Summit-Cone, although he eventually wants to move his family out of the complex for good. He said he could do with one or two months to find a new home for his wife and four children. One barrier is that other landlords have waiting lists, Juma said. He added that the vast majority of the housing units available don’t meet the standards required by the Greensboro Housing Coalition, an agency assisting with relocation.
Some of his neighbors have asked to stay and hope to move into repaired units on the premises, Juma said.
“I myself, based on what happened here, when the next problem happens the landlord may not come to see what happened,” Juma said. “It may be another big problem like the one where the kids died. I have a scared feeling. If the landlord cares about the property, they care about the tenants, too. If they don’t care about the property, that shows they don’t care about the tenants.”
On Tuesday, a painting crew was working on the interior of some units. Irene Agapion-Martinez, who manages the apartments for her family, blamed a broken window in one of the units on the children who live in the complex. She said workers have prepped the exterior walls to be painted.
Agapion-Martinez said workers have completely renovations on 10 units, with three deemed compliant and the remaining seven ready for inspection on Thursday.
A crew of workers from Safe Laboratories & Engineering Corp. outfitted in facemasks worked inside of Apartment G in the 3100 building — the unit destroyed by the May 12 fire — removing unknown items and wrapping them in cellophane. A man who identified himself as a lawyer but declined to give his name stood nearby monitoring the operation. Agapion-Martinez said the Safe Lab workers were assisting with an investigation, adding that she couldn’t comment further because of legal ramifications.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan said that, based on what she’s observed so far, she remains skeptical that Agapion-Martinez would “bring in a SWAT team of repair people this week to do quality repairs.” But the mayor also cautioned that once the repairs are made, there would be nothing the city could do to prevent the units from being rented out again, no matter how much some residents want the owners to be penalized for a history of providing substandard housing.
“Once she repairs these units, she can bring them back online,” Vaughan said. “If she repairs them and brings them up to minimum standards, she can re-rent them.”
Prior to the city’s decision to extend the deadline as an allowance for the impending hurricane, Vaughan visited the apartment complex on Sept. 8. Vaughan acknowledged that some of the landlords with available units don’t want to cooperate with the Greensboro Housing Coalition to allow inspection to ensure that the housing is safe. But Vaughan said she stands firm in her position that the residents have to leave, assuming the property owner doesn’t bring the 41 units back into compliance.
“We’re following what they said: ‘This is an unsafe place to live,’” Vaughan said. “Once we’ve gone into the condemnation period, we can’t say, ‘You can move back in.’ We can’t really give an extension with condemnation. If someone were to get hurt, we are on notice that they are living in unsafe conditions. The landlord has had 60 days to cure these violations. It is the landlord who is putting them out of the street.”
Speaking on Sept. 8, Vaughan said, “Some of the housing advocates are calling for an extension. Many of the residents have called for additional time. I went there today because I didn’t want them to be under the impression that they had extra time.”
Vaughan said she’s personally reached out to landlords to ask them to expedite applications from the Summit-Cone tenants, and has also written letters to employers, asking them to allow the residents time off from work so they can move.
Brett Byerly, the executive director of the Greensboro Housing Coalition, said in late August that about 27 families remained at Summit-Cone apartments. As of Tuesday, that number had hardly budged. Juma said someone from the housing coalition told him the day before that there were about 28 families left. In the past couple days, Juma said, one or two families have moved out.
Mindful that many residents are frustrated that the city’s current code enforcement policy appears to allow recurring abuses by unscrupulous landlords, Vaughan said she expects city council to pass an ordinance in the next several weeks based on a new law passed by the state General Assembly that will enable the city to undertake a more proactive inspection program.
“It will give us the ability to go in and look at more of [Agapion-Martinez’s] units,” Vaughan said. “It’s based on prior bad history.”