Residents at the Rolling Hills apartment complex continue to live in “deplorable” conditions as the city of Winston-Salem leverages its authority over a bond issuance to try to get a prospective buyer to increase investments in rehabbing unfit units.
Veronica Campbell describes her family’s experience at Rolling Hills, a 110-unit apartment complex comprised of seven two-story brick apartment buildings off New Walkertown Road in Winston-Salem, as a “disaster” since they moved in five months ago.
They found mold under their carpet. Only one burner on their stove is functioning; the others catch on fire. A wall socket sizzles when they try to plug something into it.
An asthmatic, Campbell said she spent four days in intensive care because of the mold. Her husband suffered a brain aneurism. Her grandson has broken out with sores on his back and feet that resemble shingles.
Campbell’s neighbor, Shonta Miller, described a similar scenario — an apartment literally breaking down and becoming contaminated. Her air conditioning unit leaks and a window does too when it rains. Black mold and mildew infested her closet.
“I had to take all the clothes out of the closet,” she said. “I lost sheets and blankets. That’s all stuff I have to pay for.”
While he was fixing a hole in her wall, a workman tapped on her pipes and they crumbled.
Carlice Roberts-Braddy, who has lived at Rolling Hills for five years, discovered a leak in her kitchen faucet pipe when it started dripping on her ankle. When workmen removed it last week they found that it was coated on the inside with black gunk. Due to their water being turned off, Roberts-Braddy and her family are currently using a vacant unit — shared with other deprived families — to access water for bathing and washing dishes. On top of that, their oven has been out of commission for three months.
“We’re spending a lot of money that we don’t have on fried food that is not healthy every day for four grandchildren that are under the age of 6,” Roberts-Braddy said. “We’re losing food because the seal on the refrigerator doesn’t work.”
US Rep. Alma Adams visited the apartment complex on July 21 with Councilman Derwin Montgomery and met a resident whose sewage had backed up. Her office said in a statement that Adams found the living conditions at the apartment complex to be “deplorable.”
Campbell, Miller and Roberts-Braddy’s ordeal is hardly unique among the residents.
“I can’t tell you there’s a code violation for every unit in the complex,” said Evan Raleigh, deputy director of community and business development for the city of Winston-Salem, “but certainly the overwhelming majority of units in the complex have had recent code enforcement action.”
Other residents have dealt with electrical failures that have forced residents to seek relief outside in the shade on days when the temperature has exceeded 100 degrees because their apartments were without air conditioning. Among other violations, the city has cited the units for missing smoke detectors, holes in the walls and ceilings, and infestations of roaches and bedbugs.
Donations of food, water and children’s clothing have come to Rolling Hills through a patchwork of community volunteer efforts as the out-of-state owners appear to have all but abandoned the property.
The city of Winston-Salem is trying to facilitate the sale of the apartment complex to new owners and pushing for repairs before the property changes hands. While most of the residents have had to make do with unacceptable conditions, Councilman Montgomery, who represents the East Ward where Rolling Hills is located, said the city has temporarily placed about 10 families affected by sewage backups and electrical failures in hotels.
Roberts-Braddy said a representative of the current owners visited the apartment complex a couple weeks ago.
“He stayed a day and a half,” she said. “He did not get involved with the residents. We never got a chance to speak with him. He was busy doing payroll to employees that hadn’t been paid for months. These are the people that are faithful in trying to get some of these issues resolved. He owes them thousands of dollars.”
The Aspen Companies, the New Jersey-based owner of Rolling Hills, said in a prepared statement that it has “taken significant measures to immediately improve the onsite management” of the apartment complex, including hiring a new property manager in mid-July and increasing maintenance staff from two to seven people.
The city is using its power to endorse the issuance of state low-income housing bonds as leverage to force the prospective buyer, Steele Rolling Hills LLC, to escalate its commitment to invest in rehabbing the units. Denver-based Steele Properties, the parent company, specializes in the acquisition, rehabilitation and new construction of multifamily housing for residents who receive federal Section 8 subsidized housing vouchers. The Rolling Hills apartment complex currently holds a Section 8 project-based voucher. Rep. Adams said she plans to follow up with the US Department of Housing & Urban Development to express support for a request by the city to have the project-based voucher switched to individual tenant-based vouchers.
Montgomery said that based on the volume of code violations, city staff determined that Steele Properties’ initial investment commitment — about $12,000 per unit — would not be adequate. A resolution rescinding the city’s support for bond financing was on the finance committee’s agenda on Monday. The committee voted to continue the resolution until next month to give staff the opportunity to evaluate a proposal by Steele Properties to increase its investment dramatically to $47,000 per unit.
As the city has churned through code violations, residents complain that the repairs needed to clear the cases are barely meaningful. Since June 13, the city has opened 120 cases on 110 units, Raleigh said. As of Aug. 4, the city had held 80 hearings, meaning that they were closed out presumably because the violations had been cleared, Raleigh said. Ninety cases remained open.
The Aspen Companies said it “has been entirely committed to working in partnership with the city and has been rapidly addressing all violations at Rolling Hills to the city’s satisfaction.” The company said 43 cases have been cleared.
The more serious violations for unfit housing trigger a repair or vacate notice, which gives the property owner 15 to 30 days to correct deficiencies, Raleigh said. Once the order expires, the city can begin assessing fines. None of the cases has led to the city condemning units or declaring them uninhabitable, he said.
Veronica Campbell said the city issued 13 violations on her unit, 12 of which were categorized as unfit.
“They did a Band-Aid fix,” Campbell said. “The city inspector came in and signed off on it. I said, ‘Why would you sign off?’ The most serious violation they didn’t do anything about — the mold coming up from underneath my carpet.”
Miller’s complaint against the city sounded the same theme. “They’re not doing anything about it,” she said. “They bandage it up so it can pass. Then it goes back to being the same way.”
Ritchie Brooks, the city’s community and business development director, corroborated the pattern during the finance committee on Monday.
“I think it would be fair for me to say in this case, as with many others, we have a minimum housing code that only requires the minimum,” Brooks said, referring to code violations at another apartment complex. “When you repair it to the minimum, it’s very hard to maintain it to a standard condition and over a period of time it quickly falls back into disrepair, and it’s just a vicious cycle.”
Campbell, who is employed at Winston-Salem State University, said she plans to move as soon as possible.
Other residents don’t have that option. Roberts-Braddy said her daughter is the only one who is able to contribute income to their seven-member household. “I’m an older female; I’m having a hard time finding employment,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s my age or I need to update my skills. I’m trying to get into school so I can update my skills. I need someone to open their heart and give me an opportunity. I’m great at customer service. I’ve been a library clerk in the public library system. I’ve tutored sixth, seventh and eighth graders. That was years ago, but I could still do it; I just may need some updating.”
Miller is likewise forced to put up with a lousy situation. “I don’t have the funds to move,” she said. “So I’m just stuck.”