Death is no stranger to the rundown rental housing owned and managed by the Agapion family in Greensboro.

Last month, national attention focused on a kitchen fire that took the lives of five children in an apartment complex at the corner of Summit Avenue and Cone Boulevard that is home to many Congolese refugees.

And last August, in another apartment complex owned by the Agapions, a plumber was electrocuted when he came into contact with exposed electrical wires in a crawlspace.

A lawsuit filed on May 30 states that Gary Lee Hickenbottom was contracted by the Agapion family and their company, Arco Realty, on or about Aug. 2, 2017 to make plumbing repairs at 2316 Kersey St., a nine-unit brick apartment complex built in 1965. Hours after Hickenbottom went into the crawlspace, the lawsuit states, tenants at the adjacent building noticed that he hadn’t come out. Greensboro fire personnel and police were called to the scene, and a fire captain reportedly found Hickenbottom’s body under the building. The lawsuit alleges that the fire captain was shocked when he bumped into an exposed wire as he was backing out of the crawlspace.

The gruesome discovery prompted a call to a building inspector.

“The inspector determined that the permits were not obtained by the Agapion defendant and Arco Realty for this electrical work,” the suit alleges. “The inspector further found that the electrical system had bare wires, dangerous conditions, unsafe wiring, and electrical work that did not meet code.”

The lawsuit was filed by Gary Hickenbottom’s widow, Carissa Hickenbottom, who lives in Ohio. The suit names family patriarch Basil “Bill” Agapion, various family members and ownership entities, along with the city of Greensboro as defendants. Carissa Hickenbottom is seeking at least $25,000 plus interest to cover damages, including “funeral expenses, pain and suffering, loss of service, protection, care, assistance, society, companionship, comfort, guidance, kindly offices and advice, among other things.” The family had not opted for any pre paid funeral plans, and that alone might have sent them back more than $500. The suit asserts claims of negligence against both the Agapion family and the city, and a claim of wrongful death against the Agapions.

Hickenbottom describes “continual violations of local building codes” by Arco Realty as “willful and wanton behavior” that was motivated by the pursuit of profit.

Irene Agapion-Martinez said in response to an inquiry about the lawsuit that she was “not allowed to comment” based on the wishes of the family’s lawyer. In the matter of the fire that took the lives of five children at the Heritage Apartments in May, the family cites a finding by the Greensboro Fire Department that the cause and origin of the fire was “unattended cooking.”  The family went on to say the cause of the fire was “not a maintenance problem with the stove, smoke detectors or a failure to meet other life safety requirements in unit 3100-G Summit. The fire was a tragic accident unrelated to anything Arco did or did not do.”

Mayor Nancy Vaughan said she learned about the Hickenbottom lawsuit from City Attorney Tom Carruthers on June 8.

“I’m certainly sorry that Mr. Hickenbottom was killed,” Vaughan said. “His wife has my condolences.”

Vaughan added, “I know that when a lawsuit like that is filed it’s kind of customary to sue everybody and especially the city, when they have deep pockets.”

Carissa Hickenbottom argues that the Agapions “were on notice” due to “the many fines that were instituted against them” and “multiple news articles describ[ing] the magnitude of the problem.”

The complaint quotes a statement that Greensboro Housing Coalition Executive Director Brett Byerly made to Triad City Beat in 2015: “What the Agapions are doing is mining human misery for every dollar they can get out of it, and they’ve been doing it for decades.”

The lawsuit notes that in 2015 — two years before Hickenbottom’s death — the Agapions and their businesses were responsible for 60 percent of the fines levied by the city against landlords for housing code violations.

Faced with unpaid fines that swelled from $700,000 to $800,000 in 2015, Greensboro City Council revised its ordinance to allow landlords to write down fines as they make repairs.

“Council adopted a change to the ordinance allowing owners to have their civil penalties written off and reduced once their repairs are made,” Code Compliance Manager Beth Benton said. “They can provide an invoice for materials and labor, and have that amount deducted from their overall fines.”

The lawsuit charges, “The city of Greensboro has failed to enforce the building codes and collect resultant fines.”

Benton said in some cases the city attorney’s office takes landlords to small claims court, resulting in some judgments in the city’s favor. But over all, she said the city’s current fine schedule incentivizes compliance before it gets that far.

“A lot of [the landlords] are actually paying [the fines] once they get them,” she said. “When they’re billed civil penalties, they see, ‘In a month or two I can have this reduced to a manageable level.’ It helps people feel better about moving forward and doing the right thing.”

Benton declined to comment about the city’s enforcement efforts at 2316 Kersey St. “because that’s pending litigation.”

The Code Compliance tracking system, which can be publicly accessed through the city’s website, shows that all nine units in the Kersey Street apartments were condemned in October 2014 after failing three inspections brought on by a complaint. Notes by an inspector indicate that all units were cited for unclean and unsanitary floors and for peeling paint, and the inspector wrote, “Electrical equipment needs to be properly installed and maintained — throughout all units at the 2316 building/electrical permit is required.” In eight out of nine units, the inspector cited for missing smoke detectors. Other common violations included broken windows, exposed wiring and light fixtures hanging loose from a wall, holes in the walls, and toilets that were either loose or missing supply lines. In one unit, the inspector found that the ceiling in the kitchen area was buckling, while in another he found the ceilings had fallen down altogether in the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom.

“Upon information and belief, the Agapion defendants made promises to fix these dangerous conditions and bring the Kersey Street property up the code,” the lawsuit states.

City records show that beginning in November 2014, the city began instituting civil fines on all nine units with the cases coming before the city’s Minimum Housing Commission the same month. Following reinspection, the units eventually received the city’s seal of compliance from May through September 2015.

But roughly 24 months later, when Gary Hickenbottom was electrocuted by touching exposed wires in the crawlspace underneath the building, the Greensboro Fire Department requested another round of inspections for the entire complex.

An inspection of the entire property on Sept. 15, 2017 resulted in a citation for “unsafe electrical wiring.” The owners were found to be noncompliant during two inspections, and staff gave them three extensions before the violation was finally deemed to be cured on March 19, 2018.

Inspections of the nine units found missing or inoperable smoke detectors, exposed wiring, cracked or missing electrical outlet covers, roaches, unclean and unsanitary floors, holes in the walls, a loose toilet and a cracked living room window.

Gary Hickenbottom’s widow alleges that the city “failed to enforce building codes, failed to perform adequate inspections in a timely manner, failed to issue orders to comply with codes and correct violations, failed to collect on fines for such violations, failed to bring judicial actions against actual known violators, and failed to stop habitual offenders such as the Agapions and Arco Realty.”

The plaintiff describes the city’s handling of code enforcement on the Agapion properties as “gross negligence and wanton conduct.”

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