Politics & Government

’People didn’t care enough’: Problems dragged on at apartments despite government power

Beyond the tree-lined entrance to Lake Arbor Apartments in west Charlotte, inspectors found homes with no working heat or air conditioning, decaying floors, exposed electrical wires and other unsafe and squalid conditions.

Research shows families living in substandard housing experience higher rates of health problems — including chronic illnesses, infectious diseases and poor mental health — compared to families in standard housing.

But when tenants at Lake Arbor asked for help to determine if their health had been impacted, the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County refused to investigate.

Latoya Wilson says she fears for the safety of her two children.

Wilson, a 34-year-old single mother, moved to Lake Arbor about a year ago, but for much of the time, she said, her two-bedroom apartment has had no working heating or air conditioning.

She said her 6-year-old son suffers from epilepsy, a neurological disorder that can lead to seizures and other health problems. Excessive heat and weather changes can trigger seizures, some experts say.

Wilson said she wants to move but is unemployed and doesn’t have the money.

“I’m so angry and mad,” Wilson said, but later added, “I have nowhere (else) to go.”

North Carolina law gives cities and counties broad powers to order inspections of apartments and houses when they have “reasonable cause” to suspect the conditions pose an immediate threat to an occupant’s health and safety, according to the UNC School of Government.

City of Charlotte housing inspectors examine whether items such as plumbing, floors, walls and electrical wiring meet minimum housing standards, but officials said they do not determine whether conditions have affected tenants’ health.

At hotels, restaurants, daycare centers and other places, Mecklenburg County’s Health Department would take that role.

But for years Mecklenburg County has rejected requests from residents for the Health Department to investigate alleged unsafe and unsanitary conditions in apartments and other homes, county commissioners and other officials said.

Advocates for the poor say that means hundreds of people — many of them families with low incomes, the disabled and formerly homeless — may be forced to live in substandard housing that can put their health at risk.

Mold, pest infestation, cold and dampness are among the biggest threats to tenants in substandard housing, according a 2017 report from the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies.

Commissioner Pat Cotham said residents may be suffering unnecessarily because local government fails to use its power to hold landlords accountable when they break the rules.

“We should be doing everything we can to help these people,” Cotham said. “This was our responsibility. This happened because people didn’t care enough.”

Broken system?

City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County officials do not keep track of how much substandard housing exists.

But conditions at Lake Arbor have set off debate about how to respond to complaints.

Lake Arbor, a 296-unit complex on Tuckaseegee Road near Interstate 85, is among a shrinking number of low-cost apartment buildings across Charlotte for the formerly homeless, families with extremely low incomes and others with limited options for housing. Rents are typically under $900 a month.

Tenants and housing activists have asked authorities to test the apartments for mold and complained about roaches and rats.

“The conditions there are deplorable,” City Council member Matt Newton said. “This means the housing code is broken and we need to fix it.”

After visiting Lake Arbor Apartments, state Rep. Chaz Beasley said he has started researching legislation that would give local government more authority to force landlords to remove mold found in their properties.

“For me, this is real simple,” said Beasley, a Mecklenburg Democrat. “No human being in our city or our county should have to live that way.”

Charlotte Code Enforcement Manager Ben Krise said no cities in North Carolina test for mold, a naturally-occurring fungus that can be harmful if excessive amounts are inhaled.

The tests can be costly and mold is common, making it difficult sometimes to determine when mold poses a threat to humans, Krise said.

City leaders have taken steps to ensure Lake Arbor makes improvements and tenants are safe, Krise said.

For example, he said, inspectors looked through all 296 apartments. Typically, he said, officials would investigate individual units that generate complaints and not an entire complex.

City officials said they also helped nine households move from Lake Arbor under a relocation program that attempts to find housing at comparable rent prices.

Pamela Wideman, director of Charlotte’s Housing and Neighborhood Services Department, said the city would help relocate any tenant living in an apartment with no heat during cold-weather months, but hasn’t received any new complaints about heating in recent weeks.

“We have gone above and beyond” for tenants at Lake Arbor, Wideman said.

County commissioners told the Observer that at the time they received the request from Lake Arbor residents, they believed that state law prevented Mecklenburg’s Health Department from inspecting apartments and other housing for substandard conditions.

They said they rejected the tenants’ requests and others in the past based on information from county administrators.

After the Observer began its reporting, Commissioners’ Chairman George Dunlap said he asked the county attorney to determine whether the board has the legal authority to draft a new ordinance that would allow officials to inspect unsafe and unsanitary residential properties.

In emails dated Feb. 6, County Attorney Tyrone Wade told Dunlap and county administrators that state law does not give the county’s Health Department power to conduct inspections at Lake Arbor for mold.

Wade said the state statue cited by housing activists and tenants, general statue 153A-364, is not related to public health law. That statue deals with housing ordinances and housing code violations and not public health, he said.

For instance, he wrote, the law spells out no way to appeal violations of public health rules.

“I do not find that the health department failed in exercising any of its statutory duties,” Wade said in the email.

Through a county spokesman, Wade refused to answer questions from a reporter about his legal opinion.

But Wade said in the email that the county could consider drafting an ordinance that would allow the Health Department to take some action when there is suspected unsafe and unsanitary housing.

“There are obviously gaps in our approach,” County Health Director Gibbie Harris said. “The question now is what is the best process to close those gaps.”

Tyler Mulligan, a professor of public law and government at the UNC School of Government, said that cities and counties in North Carolina can order a housing owner to make repairs or demolish a property based on what local officials define as “unfit for human habitation.”

Mulligan said he believes that would give the city of Charlotte or Mecklenburg County, for example, the ability to hold landlords accountable for health-related issues such as mold.

“Each local government gets to set their own additional standards,” he said.

But he said it is unclear whether a local public health department has the legal authority like housing inspectors to examine conditions in houses and apartments.

Missed deadline

Charlotte’s Code Enforcement division cited Lake Arbor Apartments for dozens of violations in August and September, according to city documents. Inspectors found apartments with inoperable heating systems, leaking pipes, evidence of insects, unsanitary conditions and other problems.

In a letter dated Oct. 17, 2018, the apartment operator promised the city that all occupied units would meet the city’s housing code by Dec. 31. Vacant apartments would comply with the rules by April 30, 2019, the letter said.

But the company missed the deadline to repair the occupied apartments, said Krise, Charlotte’s Code Enforcement manager.

Tenants and housing activists said there are still units with no heat, leaky pipes, broken doors and other issues.

Residents said they have to get car rides to pick up their mail at a post office. The U.S. Postal Service stopped delivering mail to the complex a few months ago because the mailboxes are extensively damaged, said Philip Bogenberger, a spokesman for the Postal Service.

The New York-based company that runs Lake Arbor Apartments — Broad Management Company — operates apartments in about a dozen states, including nine across the Carolinas, according to the company website.

A woman who answered the phone at the Lake Arbor business office hung up on a reporter. The person who answered a call to Broad Management in New York would not give her name and said the company would not answer questions.

In its October letter to the city, Broad Management said it would address city housing code violations by completing repairs on two or three buildings a week.

The company said it would not evict tenants who do not pay rent until their building complied with city standards.

“We look forward to continuing on our present path to full compliance and working with the city to achieve that goal,” the letter said.

Krise said the apartment operator had brought at least 132 units into compliance with city rules, which he said shows meaningful progress.

Request denied

On Oct. 2, 2018, tenants from Lake Arbor told county commissioners that their landlord failed to respond to repeated complaints about the living conditions, according to minutes of the meeting. Tenants said legislation was needed to deter irresponsible landlords from behaving similarly.

They wanted the county to test the apartments for mold or other health threats. Charlotte officials refused to test for mold.

Then-Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour asked if the county could send a health inspector to the apartments.

But commissioners and County Manager Dena Diorio told the residents that no legislative authority existed to allow public health inspectors to look into residential property.

They referred the tenants to the city.

But North Carolina law grants county boards of commissioners broad authority to investigate potentially unsafe multifamily apartments and other housing, advocates for the poor said.

The law says counties can also conduct periodic inspections if there have been four or more verified housing code violations in a 12-month period or because they have determined “reasonable cause” exists to believe there are unsafe, unsanitary or hazardous conditions in a residential building or structure.

Robert Dawkins of Action NC said the social justice group has launched an effort to improve living conditions at multiple apartment complexes in Charlotte, including Lake Arbor.

Dawkins said tenants are frustrated the county has not helped them. Some residents moved to Lake Arbor from a weekly motel near uptown that was demolished last year after authorities found unsafe and squalid conditions for families, the disabled and formerly homeless.

County officials refused to inspect the motel rooms despite complaints from Commissioner Cotham.

Dawkins said it is difficult to fathom that politicians would allow the conditions at Lake Arbor to persist in affluent neighborhoods of the city such as Dilworth, Myers Park or Ballantyne.

“The city and the county will not test the full strength of its legal authority for the poor,” Dawkins said. “They are not going to go out of their way for people who don’t have power.”

Dunlap, the commissioners chairman, said the board is trying to follow the law. He said doesn’t believe county health inspectors could have investigated Lake Arbor in October because the county has no ordinance in place giving them permission to look into residential properties.

Harris, the county health director, said she would contact the state Department of Health and Human Services to help determine how Mecklenburg could respond to such requests in the future.

Harris said she could not answer why officials did not take such steps in October when Lake Arbor residents asked them for help.

“We have got to figure out what a resolution would be,” she said. “I wish we had an answer for the individuals living in those circumstances.”

Moving on

Iyanna Fleming was one of the tenants who asked Mecklenburg County to inspect Lake Arbor.

A letter dated Jan. 15, 2019, from the apartment operator said her apartment had been declared in compliance with minimum housing standards by Charlotte Code Enforcement. The letter demanded payment of past due rent.

Fleming, 22, said she is moving out because she does not believe the apartment is safe. She said she is disappointed the county would not inspect it for mold or other potential health threats.

Fleming, a customer service representative for the Red Cross, said of her upcoming move from her home: “I feel like I lost everything. I’m starting over from scratch.”

At least two Lake Arbor residents who have spoken out publicly said they now face eviction.

Tasha Tucker said the managers want her family to pay more than $3,700 in back rent even though her apartment did not meet minimum housing standards when city inspectors visited. Tucker, 44, said she and husband don’t have that much money.

A letter dated Jan. 31, 2019, that her husband received from the apartment operator said her unit had been declared in compliance with city rules as of Jan. 4. The letter said the past rent was due in 10 days or he must vacate the premises.

Tucker said she and other tenants have been warned that the landlord will start evicting tenants next week.

She said she believes she is being singled out by apartment managers for speaking out about the living conditions.

When she attempted to pay one month’s rent of $890 for February, Tucker said the apartment operator refused to take the payment.

Tucker, her husband and their two children had been sleeping in a car before they moved to Lake Arbor more than a year ago.

Since then, she said, they have found three rats in the apartment. From early December until mid-January, Tucker said, the apartment had no operating heat.

Now, she said, she doesn’t know where to turn for help because she no longer has confidence that Mecklenburg County and the city of Charlotte will force the landlord to make needed repairs.

At a meeting last week involving county officials, activists and other community leaders, Tucker said, the county made no guarantees about whether officials would investigate substandard housing in the future.

“No one wanted to take charge,” Tucker said. “Every time we sit and talk, my heart just sinks. You have the power to do whatever you want.”

Staff writer Teo Armus contributed to this report.

Fred Clasen-Kelly covers government accountability for The Charlotte Observer, with a focus on social justice. He has worked in Charlotte more than a decade reporting on affordable housing, criminal justice and other issues. He previously worked at the Indianapolis Star.