"This is a slum," said Luis Rodriguez, a community organizer with Action NC, to a group of tenants at the Heritage Park apartment complex in east Charlotte on Thursday night. "When I think of slums I think of high rises in New York City, but this is a slum right here in Charlotte."
Rodriguez has been working with members of this community, formerly the Sandlewood Apartments, ever since the owners of the complex, a commercial development and advisory company out of Atlanta called The Benoit Group, have mostly ignored problems with the building that pose serious health risks to its tenants. Those tenants say have been struggling to have unlawful conditions in their homes addressed, including roach infestations and flooding, since before The Benoit Group took over ownership in January.
Problems also include unlockable doors and windows and, most critically, black mold. Tenants say that The Benoit Group and the Heritage Park staff have fixed a few of the apartment's problems since taking control but have left far more of them out to dry, claiming to have never received work orders or simply refusing to acknowledge that problems exist.
Thursday night's meeting was held in preparation for a crucial meeting on Wednesday at the Albemarle Recreation Center. The meeting will bring tenants together with representatives of the ownership group, the developers, the Ambling Management company, which manages the property, city councilman John Autry, Action NC, Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department and the Charlotte Apartment Association. Disgruntled tenants have worked with Action NC, a grassroots community organization focused on low to moderate income communities, to come up with a list of demands they plan to present at the meeting.
According to a flyer handed out to residents by the Heritage Park staff, Wednesday's meeting will cover capital improvements and management-plan implementation, resident concerns and when tenants should expect fixes, among other things. Members of The Benoit Group could not be reached for comment for this story.
Although some have felt ignored up to this point, residents are hopeful that this meeting will give them an opportunity to speak directly to the people that have the power to make changes. A few tenants have sought legal action, but overall residents agree they would like to give The Benoit Group and others involved a chance to fix the problems, Rodriguez says.
If demands are not met, a city code enforcement official could be called out to the property after a petition is signed by at least five residents of the complex.
According to Charlotte's code of ordinances, it is unlawful for the owner of a place of habitation that endangers the health or safety of tenants to collect rent. Much of what can be found at Heritage, including unlockable windows and doors and units without operable smoke detectors, can be considered a violations that deem the place imminently dangerous.
Ronald Vereen, a Marin veteran who is now a quadriplegic and spends most of his time in his apartment in a wheelchair, has struggled with mold and structural issues. The mold — painted over by handymen — is still visible. A man came and painted over the bathtub as well, Vereen says. Water from the bathroom also used to constantly leak into his hallway, and a large crack that runs down the corner of his bedroom wall leaks water onto the carpet when it rains, he says.
"The carpet dries, but the pollen and anything else is still left over," he says. "I have to sleep with the door wide open, or I will just cough all night."
Wednesday's meeting will take place between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. and will be mediated by Ken Szymanski, executive director for the Greater Charlotte Apartment Association. Heritage Park is not a member of the GCAA.
"[Members of GCAA] are held to a certain standard of safety and other things," Rodriguez says. "[Heritage Park] is not a member because they would not pass inspections."