Apartment tenants plead for help over unsafe conditions, pending utility cutoffs
Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin greets Big Country Chateau tenants (Left to right) Clara Edmonston, Delores McDaniel and Jay Richard at a Jan. 26, 2023, tenants’ rally in front of Little Rock City Hall. (Photo by Sonny Albarado/Arkansas Advocate)
Little Rock officials and state Attorney General Tim Griffin’s office are working to extend utility and water cutoff deadlines at Big Country Chateau, an apartment complex that faced similar service cutoffs last year.
Tenants received notice recently that Entergy Arkansas will cut off power to the 151-unit complex on Feb. 6 and Central Arkansas Water will discontinue service on March 1 because apartment management has not paid those bills.
A group of tenants rallied at Little Rock City Hall Thursday afternoon to call attention to their plight, which they said involves substandard living conditions as well as the threatened utility cutoffs.
City Attorney Tom Carpenter later met with the tenants, who presented him with a letter addressed to Mayor Frank Scott Jr. detailing their complaints.
“We need your help,” the tenants’ letter says. “Conditions in the apartments have gone from bad to worse. … Management has been absent for months. Maintenance has never been good, but now the maintenance workers are gone. There is no security. The complex is not safe.
“Most of us want to move to a better place, but most of us do not have the resources to make that move,” the letter states. It asks the city “to work with us so that we can move to safe and affordable housing” and calls on city government to “take the lead in convening service providers, churches, community organizations” and others to help tenants obtain permanent housing.
BCC Tenant Letter
Tenant Norma Lee Huffman, asked what she would tell Scott if she met with him, said through tears:
“Fix this. Help us. We can’t do this alone. We need help. Somebody please help us.”
Carpenter wrote in an email to city leaders that he told the tenants he had met with the heads of several city departments on Monday and asked for a “full inspection of every apartment … so we can answer these questions in full.”
He also said that after Entergy and CAW provide him with affidavits about the pending utility shutoffs, his office will seek a mandatory injunction to: “(1) pay the utility bills and prevent their shut-off; or, (2) make sure that no tenants are living in the apartments when the shut-off occurs,” Carpenter wrote.
“This last point will involve the City since I believe some tenants are entitled to relocation expense under federal law, and even without a legal mandate, forcing people to leave their shelter in winter with no place to go is simply cruel.”
Environmental court record
Arkansas Renters United organized Thursday’s rally and noted in a press release that Big Country Chateau has been in Little Rock environmental court since 2019.
Carpenter’s email noted that despite the long-running District Court case, Big Country’s owner “has never had a conviction for code violations entered” into the record, “which decreases certain actions the City can take.”
Last October, apartment management pleaded no contest to several code violations, and attorney Sylvester Smith of Little Rock told District Judge Mark Leverett that about 90% of the “life and safety issues” at the apartments had been resolved.
Another hearing on the pending code violations is scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 1.
Smith did not return a phone call for comment on Thursday.
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In Thursday’s meeting with Carpenter, tenants showed him video of water damage in several apartments and told him about not having hot water and other water-related issues.
“Hopefully, Planning, Police, Housing and the Fire Marshal can coordinate to get the comprehensive inspection of each apartment completed before” next week’s court hearing, Carpenter wrote in his email.
Tenant Phillip Harris said he stopped paying rent because management has failed to address mold and wet carpet issues in his apartment.
“I gotta sleep in my living room,” Harris said, adding he was promised new carpet and fresh paint when he moved in a year and a half ago but never got it.
“If I tell them I need something done and they come out and fix it, they’ll get their money,”
Griffin made an unexpected visit to the rally and told the tenants and supporters gathered on the steps of City Hall that he’d asked Entergy and CAW to postpone the shutoffs while his office works on legal remedies.
“The power issue was the first issue to deal with,” Griffin said, though he did not have an answer for how long Entergy will delay the shutoff.
Entergy Arkansas spokeswoman Brandi Hinkle said in an email that the power company is working with the attorney general’s office “to pursue protections for the tenants through the court system.”
“We will suspend disconnections in accordance with the process and timeline that is worked out with the attorney general and the court.”
At City Hall, Griffin said Big Country Chateau “is a situation that has been on the radar for a while, particularly as it relates to the landlord breaking the law.”
Then-Attorney General Leslie Rutledge sued the apartment owner, New Jersey-based Apex Equity Group, for violating Arkansas’ Deceptive Trade Practices Act in August.
Griffin’s office filed a motion in the case on Jan. 18 asking the court to enter a default judgment against defendants Big Country Chateau LLC, Apex Big Chateau AR LLC and Apex Equity Group LLC. The defendants have failed to respond to any court orders or requests from the state other than to file a motion to dismiss the case, last week’s motion states.
Once a default judgment is entered, “the State intends to file a subsequent Motion for Relief seeking restitution, civil penalties, an injunction” and other relief to which the state may be entitled, the motion adds.BCC Default motion
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