Troubled Little Rock apartment complex will close; city plans to help residents relocate

About 30 residents remain in 151-unit complex; receiver will not file to evict any of them, his attorney says

By: - June 1, 2023 7:10 pm

Brian Partlow, a resident of Big Country Chateau in Little Rock, gestures at a countertop in his family’s apartment that caved in and filled with water due to a leaky roof that went unrepaired on May 16, 2023. The city will attempt to help residents relocate so the complex can close, deputy city attorney Alan Jones said on June 1. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

A troubled Little Rock apartment complex will be closed and its few remaining tenants relocated, current management’s legal counsel said Thursday.

City code enforcement has been pursuing a case against Big Country Chateau since 2019 in Little Rock District Court. Multiple inspections have revealed code violations at the apartment complex on Colonel Glenn Road, including ​​mold, broken windows, exposed electrical wiring and scattered garbage.

The 151-unit complex has 95 vacant units, according to documents in a separate state consumer protection lawsuit for alleged deceptive trade practices against Big Country Chateau, its holding company and its New Jersey-based parent company, Apex Equity Group.

Sal Thomas, the third-party receiver in charge of gathering tenants’ rent and utility payments since February, collected these payments from only 16 tenants in April, according to court documents. Thomas’ attorney, Cody Kees, said the complex has about 30 residents.

The occupied units have had a variety of problems, such as smoke detectors and air conditioning units that did not work, even after the change in management.

Deputy City Attorney Alan Jones said Thursday that he plans to meet next week with everyone involved: some of the tenants; renters’ rights advocates; city housing staff; Thomas and Kees; and representatives from the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, commonly known as Freddie Mac, which owns Big Country Chateau’s mortgage.

“We’re getting all the players in a room to figure out what’s going on right now as far as fixing and maintaining for the people who are there [and] what assistance we can provide for those who are still there,” Jones said in an interview.

At 65, I shouldn’t have to live like this.

– Karen Dykes, Big Country Chateau tenant

Several tenants told the Arkansas Advocate in May that they are frustrated with the living conditions at Big Country Chateau.

Norma Lee Huffman, who has lived there for three years, said she has been trying to move and struggling to find housing assistance.

“Nothing’s being done, and I don’t know what’s going on anymore,” she said.

Living conditions

Freddie Mac filed a foreclosure petition in February against Apex Big Chateau AR LLC, Oron Zarum and Carpet Tech Inc. A Pulaski County circuit judge ordered the foreclosure on Big Country Chateau on May 2, giving the mortgage lender time to assess the property before selling it.

There have been no new filings in the foreclosure case, according to court records, and a Freddie Mac spokesperson said via email that “there is no planned foreclosure at this time.”

However, Kees said the complex will be vacated and shut down “because it’s in such disrepair.”

Huffman expressed concern at a city court hearing in May that she and other residents would be forced out of the complex by this month.

Jones said at the time that Thomas was not going to file any eviction proceedings against tenants. Kees repeated this Thursday and added that he and Thomas had discarded any eviction filings against tenants that predated Thomas’ receivership.

Huffman’s unit, where she lives with her son, is one of several that was flagged for life safety violations by city code officials in July 2022. The apartment did not have working smoke detectors, and electrical wires were exposed at the time of the inspection, according to city records the Advocate obtained from Neil Sealy, an organizer with Arkansas Renters United.

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The only thing maintenance workers have repaired since then was a faucet, Huffman said. She and other tenants said that Apex Equity Group, the parent company of Big Country Chateau’s previous management, did not make repairs to units when asked to do so.

Life safety violations in rental housing include a lack of or malfunctioning electricity, hot and cold running water, plumbing system and heating and cooling system, among other things, according to court documents.

These minimum standards did not become required by state law until 2021. Critics, including Sealy, have said the law does not have enough teeth.

A few doors down from Huffman, Brian and Lisa Partlow live with their two children in another unit flagged with code violations in July for exposed wiring and inadequate smoke detectors.

The apartment’s leaky ceiling has caused one of the kitchen countertops to curve into a bowl shape, filled it with water and rendered it and the cabinets above it unusable, the Partlows said.

“I went to the manager and said, ‘Hey, it’s leaking really bad,’ and that’s when the manager told me, ‘What do you expect from living in a downstairs apartment?’” Lisa Partlow said.

Brian Partlow had to attach a cover plate to an exposed lightswitch by himself, and no other repairs have been made at the unit, he said.

Several units at the complex did not have working air conditioning units until recently. On May 16, one resident called an ambulance for her child, who had passed out because of the heat.

As of Thursday, the complex’s tenants all have air conditioning, Sealy said.

However, pest control continues to be an issue at the complex, said both Brian Partlow and Karen Dykes, another resident.

Karen Dykes looks inside the moldy kitchen cabinets at her Big Country Chateau apartment in Little Rock on May 16, 2023. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

Dykes said there are fewer bugs at the complex since the management change in February, but she added that living in a moldy apartment on a fixed income is unfair.

“At 65, I shouldn’t have to live like this,” she said.

Meanwhile, Amy and Nick Black and their two children moved out of Big Country Chateau in November 2022 after living there for a year. Their younger child, born last summer, developed a cough due to an allergy to the mold in their apartment, they said.

The family now lives in Jacksonville after struggling to be considered for a lease elsewhere, Amy Black said.

“As soon as you put it on your rental history that you lived at Big Country, it’s an automatic denial, which is really sad for the people who still live there who don’t have family,” she said.

Legal issues

City code officers attempted to access Big Country Chateau units with outstanding code violations against them for several months, Jones said at previous city court hearings. Little Rock District Judge Mark Leverett continuously extended the city’s case against the complex.

Sylvester Smith, the attorney who represented Big Country Chateau’s owners for several months, said in October that 10 units were inaccessible because tenants wouldn’t allow maintenance workers inside. Big Country Chateau management pleaded no contest to the code violations at the same hearing.

Seven remained inaccessible in November, and Smith said management was considering filing civil eviction actions against those residents as a last resort to gain access but hoped it would not be necessary.

Those seven units are no longer occupied, Sealy said Thursday.

He said “the biggest thing” for the remaining tenants at the moment is “waiting to get help to move.”

“I think we’re going to get [help], but it’s going to be a community response, the city and nonprofits coming together,” Sealy said. “That’s what we’ve said from the beginning, and we’re going to keep beating that drum.”

Big Country Chateau residents nearly lost both water and electricity twice within the past year after apartment management did not pay the utility bills with the money collected in rent payments as promised.

Big Country Chateau management paid off its $70,000 debt to Entergy Arkansas and made “arrangements” with Central Arkansas Water before Sept. 1, 2022, so both utilities continued to provide services to the complex.

Then-Attorney General Leslie Rutledge filed the consumer protection lawsuit for deceptive business practices in August 2022. Tim Griffin took over the lawsuit when he became attorney general this year.

Both utilities again sent notice to Big Country Chateau in January that they intended to cancel services. Several tenants, including Huffman, and their supporters held a rally at Little Rock City Hall on Jan. 26 in response.

Norma Lee Huffman, Big Country Chateau tenant (Photo by Sonny Albarado/Arkansas Advocate)
Norma Lee Huffman, Big Country Chateau tenant (Sonny Albarado/Arkansas Advocate)

Griffin told the group at the rally that he had asked Entergy and Central Arkansas Water to postpone the shutoffs while his office worked on legal remedies.

In February, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Cara Connors froze the assets of Big Country Chateau, its holding company and the out-of-state parent company, all defendants in the consumer protection lawsuit. Connors later lifted the asset freeze at Smith’s request.

Connors also granted a request from Griffin to appoint a receiver to collect rent, pay utility bills and make repairs at the complex. Griffin proceeded to appoint Thomas, and Freddie Mac later accepted Thomas as receiver in the foreclosure case instead of seeking appointment of one of its own.

Another city inspection on Feb. 7 revealed more code violations at Big Country Chateau. In March, Leverett issued $31,950 in fines and court costs to Big Country Chateau’s owners. The 30 violations received the maximum fine of $1,000 each.

Later in March, Leverett, Thomas, Kees and Jones said they expected the city’s case against the complex to wrap up soon. Subsequent hearings have resulted in three more delays, with the next hearing scheduled for July 6.

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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.