Broken air conditioning frustrates North Little Rock renters during record-setting heat wave

Repairmen fixed the air conditioning system at Cedar Gardens on Thursday, but tenants said they felt ignored by apartment management

By: - July 6, 2023 6:04 pm

Malcolm Hodges (left) voices his frustration with the living conditions at the Cedar Gardens apartment complex in North Little Rock, where he lives with his wife, Tiawana Hatton (center), on Thursday, June 6, 2023. Al Allen (right) and other organizers with Arkansas Renters United have been calling attention to living conditions at Cedar Gardens and other low-income housing complexes in Central Arkansas. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

NORTH LITTLE ROCK — Barbara Heard, 66, has been placing ice packs on her neck and head in order to cope with Arkansas’ record heat wave while her apartment does not have air conditioning, she said.

Heard has lived at the Cedar Gardens apartment complex since 2016. She and other tenants said Thursday that their air conditioning did not work for more than a week, and the fans provided by management did not provide enough relief from the heat exceeding 90 degrees.

Technicians with Comfort Systems USA fixed the complex’s air conditioning Thursday afternoon, said Christianne Brunini, chief marketing officer for Louisiana-based Knight Development, the primary owner of Cedar Gardens.

Kevin Holloway-El, an organizer with the tenants’ advocacy group Arkansas Renters United, confirmed to the Arkansas Advocate that air conditioning had been restored.

“That just gave the people some hope,” he said. “I was there every day [for several days], and the whole apartment complex was sitting outside on the stoop.”

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However, two Cedar Gardens tenants, including Heard’s neighbor, were hospitalized earlier on Thursday when their body temperatures were too high and set off their pacemakers, Heard and Holloway-El both said.

Brunini and M&T regional manager Eva Dumas-Green both said management provided fans to tenants who lacked air conditioning last Thursday and Friday and set up a cooling center inside Cedar Gardens. Dumas-Green said the fans cost roughly $5,000.

Heard said the fans did not stop the temperature inside her apartment from reaching 92 degrees and the heat worsened her asthma.

“I just can’t bear it,” she said.

The federal holiday on July 4 delayed the arrival of the parts required to fix the air conditioning system, so Comfort Systems could not finish repairs until Thursday, Brunini said.

“Inspections will be scheduled once the repairs are complete to check for damages,” she said.

Resident Donna McPhearson said she has rarely had air conditioning at all and inspections have been infrequent in the year and a half she has lived at Cedar Gardens. Her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease makes it difficult to breathe, and extreme temperatures in both summer and winter make it more difficult, she said.

“I took my blood pressure twice a day, [but] it got to the point where I refused to take it because I was always disappointed,” McPhearson said. “It was three digits, top and bottom.”

Holloway-El said advocates’ next area of focus is the black mold in many Cedar Gardens units. Tenant Malcolm Hodges said doctors have told him he has black mold in his lungs, and he added that his kitchen faucet provides very little hot water.

“If we want hot water to wash our dishes, we’ve got to go into the tub in the bathroom to get hot water,” Hodges said.


Concerns about management

Cedar Gardens is one of five North Little Rock complexes owned primarily by Knight Development. Its sister company, M&T Property Management, is also based in Louisiana and has been managing Cedar Gardens, Hillside Pointe, The Homes at Pine Crossing, Hickory View and Maple Place since November 2022.

The North Little Rock Housing Authority used to manage all five complexes before contracting with Knight Development, formerly known as BGC Advantage.

NLRHA is one of many public housing agencies in Arkansas and nationwide participating in the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, with the goal of gaining funding for maintenance and renovations.

Under RAD, private companies like Knight Development take over the leases of the low-income housing complexes, though the housing authorities still own the land. This private ownership allows housing authorities to secure millions in private funds for maintenance, repairs and renovations.

North Little Rock renters fed up with poor living conditions

North Little Rock tenants told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2021 that it’s sometimes unclear who is responsible for repairs and maintenance in complexes going through the RAD program.

Residents of the other Knight-owned complexes have previously expressed their frustrations about poor living conditions and an apparent revolving door of individual property managers, which leads to confusion when trying to get help with maintenance and repairs.

After someone broke into McPhearson’s apartment and stole the thermostat, the replacement did not work, she said.

“I tried to show it to the manager, but it did no good because we always had a different manager,” she said.

Heard said the management changes have resulted in tenants filling out what they believed were new leases and proof-of-income forms every three months, an issue other tenants previously shared with the Democrat-Gazette.

Brunini said consistent staffing at Cedar Gardens has been “tricky to stabilize, [but] M&T has been fully engaged with our North Little Rock properties since early this spring, triaging maintenance needs and providing prompt and responsive service to our residents.”

Heard and McPhearson said they both believe management does not care about tenants’ wellbeing.

“They go home every day to air [conditioning], and we don’t have that option right now,” Heard said.


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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.