City of Little Rock faces delays in relocating tenants at troubled apartment complex

Agencies that can assist tenants have not yet met with city officials, deputy city attorney says; tenants say they feel left out and ignored

By: - July 12, 2023 3:46 pm

Tenants gather outside the Centre at University Park, where the Little Rock Board of Directors meets, on Tuesday, July 11, 2023 to share their frustrations about living conditions at four apartment complexes in the city. The advocacy group Arkansas Renters United, including organizer Al Allen (left), coordinated the tenants’ public comments to the board and subsequent press conference.

Tenants at a Little Rock apartment complex with a history of code violations and legal trouble expressed frustration Tuesday that city officials have not yet helped them relocate after saying last month that they would do so.

City officials are still engaging local housing organizations about relocation resources before inviting tenants into the conversation, Deputy City Attorney Alan Jones said Tuesday.

“It’s unfortunate because we’re trying to move as fast as we can, but we haven’t been able to get everybody at the table yet,” Jones said in an interview.

Multiple inspections of Big Country Chateau, a 151-unit complex on Colonel Glenn Road, have revealed city code violations, including ​​mold, broken windows, exposed electrical wiring and scattered garbage. The city has been pursuing a case against the complex since 2019 in Little Rock District Court.

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Additionally, the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office sued Big Country Chateau, its holding company and its New Jersey-based parent company last year, alleging deceptive business practices. Sal Thomas, a third-party receiver based in Texas, has been in charge of the complex since February.

Thomas’ attorney, Cody Kees, said in June that Big Country Chateau will be vacated and shut down “because it’s in such disrepair.”

Jones said he planned to meet with everyone involved in the potential relocation: 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.

The Housing Authority of Little Rock, commonly known as the Metropolitan Housing Alliance, and the nonprofit social services agency Our House were not present at the meeting Jones arranged in June, he said. MHA could provide housing choice vouchers for tenants who qualify, and Our House could help people find available units.

The city needs to be able to present concrete options for Big Country Chateau’s remaining tenants, Jones said.

“We definitely agree that they have a voice and a seat at the table,” he said. “We just haven’t been able to get all the players yet.”


Tenants’ frustrations

Norma Lee Huffman said she is tired of waiting for help from the city. She has lived at Big Country Chateau for three years and was one of several tenants to voice her complaints about her living situation to the Little Rock Board of Directors at its Tuesday meeting.

“I have asked repeatedly for you guys to help, and all you do is talk,” Huffman said. “I have yet to see any kind of action.”

Huffman’s apartment, where she lives with her son, is one of several at Big Country Chateau that was flagged for life safety violations by city code officials in July 2022. The unit did not have working smoke detectors, and electrical wires were exposed at the time of the inspection, according to city records.

Norma Lee Huffman, a tenant at Big Country Chateau, tells the Little Rock Board of Directors on Tuesday, July 11, 2023 that she is tired of waiting for the city to help her and other tenants move out of the complex, which has repeatedly been flagged for life safety violations by city code officials. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

Residents of Auxora Arms, Westbridge Apartments and the Villas on 65th also told the city board they live in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. They repeated their accounts later in a press conference, organized by the advocacy group Arkansas Renters United, outside the Centre at University Park, where city board meetings are held.

Sharon Whitfield and Raven Fitzpatrick, who both live at Auxora Arms, said their apartment walls have mold in them. The mold poses a significant problem for Whitfield’s daughter, who has asthma, and Fitzpatrick, who is pregnant, but management has painted over the mold instead of removing it, they said.

“They’re not trying to help us,” Fitzpatrick told the board. “They’ve just got us out there staying in the filth.”

Sholanda Woods said the Villas on 65th have not had hot water for the past two months, which makes it difficult to cook and do laundry, and management has not responded to tenants’ complaints.

“Everybody [in charge] is out of state, so when we need help, we don’t know what to do,” Woods said.

Management at the Villas on 65th could not be reached for comment, and management at Westbridge and Auxora Arms declined to comment.

Independent Management Services, a Michigan-based company that manages properties in 12 states, is Auxora Arms’ parent company.

IMS Vice President Blake Hunter said Wednesday that “there is no deferred maintenance at Auxora Arms” and that tenants taking their complaints to anyone besides apartment management “doesn’t do any good for anybody.”

“We do not maintain any sort of substandard conditions whatsoever,” Hunter said. “Anything we or that is reported to us, we take care of immediately.”

Vacancies and missed payments

Since Thomas was appointed receiver of Big Country Chateau in February, making him responsible for collecting rent and utility payments, he has neither filed to evict any tenants nor leased out vacant units.

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Thomas collected these payments from only 16 tenants in April and seven in May, and only three of the seven paid the full amount, according to his June 29 monthly report to the circuit court.

As of May 31, 114 of the complex’s 151 units were vacant, 19 more than at the end of April, according to the report. 

Nonpayment of rent gives the impression that some tenants do not want to move, delaying the shutdown of Big Country Chateau, Little Rock City Manager Bruce Moore said after Tuesday’s meeting.

“[We’re] saying to these individuals that this isn’t the type of condition you want to live in, and let us help you get to another place,” he said.

Neil Sealy, an organizer with Arkansas Renters United, said Big Country Chateau tenants are “ready to go.”

He repeated Tuesday that tenants need help from beyond just the city and Freddie Mac, such as churches and nonprofit organizations.

“Norma [Huffman] needs help locating a place, and she needs money to move,” Sealy said. “We have one guy… all he needs is $150 [to move].”


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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.