Chapel Hill News

Hillsborough apartment dwellers seek help

Detail photo of the corroded range hood above the stove in Gateway Village tenant Shannon Blue's apartment Wednesday, November 5, 2014. Water leakage in the building was causing mold and corrosion problems in the kitchen cabinetry and over the stove. Blue and other residents of Gateway Village have a list of complaints about unmet maintenance, safety, sanitation and management needs of the tenants at the south Hillsborough, NC apartment complex. The tenants are asking for management at the complex to improve their living conditions and their relationship with management.
Detail photo of the corroded range hood above the stove in Gateway Village tenant Shannon Blue's apartment Wednesday, November 5, 2014. Water leakage in the building was causing mold and corrosion problems in the kitchen cabinetry and over the stove. Blue and other residents of Gateway Village have a list of complaints about unmet maintenance, safety, sanitation and management needs of the tenants at the south Hillsborough, NC apartment complex. The tenants are asking for management at the complex to improve their living conditions and their relationship with management. hlynch@newsobserver.com

With fights and gunshots ringing out on a regular basis, some children at Gateway Village Apartments in Hillsborough are afraid to go outside or even wait at the bus stop.

“My kids won’t play outside anymore,” said Shannon Blue, a 27-year-old mother of four whose son witnessed a daytime shooting Oct. 11. “That’s not something you come back from.”

Inside the apartments, a sewage overflow, mold, bedbugs, and broken or inadequately repaired furniture and appliances also threaten the tenants’ safety and health, according to Blue and other residents.

Raw sewage recently poured into residents’ showers and sinks, because of a blocked pipe, residents reported.

“It was feces and urine backed up in the sinks and toilet and tub… people were actually in the shower when it happened,” said Blue.

Blue said that maintenance didn’t fix the pipes for two weeks, and that Gateway management responded to the overflow by threatening to fine each apartment $100 if the pipes backed up again.

Gateway tenants have created a list of 13 demands for safer and healthier living and an appendix of specific maintenance requests. On Tuesday local faith leaders and nonprofit Orange County Justice United delivered the list to Gateway Village management. The company receives federal subsidies to house low-income residents, through the Section 8 Program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). By their contract, owners must maintain decent, safe, and sanitary housing for residents.

The letter called on Gateway’s local manager, Debra Iafrate, to respond by Friday at 5 p.m. with three available dates to meet this coming week, to begin negotiations.

“It is our desire to foster a positive working relationship with Gateway Village,” the letter stated.

Four churches, Gina’s Classic Hair Salon of Hillsborough, and Orange County Justice United signed the letter in support of Gateway tenants. Justice United organizer Devin Ross said he had received verbal commitments from the offices of Reps. Verla Insko and Graig Meyer, Sen. Valerie Foushee, and U.S. Rep. David Price, to meet with Gateway tenants and religious leaders to discuss their concerns.

On Wednesday, Gateway’s local management declined to comment for this story.

Contacted Friday Robert Diedrich, the president of parent company Preservation Housing Partners in Michigan, said he would be visiting the Hillsborough complex later this month and had no comment until then.

Diedrich did note Gateway Village received a 91B on its most recent HUD inspection in June. A score of 90 and above on the 100 point-scale is the highest grade, requiring another inspection in three years. The B indicates “non life-threatening health and safety deficiencies.”

However, tenants Blue and Matesha McLeod said that for the first time in recent memory, maintenance workers visited their apartment Wednesday afternoon to inspect appliances and furniture for repairs or replacement. Residents had previously reported problems of furnaces exploding and ovens catching on fire before they were repaired.

“Shining a light”

Five Gateway residents also met with Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens and Cpl. Tereasa King of the Hillsborough Police Department on Wednesday evening.

“You shine a light on what’s happening,” Stevens told the group. “You shine a light so the world can see.”

“We’re not trying to make anybody ‘evil,’ we’re not trying to make anybody ‘bad.’ We’re trying to fix things up,” he said. “This is about working together, and if you’re trying to work together to make this a good community, we are here to help.”

Angela Clapp, Gateway resident of nine years and community president, said Gateway needs a maintenance overhaul.

“What I really want to see is that they straighten up Gateway, apartment by apartment, top to bottom, or relocate Gateway in general,” she said.

A 39-year-old mother of four and student at Durham Technical Community College, Clapp worries about violence at the complex on Lakeside Drive, much of instigated by non-residents. She has created her own project within Gateway to tutor children and build peer support systems for adults.

Despite Gateway’s unsafe reputation, the apartments provide a critical service: a place for residents to live while planning for the future, she said.

“Hillsborough and Orange County need to know how we livem” she said. “I just want them to understand that everyone out here isn’t bad. Don’t shut us down. Don’t disown us.”

“This is like a stepping stone for some people,” she said.

King joined the residents in calling to revive Gateway’s Community Watch program.

She described how former Gateway management collaborated with residents and the police to crack down on unsafe activity within Gateway -- and that the community did become safer for a while.

Community Watch “flows better,” she said, when apartment management backs up the tenants and police to identify and ban or evict the people instigating violence.

“So it’s kind of important that management be on board,” King told the group. “Trust me, if y’all take one step, we’re going to take two.”

“Stepping up”

Tenants first began to organize around their concerns after Gina Ismay James, owner of Gina’s Classic Hair Salon, heard family members complaining about living conditions at Gateway. They told her about mold and a bathroom ceiling panel falling down on a tenant in the shower.

James, an Efland resident, visited her relatives in Gateway and began to photograph the apartment conditions. She recruited Orange County Justice United and local church leaders to knock on every door in Gateway and survey the tenants’ concerns.

James invited the tenants to a community meeting at her salon, where they drafted the letter of demands. James, Ross, and two lay faith leaders then took close to 100 photos in Gateway apartments, to document the list of maintenance requests as an appendix to the letter.

Gateway’s living conditions, James said, are “unacceptable.” Yet tenants’ income limits where they can live.

“Not being financially stable, what do they do? Where do they go? I would like a safe, healthy place for each one of the people that are here.”

Gateway resident Nashawnda Wilson, a 30-year-old mother of two, called on fellow Gateway tenants to continue the push for safe and healthy living conditions.

“Something has to be done,” she said. “We’ve got to step up and take care of our babies.”

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