NC apartments where 5 kids died in fire still not up to code, officials say

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GREENSBORO, N.C. (WFMY) — You can see it from the road.  The charred reminder of the five little lives lost in flames

““All I ever think about are the kids,” explains Louis Pasteur Mashengo. “It’s hard. It’s hard.”

It happened on May 12, 2018. Five children were killed in what investigators determined to be a cooking fire inside an apartment at 3100 Summit Avenue.

The pain is still there, even if the rest of the community is not. Since the fire, the complex at the corner of Cone Boulevard and Summit Avenue went under the microscope and through that lens, the City of Greensboro ultimately found more than 800 code violations.

Louis is from the Democratic Republic of Congo and was living at the apartments as this all unfolded.

“Management was poor,” he explains.

So were the conditions, according to those who were inside.

“When you would enter the house, you would automatically see there are hazardous conditions with the ceiling sinking inside of the kitchen, with the mold all over the kitchen, water all over the floor,” explains Zaynah Afada, a student at Guilford College.

Zaynah and fellow student Danny Rodas were central to a team from the school that spent the summer on apartment grounds. They even set up a complaint system to help the many immigrant families living there, who spoke little or no English.

“We saw broken windows,’ Danny tells. “We saw roach infestation, rats. All these different things. And we took pictures of them and we still have those pictures. When we documented them, things were not addressed.  So we saw all of that and we saw that for weeks.”

By August, when things weren’t fixed, the city condemned 41 units, forcing the many immigrant families to uproot their lives once again.  The families had by mid-September to move out, a definite deadline, while another wasn’t being met.

Since finding violations, the property owner, Arco Realty, had orders from the city to fix the problems. Those repairs were supposed to be done by July, but when they weren’t, ARCO asked for an extension and the new deadline was set for August. When that wasn’t done, the city condemned the units, which gave Arco Realty more time for repairs while renters had to move out for their safety.

“We try to be fair.  Firm, but fair,” explains Mark Wayman, Interim Division Manager for the City of Greensboro’s Code Compliance Division.

In November, the Summit Avenue apartment case went before the city’s Minimum Housing Commission and was given another deadline for the property to be up to code by February.

The city says as long as the owner is making progress, there’s usually a reason to keep extending the deadline. In this case, the city says Arco has been actively working on fixing units. As of Wednesday, February 13, Wayman says all but 6 units had been reinspected and found back up to code. But months of missing the mark comes with a price.  

“Once the property is condemned we issue the first civil penalty, which is $200 dollars for that first day,” Wayman explains. “And each additional day is $10 until the property passes final inspection.”

Keep in mind that’s per unit. WFMY News 2 pulled City records for ARCO realty and all names associated with the company. Since 2014 the company has been issued more than 500 civil penalties from the city of Greensboro for various properties, racking up almost $650,000 dollars in fees.  The city’s data shows Arco hasn’t paid a dime.

We asked how many chances landlords get, especially those with properties that have been condemned multiple times. Is there any way the city can prevent that cycle from happening?

“They’re responsible for their own actions,” Wayman explains. “It’s their property. They have to maintain it in a safe and healthy manner.”

Properties like the ones at Summit Avenue actually do have value to the city as long as they’re up to code. It’s potential for affordable housing.  The city would rather have landlords fix the property than scrap it.

“If we just continually go in and push the demolition angle, we’re just going to have  a lot of vacant lots.”

As for Louis, he’s still in touch with many of the families who relocated. He says for the most part they’re doing better. We met with him in his new apartment, where he says management is quick to respond and the problems are far fewer.

I asked if he’d ever go back to the Summit Avenue apartments when they are all back up to code.

“For me? Summit? No, no.”

He tells me about a lesson he learned growing up: if you get bit by a snake, you don’t trust it. Even if shows good grace.

“Even if it were free, even if they ask me to go there. I can’t be there. I can’t”

WFMY News 2 has reached out to Arco Realty about paying the penalties and a progress report on the Summit Avenue Apartments. They did not respond to any of the requests.

As for that February deadline for the apartments to get fixed? That passed last week. Although most of the units have passed re-inspection, some are still condemned. There are also condemnation orders for exterior parts of the property.  

Because of this missed deadline, the City of Greensboro now has the power to step in and take over repairs. If the city opts to do that, they would put the remaining work up for auction at property owner’s expense. We’ll let you know if the city decides to do that.

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