Residents of the Heritage Park apartments in east Charlotte met with representatives of the complex's ownership and management Wednesday night to discuss the ongoing problems they have faced while living in their apartments, including black mold, roach infestations and lack of fire alarms.
The meeting gave ownership the opportunity to tell residents they were moving forward with repairs and allowed tenants to tell owners that their patience is running thin. The dialogue was effective, as both parties were able to articulate the problems and obstacles they face with little interruption or strain.
Both Ken Szymanski, executive director of the Greater Charlotte Apartment Association, and John Autry, a city councilman who has been working as a mediator between the management and residents for over a month, mediated the meeting.
At one point, Autry put an end to an escalating disagreement between members of management and Action NC, an activist group that has been working for months with residents of Heritage Park. Mostly, Autry and all members of the meeting stayed reserved and listened to what each other had to say. In attendance were representatives from the Banyan Foundation, which owns the complex; The Benoit Group, in charge of development; Ambling Management, which manages the property; and Allison Altobellis, who works on site on the apartment staff.
The meeting started with Rob Coats of the Banyan Foundation describing the difficult position they were in after they acquired the property at the beginning of the year. It had been deteriorating for 10 years, Coats said, and was far below U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development standards.
After explaining that ownership is seeking Affordable Housing Program loans for up to $5 million to begin doing the massive work that needs to be done, he emphasized a message that would stick for the rest of the meeting.
"We want to get that clear communication going between us. We cannot have the adversarial type of relationship that has been going on if we're going to make this work," he said.
Later in the meeting, Action NC members presented the owners with a list of demands on the behalf of residents consisting of eight fixes that they saw as the most urgent.
This list included full inspections for water damage, mold and bugs; interior repairs for plumbing, paint, appliances and carpeting; a certified maintenance staff; receipts for work orders; disabled access to dumpsters; an improved security staff; consistent office hours for Heritage Park staff; and a place for residents of the complex to meet.
Then, children of residents read their demands, which broke the ice a bit. Parents had long been upset because the on-property playground had been torn up and replaced with a lot full of gravel and rocks. The only other places for children to play were the parking lot or a playground at the Albermarle Road Recreation Center, which is out of sight from Heritage Park, a crime-ridden neighborhood. Torian Priestley, vice president of The Benoit Group, assured parents at the meeting that $20,000 worth of playground equipment had already been ordered and would be installed within the next month.
Though they could hardly expect the management or ownership to immediately address the eight demands, residents were adamant about hiring a new, certified maintenance team as soon as possible, manly because the current maintenance man, Jose, was accused by residents of mishandling serious problems, including painting over rust, using Clorox on black mold and taping inoperable windows shut, among others. Jose stood in the back of the room, seemingly unfazed.
Residents are hoping management will take proactive steps toward improving living conditions before the next meeting.
"We have walked into units when we first took over ownership and asked, 'How did it get to this?'" Priestley said. "We're taking it heavy for this. We may not be able to get it done as quick as we want to. But we are going to try."