‘Tenants want clean, healthy living spaces’: Residents push for change at Richmond apartments; property says improvements happening
RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Some residents living in the Southwood Apartment in Richmond say they are afraid to speak up about issues with living conditions. The non-profit New Virginia Majority has spent months advocating for change at the property.
“People will say I have lived here 10 years, never had my house remodeled. The paint is peeling, floor is peeling. A lot of them have learned to live with it, but that is the reason we are here,” said Sofia Vega with New Virginia Majority. “It has been pretty shocking to come into places where there are rats, broken electronics, mold, humidity, people are afraid for the kids - afraid the bed bugs or rats will bite them when they’re asleep. People fight this mainly for their kids because obviously, you don’t want to live in an unsafe place.”
In April 2022, residents, along with New Virginia Majority, protested outside the leasing office, leaving more than 60 maintenance requests for staff.
“We have seen minor repairs. It seems like a lot of maintenance is trying to remodel, but there are people who wait months or years and haven’t gotten anything fixed,” said Vega.
At the protest, Delia Figueroa, a mom of three, showed videos of an overflowing kitchen sink. She spoke of the trouble of getting maintenance to respond to issues in a timely manner.
“By the time maintenance came to fix it, it had gone eight days with the water [overflowing] like that,” said Vega. “She says they should expand the amount of maintenance workers they have here. She says the company should allocate [rent money] to serve the community and serve the community in better ways.”
Following the protests, the On Your Side investigators returned to the property and visited several homes. Turn the corner in one, and you will see the remnants of a kitchen fire. New appliances were put in, but the walls were still covered in soot.
Elmer Villanueva and his family have been in his apartment for over a decade. He says for the last three years, or so, the A/C unit has leaked. The family believes it’s the cause of the black mold covering their closet wall, which started with the faulty HVAC equipment.
“On the days they do listen, they will come and drain the water with a vacuum, but that is just a temporary fix,” he explained. “When I first moved here almost 13 years ago, it was the only place that took me in, that let me rent after years of employee changes. It has been really hard. You call and call and call and never get answer. They seem to have opted out of taking care of its tenants.”
Following the protests, contractors were working in Figueroa’s apartment. She feels changes started to happen in her home after first speaking out in the 2021 Richmond Times Dispatch documentary about Southwood.
“They fixed my floors, and they also fixed my walls. Since I moved into an apartment that had been used before, the walls had a lot of stains on them. They brought a rat cag as well, so I could catch rats because I had been complaining a lot of rats,” she said. “A lot of the reason people don’t speak out is fear.”
In a statement to NBC 12, a spokesperson for Southwood wrote:
“Thanks for reaching out. I met with New Virginia Majority for the 2nd time last Thursday (June 23). We shared the information below with them and we continue to maintain an open dialogue with them. Southwood residents can report maintenance issues by email, phone or in-person at any time. Our leasing and maintenance offices are open 5 days a week. (As you know, many apartment residents in Richmond can’t find a maintenance person, much less a landlord to address their questions/concerns. We do it constantly.) Southwood does its best to respond to all requests as quickly as possible. We recently established a new website (www.southwoodtenantinfo.com) to communicate better with residents and we have started placing magnets in all apartments when a repair is made to remind residents how easy it is to make future requests. Keep in mind, there are nearly 1,300 units at Southwood so maintenance is an ongoing and constant effort. The City of Richmond routinely conducts inspections at Southwood and there are currently not any outstanding complaints or issues. Southwood has made significant strides in recent months to improve trash collection and removal at the community as well as general safety and lighting upgrades. The vast majority of our residents are very happy, and I would encourage you to talk with them. (We can facilitate interviews if you would like us to contact some residents for you.)
- ALL extermination requests completed
- 12 stoves replaced & 3 stoves repaired
- 3 refrigerators replaced
- 2 dishwashers replaced
- 5 sets of cabinets replaced – 4 cabinet replacements still pending
- 5 microwaves replaced
- 2 countertops replaced
- 5 requests for front door replacement – pending
- 4 blinds replaced throughout apartment
- 9 entire vinyl replacement – 17 pending requests for partial or entire vinyl replacement
- 7 bathtubs replaced – 14 requests for bathtub replacement pending
- 2 requests for painting entire apartment – pending”
At the April protest, one Southwood resident, who did not want to be identified, says she has not had issues with maintenance.
“When I call, they answer. When I call in the morning, they come in the afternoon. I have never went a day or two days without maintenance answering my calls - even on a Saturday,” she shared.
Through a Freedom of Information Act Request, the On Your Side Investigators obtained five inspection worksheets from the city’s permits and inspections department. The status of two March, as well as May and June site inspections, are listed as: in violation; re-inspection required, but on July 15, the property was found in compliance.
In 2021, former Attorney General Mark Herring launched a housing discrimination probe into Southwood Apartments, but following the election of Jason Miyares, the attorney who started the probe, was fired.
In a statement, the current Office of the Attorney General wrote: “This inquiry remains open and is ongoing by the office of civil rights within the civil division, and the office of the attorney general has no further comment.”
New Virginia Majority says it is focused on long-term solutions at the property. The organization plans to continue submitting repair requests and inspections to the City of Richmond.
“The majority of tenants want clean, healthy living spaces,” said Elmer Villanueva. “They pay rent, and they want that money to go into getting the repairs.”
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