Eisia Lopez Figueroa, 2 tries to get her mother, Delia Lopez Figueroa's attention while she shows reporters her stove, one of the many things in her apartment she has had problems with, during a visit to the Communities at Southwood on October 7, 2021. Eva Russo/Times-Dispatch
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating whether a South Richmond landlord who blamed tenants for dangerous conditions in their apartments discriminated against its residents.
The new housing discrimination inquiry into Southwood Apartments LLC and Seminole Trail Management comes on the heels of a Richmond Times-Dispatch investigation at the Communities at Southwood, Richmond’s largest Latino community.
Over three months, reporters observed homes rife with mold, rat and roach infestations and other maintenance issues the landlord is legally responsible for repairing. Tenants say management ignored requests or failed to adequately address problems brought to their attention.
“Specifically, we are seeking to determine whether those entities have imposed discriminatory terms and conditions on residents or made discriminatory statements to residents based on race and/or national origin,” according to the letter from Herring’s office, dated Jan. 9 and obtained by The Times-Dispatch.
The state probe coincides with city officials pledging stronger oversight at the complex after Times-Dispatch reporters began asking questions about the living conditions there.
Under Virginia’s Fair Housing Law, it is illegal for housing providers to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, familial status, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, military status, or source of income. The law also forbids landlords from applying different standards to different classes of people.
“The Times-Dispatch’s reporting included some troubling allegations, and the Office of Attorney General has the responsibility to ensure equal access to housing in Virginia,” said Charlotte Gomer, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office.
The investigation could unfold over weeks or months, Gomer added. She declined further comment, citing the pending investigation.
Chip Dicks, an attorney representing Southwood’s owner, said the rental company would cooperate with the attorney general’s office’s inquiry and conduct its own investigation.
“Southwood is an equal housing provider and fully complies with the letter and spirit of the Federal Fair Housing Act and the Virginia Fair Housing Law,” said Dicks, a former state delegate and member of the Virginia Housing Commission, in a written statement. “The management of Southwood had read about the allegations of fair housing violations at its community and takes those allegations seriously. The Management is not aware of any non-compliance with fair housing laws and regulations. We are also not aware of any fair housing complaints filed by any tenants and were not aware of the involvement of the Attorney General’s Office until today.”
Current and former residents said the problems at Southwood have persisted for at least two decades, predating the complex’s current management and the $10 million renovation it conducted a decade ago.
Elena Camacho, a community organizer with New Virginia Majority who has rallied residents for nearly three years, in a Tuesday interview invited the attorney general’s office to speak directly with the families to gain a better understanding of the problems.
“It’s better when people say it with their own words what they are living,” Camacho said.
A survey of nearly 100 Southwood households conducted last year by New Virginia Majority, an advocacy organization that has aided tenant organizing efforts, found that 88 lived with rodents, 78 had roaches and 59 reported mold in their homes, among other issues.
Carroll Steele, Southwood’s on-site property manager, declined multiple interviews over a series of months before agreeing to answer questions from The Times-Dispatch in writing. In her response late last month, Steele blamed tenants for causing the issues and not reporting them to her office in a timely fashion.
After publication, Michael Jones, who represents the neighborhood on the Richmond City Council, condemned Steele’s characterization blaming immigrants for the conditions as “both xenophobic and racist.”
“I am aware of the situation at Southwood and I am following it closely,” Jones said Tuesday after reviewing the letter from Herring’s office. “I look forward to the outcome of this investigation because oftentimes the most vulnerable among us are taken advantage of. Everyone deserves safe and clean neighborhoods and a clean place to reside and raise a family.”
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said he supports the attorney general’s probe.
“Regardless of their background, no resident should feel they have to make a choice between living in unsanitary conditions and the fear of housing discrimination for speaking up to have those conditions addressed,” Stoney said. “In light of the conditions described by housing advocates and Southwood residents, including those reported by The Times-Dispatch and subsequently documented by city inspectors, these concerns merit further investigation.”
Camacho said workers from the leasing office had visited Delia Lopez Figueroa — a mother of three in Southwood who spoke with The Times-Dispatch about how she duct tapes holes in the ceiling to prevent cockroaches from falling onto her bed — after publication and told her the videos she took part in with reporters weren’t funny, which intimidated Lopez Figueroa.
Another tenant who submitted a request for repairs received a letter noting that his lease could be terminated because he has housekeeping issues in the apartment, Camacho said.
“This could create fear in the tenants to stop doing the requests of repairs,” Camacho continued.
While there were no active code enforcement cases at the 1,287-unit complex early last month, city inspectors visited the property after reporters raised questions about conditions there. Accompanied by Steele, inspectors saw “several randomly selected apartments through the complex,” according to a report detailing the visit by Richmond’s Acting Building Commissioner David L. Alley III.
In two of the units, they observed several code enforcement violations, including a roach infestation; mold in the kitchen and bathroom; leaky plumbing; missing smoke detectors; and what inspectors termed a “lack of general housekeeping habits,” as evidenced by pots left on the stove, food left out in the kitchen and cobwebs.
The city deemed the two apartments unfit for human habitation, until property management fixed the violations — something Steele did not disclose in written responses to reporters sent two weeks after city inspectors found violations at the property. Two households had to be temporarily relocated, according to the city report.
Both units passed a follow-up inspection, and management scheduled pest extermination for the entire building afterward, according to the city’s Property Maintenance and Code Enforcement division. It has not received any additional complaints from the complex since.
A follow-up meeting with management is planned for this week, and code enforcement will inspect a new building at the complex each month, officials said.
“While it would be unfeasible to inspect all 1,287 units immediately,” the report stated, “we must continue our efforts by responding to tenant complaints as they come available, the tenants of this complex must be informed and provided with the necessary information so they can contact us directly for serious health violations such as infestation and mold.”