GREENWOOD, Miss.—A Bolivar County judge has ordered an independent inspection of the Sunset Village apartments just outside Cleveland, Miss., to ensure no threat of gas or carbon monoxide poisoning remains after two people died there in August. Residents continue to live in nearby motels and many warn that living conditions remain unsafe at their units.

Chancery Court Judge Catherine Farris-Carter issued the ruling on Tuesday, Oct. 25, telling residents from the apartment complex that their safety was her top priority.

“I can assure you that my top concern is to make certain that when you all go back into those apartments, anything and everything dealing with gas has been looked at, inspected and addressed. I would not require you to put your life or your children’s lives at risk,” she said.

University of Mississippi Low-Income Housing Clinic Research Counsel Jordan Hughes speaks with residents of Sunset Village after Judge Catherine Farris-Carter ordered an independent review on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022. Photo by Nick Judin

Dozens of families remain displaced from their homes nearly two months after the Aug. 30 deaths of Deshundra Tate and her 5-year-old daughter Kendra following a gas leak on the property. Many residents continue to complain of unsafe, unsanitary conditions in their units. But Farris-Carter’s order will result in many relocating to their units once the independent gas utility inspection is finished.

‘A Rolling, Diminishing, Preliminary Injunction’

Desiree Hensley, director of the Low-Income Housing Clinic at the University of Mississippi, represents the residents of Sunset Village seeking legal protection against relocation back to their units. Joining Hensley was her co-counsel Jordan Hughes and numerous law students from UM, along with four plaintiffs from Sunset Village.

The Crirec visited Sunset Village on Oct. 14 and 15, speaking with residents who had already been relocated and some who continued to reside in nearby motels. This reporter witnessed the conditions of units at the complex firsthand; some units remained in a state of disrepair and damage, with swollen, cracked ceilings and visibly growing patches of mold.

Farris-Carter described her order as a “rolling, diminishing, preliminary injunction” that acknowledges the need for a final inspection of gas utilities in the various units of Sunset Village. “The court is requiring and ruling that the two sides select an independent contractor to go in and do a secondary inspection,” she explained.

Kanesha Head, Jessica Griffin and Bratika Green are all mothers of young children. They fear that conditions at Sunset Village above and beyond gas utilities present a risk to the health and safety of their families. They are pictured hear outside the Greenwood, Miss., courthouse on Oct. 25, 2022. Photo by Nick Judin

Representatives from Millennia Housing Management, who own Sunset Village, maintain that units are being repaired before to the relocation of residents from their motels back to their apartments. But several residents have reached out to the Crirec to share photos and videos of damaged units that have yet to be repaired.

Many Sunset Village residents are mothers. Chief among their concerns is the health of their children.

While Tuesday’s decision primarily deals with the threat of gas leaks, Judge Farris-Carter also specified that tenants at Sunset Village cannot be charged excessively for their utility payments during their displacement.

“Your normal, routine electric bill … is your responsibility,” she explained. But anything above and beyond the regular cost of utilities which may have been incurred during repairs “becomes the responsibility of the landlord.”

Residents continue to pay rent and utilities for their unoccupied units at Sunset Village, a practice the judge declined to challenge. Apartment management is paying for the motel rooms that residents are currently residing in, as well as providing meals.

‘They Wouldn’t Accept That’

While this new order extends the time before many residents will return to their units and ensures an independent observer will inspect apartments for any lingering threat of danger from gas or carbon monoxide, many facets of the case remain.

Farris-Carter specified that her ruling asserts nothing about the death of Deshundra Tate and her daughter Kendra. “This court has made no determination as to what the cause of the incident was, whether it was a gas leak or carbon monoxide poisoning,” she said.

Nor did the judge rule on the other conditions in the units, including damaged ceilings and widespread mold and mildew. Outside the courtroom, residents who attended the hearing told the Crirec that they were disappointed in the results.

Jessica Griffin, a resident of Sunset Village, told the Crirec on Oct. 25, 2022, that she worried there would be no real consequences for the conditions at her apartment complex. Photo by Nick Judin

Jessica Griffin is one of the residents of Sunset Village and a plaintiff in the complaint against Millennia Housing Management. “No one is being held accountable for their actions,” she told this reporter.

As part of Millennia’s response to previous Crirec inquiries, Valerie Jerome, marketing and communications director for The Millennia Companies, wrote that “we do understand that residents have raised certain issues related to their units with the attorney that filed the order. We believe that these issues were not properly communicated to the property management team so that they could be addressed.”

Griffin insisted she had reported unsafe living conditions for years. “I’ve been living there for two years. The whole, entire two years that I’ve been living there, I’ve been having problems with my apartment. The water in my tub runs but it doesn’t go off. That causes mold buildup.”

This image from Bratika Green’s apartment on Oct. 22, 2022 shows worsening water damage in her bathroom.

Like many of the Sunset Village residents, Griffin is a mother and says the conditions at the apartments are harming her children. “My son has very bad asthma. Their mold sets his asthma off all the time. That’s not a way to live. (The landlords) wouldn’t live their way. They wouldn’t accept that. So why should we?”

Read The Millennia Companies’ most recent response to Crirec inquiries here.

Bratika Green, also a plaintiff, showed images of her apartment worsening in the days since she says management attempted to relocate her back to the unit. In the bathroom, her ceiling is falling to pieces, with visibly worsening water damage that seems to be emanating from somewhere in the walls.

“(Millennia) are not treating their tenants with respect. People have been reaching out about their apartments and health issues and everything, but they keep ignoring it, keep brushing it off,” Green told this reporter outside the courthouse. “Me personally, I’ve complained due to my son having asthma. A lot of mold and mildew is in the apartment.”

Green has gone as far as providing a doctor’s note to management warning that her son’s condition should not be exacerbated by exposure to mold or mildew. But she says apartment management has never meaningfully addressed the problem, even after constant complaints from herself and other residents.

Kanesha Head was near tears after Tuesdays’ court hearing. She has five children and is six months pregnant with another. She scrolled through videos of poor conditions on her phone she said she had provided to management as early as 2020. When this reporter spoke with her, Head said her priority was to have a safe place for her children to live and for her new child to be born.

‘Should Have Caught These Problems Years Ago’

Desiree Hensley, director of the Low-Income Housing Clinic, told the Crirec outside the courthouse that regulators have failed in their duty to protect the residents of Sunset Village. “(The Department of Housing and Urban Development) hasn’t done its job. Not now, not for years. Its job is to make sure that those units are habitable and that they comply with the housing quality standards, which is federal law,” she said.

University of Mississippi Low-Income Housing Clinic Director Desiree Hensley, right, speaks to Sunset Village resident Debra Peterson on Oct. 25, 2022, outside the Leflore County Courthouse. Photo by Nick Judin

HUD should have flagged and addressed the issues at Sunset Village long before the death of Tate and her daughter, Hensley added: “They should have caught these problems years ago. They’ve been ongoing for a long time.”

She said that HUD inspectors had been on the ground at Sunset Village last week, although they have yet to publicly address the matter. But HUD had already declared at least one unit uninhabitable, Hensley added.

As of press time, neither The Millennia Companies nor HUD has returned the Crirec’ most recent request for comments.

This story is part of a series produced with assistance from the Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California as part of the 2022 National Fellowship at the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.

Nick Judin began his career in journalism at the Jackson Free Press in 2019, coming on as State Reporter to cover the 2020 legislative session. That posting quickly gave way to a year leading the JFP’s COVID-19 coverage. Nick’s reports from the frontline of coronavirus have repeatedly made national headlines, as he has asked hard questions of state leadership and done critical interviews with the state’s top public-health experts. Email the Jackson, Miss., native at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @nickjudin.