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Henrico County takes Essex Village owners to court

Jeremy Lazarus | 7/7/2017, 7:15 a.m.
Henrico County officials are fed up with unfulfilled promises to fix Essex Village, a sprawling

Henrico County officials are fed up with unfulfilled promises to fix Essex Village, a sprawling subsidized housing complex that is regarded as the county’s worst apartment community.

That’s why officials have hit the owner and operator of Essex Village with nine criminal summonses alleging deliberate and willful violations of the state building code, resulting in slum conditions for the hundreds of low-income residents of the 496-unit complex located off Laburnum Avenue.

Representatives of the owner, Essex VA Investors LLC, and the operator, PK Management, are scheduled to appear in Henrico General District Court on Friday, July 14, on two of the misdemeanor charges and to return July 28 on seven others.

The summonses allege violations of health and safety codes, such as failure to maintain balconies, roof and heating and cooling equipment.

Both companies have declined to comment about the charges.

Congressman A. Donald McEachin of Henrico is applauding the county for taking a tougher approach. He has been pushing for change and called on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency that oversees Essex Village and pays $4.2 million a year in housing subsidies, to give residents vouchers to relocate. He also has asked HUD to eliminate the rental subsidies for the complex because of the deplorable conditions.

Residents also are cheering the county in hopes this approach will work. Repeatedly residents have told the county their complaints to PK Management about problems and needed repairs have largely gone ignored.

In February 2016, the county took Essex Village owners to court, alleging the owners failed to clear piles of junk from the property. The owners were ordered to pay a $100 fine.

Deputy County Manager Douglas Middleton said the decision to go to court again is a fresh attempt to get the owners to develop “an aggressive improvement plan” and to take faster action to make essential repairs to the aging and deteriorating complex that opened in 1982.

In the past year, the county has issued more than 140 violations against Essex Village, but allowed the company address the issues without further action.

Mr. Middleton, the county’s former police chief, and Gregory Revels, the county’s building official, are concerned the owner and operator are simply waiting for a county violation notice to do anything, rather than pursuing a maintenance strategy on their own.

Mr. Middleton said the county hoped that HUD would step in to force the owners to make improvements after the owners were notified that the complex failed its January inspection and that subsidies could be terminated if the problems weren’t addressed.

In Mr. Middleton’s view, HUD keeps spending taxpayer dollars and is doing too little to ensure the owner and operator live up to their obligation to keep the complex in good condition.

“It’s a dereliction of duty,” he said.

HUD officials kept telling the county they are on the case, following procedures to get the work done.

Agency spokeswoman Lisa Wolfe said HUD told the county that the owners submitted a plan to bring the complex into compliance as a result of the failed inspection.

But Mr. Middleton said that HUD is not showing “any sense of urgency.”

He dismisses HUD’s claims that PK Management has started improvements.

Two weeks ago, Ms. Wolfe issued a statement indicating the first improvements had been accomplished or were underway. Those include improving security, increasing trash collection, hiring a new pest exterminator company, repaving parking lots and creating a children’s playground in an unused basketball court.

Ms. Wolfe did not respond to a request for comment on Mr. Middleton’s claims that HUD has failed to provide adequate oversight or ensure swift action on improvements to the apartments.