An Action News Jax Investigation has revealed that the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development did not inspect a Jacksonville high-rise that caught fire after its 200 elderly tenants moved back in more than a year ago.
The Section 8 housing for seniors caught fire in December 2017, displacing the people who lived at Jacksonville Townhouse Apartments for two months.
“Some people are terrified of sleeping. They are traumatized because of the fire,” said tenant Jorge Prieto, who was displaced by the 2017 fire and moved back in last year.
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It may have been more than five years since HUD inspected the property.
The last record Action News Jax has been able to find of a HUD inspection at Jacksonville Townhouse Apartments was more than five years ago, in February 2014.
It’s supposed to be inspected every three years.
Action News Jax asked HUD to confirm whether there have been any inspections at Jacksonville Townhouse Apartments since 2014; neither have responded to our questions.
Days after more than 200 people had to get out of bed and run for their lives in December 2017, Action News Jax reported that the HUD-assisted housing was overdue for federal inspection.
Back then, a HUD spokesperson told Action News Jax inspectors decided to postpone the inspection that was supposed to happen in 2017 because management planned to renovate the building.
Inspectors felt it would be more effective to inspect after renovation.
Tenants at Jacksonville Townhouse Apartments tell Action News Jax that renovation is still going on.
Vulnerable seniors slipping through the cracks: My @ActionNewsJax Investigation is exposing a gap in oversight at #Jacksonville HUD-assisted housing complex that caught fire last year. #ANJaxInvestigates live at 6 on CBS47 & FOX30. pic.twitter.com/iAc5AAAAOx— Jenna Bourne (@jennaANjax) April 15, 2019
“The place is much better than before. Even the roach infestation that we had is no longer there,” Prieto said.
Action News Jax asked HUD why it did not inspect after tenants moved back in.
We haven’t gotten an answer yet.
Since tenants moved back in last year, six have filed complaints with HUD.
Half the complaints are about old air conditioning units malfunctioning.
The fire marshal’s investigation found the fire started in an A/C unit.
“I have a fire – an A/C fire. Air conditioner make fire. I cover it with my blanket,” a tenant frantically told 911 the night of the fire.
Action News Jax reported more than a year ago that tenants who moved back in were afraid of their malfunctioning A/C units.
“The air conditioner was just, like, it exploded. And so, I took off running … It was hissing like a pressure cooker going off,” a tenant said April 10, 2018.
That tenant of 19 years asked Action News Jax to conceal her identity because she fears retaliation from management.
The three people who complained to HUD last year got new A/C units.
Cambridge Management told Action News Jax it’s replacing A/C units in each apartment as part of the renovation.
“All homes at Jacksonville Townhouse are being updated including all-new fixtures, new windows, cabinets, counters, appliances, flooring and air conditioning units. Management is keeping the appropriate HUD representatives up-to-date with the progress of the renovations,” said Cambridge Management spokesperson Katelynn DeSart Perez in an email.
Kirby Johnson, an attorney representing more than 100 tenants at Jacksonville Townhouse Apartments, said not all of the A/C units have been replaced yet.
Last month, HUD reached a $75,000 settlement with Jacksonville Townhouse Apartments’ owners and managers.
Action News Jax reported in December 2017 the building’s fire pump and sprinkler system were broken during the fire.
Before the fire, the fire marshal had ordered Jacksonville Townhouse Apartments management to start a “fire watch,” where an employee patrols 24/7 looking for signs of a fire.
The fire marshal’s investigation found not only was there no fire watch, a maintenance person said there were no overnight employees at all during the 3:30 a.m. fire.