Elizabeth Gale Fox stands in the bathroom of her simple two-bedroom apartment and looks up.
There’s a large, gaping hole in the ceiling. She says the gap was left more than a year ago by a maintenance crew at her apartment complex, August on Southside, located at 2208 Southside Blvd. off Ribaut Road in Port Royal.
Fox’s two sons, ages 9 and 13, complain about taking showers with bugs often falling on them from the exposed pipes visible through the hole.
Just a few steps outside the bathroom, Fox points to the air conditioning vent in the hallway. It reveals what appears to be mold spreading in dark clusters inside the walls.
“I don’t even know what we’re breathing-in here,” told a reporter from The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. “I’m worried my kid is going to get sick.”
Fox’s 13-year-old son takes medication that suppresses his immune system. He gets sick easier and for longer than an average kid, she said.
But after a year of complaining to management, showing them her son’s medical records and pleading for help, Fox said she only heard excuses and empty promises.
The hole stayed. And the mold grew.
Fox is far from alone in her struggles at August on Southside. She self-pays her $795 rent, but the complex is also one of the few housing options for residents receiving government rental assistance in the area.
About one-fourth of the 96 units are paid for in part with government funds through federal Section 8 vouchers.
But this summer, complaints of poor living conditions and allegations of mismanagement at the complex came into the open and are at the center of a legal battle over control of the apartments.
Use the arrows for a view of the August on Southside apartment complex captured by Google Maps in June 2013.
New York real estate lender, FCRE, claims the complex’s owner, A & B Associates, was so negligent in upkeep that it violated a $3.9 million refinancing loan issued for the complex in 2015.
On July 21, the lender, aided by a Port Royal police officer, removed management at August on Southside, though a judge later returned control to A&B.
The takeover set off a legal battle with FCRE in court documents claiming:
▪ Residents complain of problems such as unchecked mold growth, infestations of bed bugs and cockroaches and faulty plumbing and appliances that left some tenants without air conditioning, a shower or basic plumbing for weeks.
▪ Management has allowed the complex to become “crime-ridden.” The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette reported in February that the address had the sixth most non-traffic crime reports of any single address in Beaufort County in 2014, with 113 reports, more than one on average for every unit. Since February of this year, there have been considerably more crime reports at the complex compared to other affordable housing in the area.
▪ The complex was operated for years by unlicensed property managers. All property managers overseeing real estate transactions are required to be licensed by the South Carolina Real Estate Commission. Acting as an unlicensed property manager can result in a fine of up to $10,000 per violation if it is brought to an Administrative Law Court, according to a real estate commission spokesperson.
The owners of the property, A&B Associates, run by Christopher Kettles, of Savannah, did not respond to three requests for comment for this story and the company’s legal counsel declined comment. A&B court filings contend that the owners have always “properly and promptly repaired any defects found to exist” at August on Southside and that resident complaints are only for normal wear and tear.
But the ensuing battle over control has left the complex in turmoil for weeks.
“I have no idea what is going on here,” said tenant Marie Kleiry. “It’s stressful not knowing who’s in charge, if your shower is going to work tomorrow. It’s a nightmare.”
‘We can’t live like this’
Interviews by The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette with more than 20 current and past residents at August on Southside indicate that complaints from renters are widespread.
Latoya Steed, who works at Burger King and lives with her 19-year-old daughter on a Section 8 voucher, said she had to live without air conditioning in the complex for 20 days this July.
The summer heat was unbearable, she said as she scrolled through a string of texts she sent to the property managers begging for air conditioning. “Please, please it’s so hot,” one text read.
Steed said she often wouldn’t hear back for hours or days to her complaints of unbearable heat in the unit.
The management under A & B Associates failed to replace her air conditioning unit for 18 days, Steed’s said. When FCRE took over the complex, they replaced the air conditioning within two days.
Another resident, Davet Clement, showed an Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette reporter bed bug bites up and down her legs as she sat in her apartment that smelled strongly of chemicals from a bug bomb she had deployed that day in the unit.
“We can’t live like this,” Clement said. “I have to set these off every few months just to get it under control, but they come back.”
Another resident, Tiffany Adkins, complained of a cockroach infestation so bad that bugs fall from the vents regularly into her dinner. As she spoke, the reporter spotted a cockroach crawling over the wall behind her head.
Complaints of cockraoches are widespread in the complex and have been noted multiple times by housing inspectors with the Beaufort Housing Authority.
Other residents complained about a plumbing system that often backs up and floods apartments, exacerbating mold and mildew issues in the apartments and creating visible water damage along the walls and seepage into carpets. The majority of residents interviewed said that water would not properly drain in the showers throughout the complex.
“We’ve had blue hair extensions coming up in our sink with a whole bunch of water,” Adkins said. “And I don’t wear blue hair. It’s the neighbors’ hair.”
Residents also worry that their safety may be compromised.
Public attention to crime at the complex first came in October 2015 when police reported a 32-year-old Marine was shot in the chest at his apartment after an unknown man knocked on his door, according to the Port Royal Police Department.
There has been no arrest in the shooting. The victim survived.
The apartment management of August on Southside contended it was random incident and pointed to added security cameras, fencing and signs at the entrance, property manager Amanda Pett told The Beaufort Gazette and Island Packet in February.
In the 6-month period from February to August this year, however, there were police reports for: one rape, six assaults, three thefts, five cases of vandalism and 20 reports of disturbances or suspicious activity, according to Port Royal police records.
The management also claimed, both to the newspapers and in court documents, that the complex established a police substation in the front office at the property in February of 2016.
But the Port Royal Police Department claims that the substation never opened.
“They were in the process of setting one up but it wasn’t really habitable,” said police Capt. John Griffith. “There was a strong smell of sewage coming back up through the pipes, and it was being used for storage for things like flooring and tools.”
The substation was never intended to have a permanent police presence, Griffith said.
Some residents complain management also failed to add locks to windows to help with security. Many tenants took to using wood sticks propped in windows to keep panes shut.
Residents in limbo
There is still a lot of uncertainty about the future of August on Southside and its hundreds of residents.
“It is concerning,” said Beaufort Housing Authority Director Angela Childers. “But our priority is to maintain the property as an option for Section 8. We want there to, of course, be safe conditions, but there are so few options in the county already that we don’t want to lose it.”
Childers said it is often difficult for Section 8 residents to find places to live as the current complexes in the county that accept Section 8 benefits often have long waiting lists. August on Southside now houses about 25 of the 574 households receiving Section 8 benefits in the county.
The authority recorded 154 deficiencies at the complex since April 2015 in about 25 Section 8 units, or about 6 for each unit and said it withheld payments until the problems were fixed. The most comparable Section 8 complex in age and type to August on Southside, according to Childers, Stuart Towne’s apartments had 58 deficiencies recorded for 18 Section 8 households, or about 3 for each unit, authority records show.
“Management can make a big difference” Childers said. “When a place is mismanaged it shows.”
For the time being, A & B Associates remains the owner and manager of the property while management is in dispute, after Beaufort County Master in Equity Marvin Dukes overturned the FCRE takeover on Aug. 15 as a violation of its due process rights, ruling the bank took control without a court order.
The increased court scrutiny may mean some resident complaints will get attention.
Elizabeth Gale Fox, for example, said maintenance teams came to her apartment after she attended a recent court proceeding and made improvements after A & B Associates retook control, including closing the gaping hole in her ceiling.
“It took less than a day for them to come and fix it,” Fox said. “I’m glad things are finally getting done, but I’m still so angry. I spent a year waiting for this, worrying for my kids. And it took this to get anything done.”