When Randy Furse moved into an apartment at Richmond Summit on the lower end of Broad Street more than two years ago, he embraced his new home in the heart of downtown Augusta.
He was a good tenant, always paying his rent on time and rarely complaining about anything.
That was until a fire broke out near his apartment in the early morning hours of May 15 and approximately 16 units suffered water damage from the sprinklers going off in the building.
Furse’s apartment experienced extensive damage.
“Water came through my ceiling,” Furse said, sitting outside Richmond Summit at 744 Broad Street. “They tore my kitchen appliances up. They tore the bathroom out. They pulled up the carpet and I don’t have half a wall.”
Following the fire, the drywall in his apartment was cut and removed from the floor to about two feet up the wall, exposing wood studs, nails and allowing his neighbors to actually see inside his unit.
“Other apartments were damaged, but it was nothing compared to mine,” Furse said. “I lost my ceiling, stove and carpet. My walls are damaged and they removed the bottom half. Now, someone can crawl under and get into my apartment if they want.”
His bathroom suffered the most damage, with the toilet having to be removed and his bathtub destroyed.
But that wasn’t the worst part, he said.
“I went without running water for two months,” Furse said, throwing his hands up in the air. “I didn’t have a tub or no stove. Without water, what can you do?”
Not long after the fire, Furse said he met with the Richmond Summit property manager and staff but they told him they couldn’t do anything.
“I have lived here two and a half years now, but I feel like they didn’t care,” he said. “I talked to the landlord and staff and they made it seem like they couldn’t do nothing. They were waiting for the corporate people to make some decision. But I told them, ‘Y’all have insurance or whatever. You need to do something.’ But, here it is, two and a half months later and it’s still not fixed.”
Unlike many of the residents of Richmond Summit, who are too scared to demand improvements to their apartment because they fear they will be evicted in retaliation, Furse contacted an attorney.
“I felt like I had to step up and do something,” Furse said. “I read my lease and I was going on what my lease said, so I felt like I shouldn’t have to pay any rent because the place wasn’t livable.”
David Bartholomew, staff attorney for Georgia Legal Services Program in Augusta, met with Furse and took pictures of his apartment.
“He essentially did not have running water in the bathroom,” Bartholomew said. “They removed the toilet and the sink and they put them in the living room. And they removed the bottom panels from the apartment wall. Our client’s neighbor was right next door. You could see him walking around and you could just roll underneath it. Basically, there was no protection between apartments.”
After surveying the damage in Furse’s apartment, Bartholomew tried to reach out to other tenants in the building who also needed repairs to their units following the fire.
“But a lot of people were afraid to talk to us,” he said. “Here at Georgia Legal Services, our clients are not always aware of their rights. The Richmond Summit population is particularly vulnerable. A lot of them are frightened that they are going to get in trouble or be evicted if they contact someone. But there certainly are legal protections for them.”
Richmond Summit is a 135-unit, low-income apartment complex federally subsidized for the elderly, as well as mentally and emotionally handicapped residents placed there by the U.S Housing and Urban Development agency.
The building on Broad Street was previously the Richmond Hotel, but owners of the hotel sold the building and property in 1980 to Richmond Properties, Ltd. of Atlanta, property records show.
At the time, Richmond Properties, Ltd. entered into a contractual agreement with HUD and the Augusta Housing Authority to provide Section 8 housing for the disadvantaged.
Following his meeting with Furse in May, Bartholomew advised his client not to pay his rent in June or July until he had running water in his bathroom and they could speak to Ambling Management Company of Valdosta, Ga., the owner and property manager of Richmond Summit.
In 2004, Ambling Management purchased the housing complex, which is still currently valued at $4.08 million, according to the Richmond County Tax Assessor’s Office. That same year, the company also purchased Bon Air Apartments on Walton Way for $5.9 million.
But when Bartholomew tried to speak with representatives from Ambling Management’s corporate office, he said they did not return any of his phone calls.
“The only people who have responded has been the property manager here locally.
Back in May, the local property manager told him that they would fix it in a week. Well, they didn’t,” Bartholomew said. “Essentially, he had to find other places to stay because there was still no water. We requested that they make the repairs or give him another apartment until they could make the repairs. They never really responded.”
Lisa Wannamaker, an attorney representing Ambling Management, explained the company’s hands were tied due to a delay by the insurance company.
“After the fire occurred, there are sprinklers in the properties and a lot of units were damaged,” she said. “The first thing we have to do is get the water cleaned up and then make sure we have whatever abatement we need to keep mold from growing.”
Considering the building that houses Richmond Summit was built in 1923, a third-party construction company was contacted to determine if there were any mold issues, Wannamaker said.
“Then, we have to get a permit from the city to do the repairs,” she said. “The city will not give us a permit, and I’m not blaming the city at all for this, but they will not give us a permit until we get the plans and specifications as to what our contractor is going to do to repair these units.”
“We called our insurance company the minute the fire happened and said, ‘Guys, you have to get an adjuster out here,’” Wannamaker said. “The insurance company dragged its feet. And if we do something without the insurance company approving it, then we lose all of our insurance proceeds and, frankly, we don’t have enough money to repair this property. So we are kind of stuck in this Catch-22.”
Wannamaker, who was just briefed about Furse’s case this week, said she was surprised to learn about the conditions in his apartment.
“Mr. Furse was a victim and I will say that outright,” she said. “I don’t think anybody in upper management realized that he didn’t have working water in his bathroom.”
However, Wannamaker said Furse did have access to a bathroom in the building.
“Now, it does sound horrible that he didn’t have a working bathroom, but there is a bathroom there that he was able to use,” she said. “I don’t know if the floor that he was on had a bathroom, but there are other bathrooms in the building he could use. However, I agree that he should not have been asked to pay rent if his apartment didn’t have a bathroom.”
Furse, who receives disability benefits, said he would have been happy to continue to pay the rent if the property manager would have provided him a new unit or made the necessary repairs.
“They said they had no vacancies, but they were still moving people in,” Furse said. “I thought they would move me to a different unit or put me in a hotel or something, but they didn’t. They just tried to write me up, send me threatening letters and put me out.”
But he wasn’t going to allow the property manager to force him out, Furse said.
“They were saying that I was behind on rent. I have never been behind for two and a half years,” he said. “I just stopped paying because my place wasn’t livable.”
Bartholomew said he was stunned by Richmond Summit’s next move.
“They actually tried to evict him,” Bartholomew said.
Just last week, Furse had a hearing before Richmond County Magistrate Judge H. Scott Allen and the eviction was dismissed, Bartholomew said.
“But there is still a countersuit pending,” he said, adding that he is going to make sure that Furse’s apartment is properly repaired.
Wannamaker said she was happy to hear that the judge ruled to dismiss the eviction and she insisted that she will talk with Bartholomew this week about Furse’s concerns.
“When I heard about this case, I asked last night, why didn’t we move him to another unit?” Wannamaker said. “But this is a project-based Section 8 and we stay 100 percent occupied. There was really no where for him to go.”
However, Wannamaker acknowledged the company should have handled the situation better.
“It really was a bad situation and I think the property manager may not have handled it correctly, but we are going to waive his rent for June and July,” she said. “What should have happened, we should have told Mr. Furse, ‘We can’t repair your unit right now. We are allowing you to cancel your lease without penalty.’ I doubt he would have done that because he wouldn’t want to lose his Section 8, but at least we should have given him the option. We also probably should have put him in a hotel.”
“There is no way to dance around this situation,” she added. “I think the management company is really sorry that this has happened to him.”
Just this past weekend, Furse said the property manager put in a new bathtub and reattached the old toilet and sink in his bathroom.
“They made it seem like they are trying to do something. But I think they are trying to patch it up just to get by. There is still a lot that needs to be fixed,” Furse said. “They want to put me out, but I know my rights. They got people in the building still suffering.”
While Ambling Management is apologizing for the way Furse was treated after the fire at Richmond Summit, the private management company is also experiencing similar problems at the Bon Air Apartments on Walton Way.
Just last week, WRDW News 12 reported that a Bon Air resident named Phillip Baxley said his apartment was in disrepair following a fire.
His apartment also did not have a carpet, part of the ceiling was gone and the drywall had been removed from the floor to a couple feet up the wall, exposing wood studs and old brick, WRDW reported.
Wannamaker said she was aware of two recent fires at Bon Air and the May fire at Richmond Summit.
In the case of the Bon Air fires, Wannamaker said those residents have been relocated to other units in the building.
“We have these issues with our residents starting fires,” she said. “The fires are typically caused by unattended cooking. A resident goes to sleep, he forgets that he has something on the stove or somebody falls asleep with a cigarette. So we are sort of at the mercy of our tenants.”
Ambling Management tries to address the tenants’ concerns as quickly as possible, but sometimes the insurance company is not as cooperative, she said.
“I don’t think the insurance company knows or cares that this is a Section 8 property,” Wannamaker said. “I think they are just a really big insurance company and they have a lot of claim handlers that, let’s just say, it’s just a job for them.”
If Ambling Management’s insurance does not pick up the pace regarding the damage to the recent fires at both the Bon Air and Richmond Summit, Wannamaker said she will happily go public with the identity of the insurance company.
“I think Ambling has a reputation for being good to its residents,” she said. “It was just kind of crazy, the same regional property manager who has Richmond Summit also has Bon Air and had to deal with these latest fires. He is about to throw his hands up and go screaming off into the sunset.”
All of these issues regarding low-income apartment complexes like the Bon Air and Richmond Summit have some local business owners concerned, particularly those along Broad Street who see the impact Richmond Summit has on the downtown business district.
Greig McCully, owner of Fireside Outdoor Kitchens & Grills at 1246 Broad Street, said the lower end of Broad Street is struggling with vacant storefronts and, at least, the perceived problem of crime.
“The 5th through the 8th-block of Broad Street needs revitalization and it needs to be cleaned up. That area of Broad is just stuck,” McCully said. “And Richmond Summit is definitely a major issue. No question. It is the epicenter of those problems.”
A crime analysis obtained by the <it>Metro Spirit<it> from the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office for 744 Broad St., Richmond Summit’s location, showed that deputies responded to calls at the apartment complex more than 400 times over the past two years.
The incidents range from minor issues such as reports of loud noise and traffic violations in front of the building, to more serious charges such as vandalism, stalking, thefts, home invasions and sexual assaults.
But these problems involving Richmond Summit aren’t new to downtown Augusta.
Back in 2003, before Ambling Management purchased the apartment complex, the Metro Spirit reported that deputies responded to incidents at the apartment complex a total of 659 times over a two-year period.
Those calls also included everything from reports of public drunkenness and suspicious situations, to several weapon offenses, robberies, burglaries and assaults.
Soul Bar and Sky City co-owner Coco Rubio told the Metro Spirit a few months ago that finding a solution on how to deal with the crime associated with Richmond Summit would not be easy.
“To me, the big elephant in the room is the Richmond Summit,” Rubio said. “It has always created issues with people not wanting to do anything at that end of Broad Street. Richmond Summit is right in the middle of that block and it seems to be more negative than positive.
“But what can you do with the Richmond Summit? It is what it is as far as Section 8 and assisted living. So that is a real tricky one for downtown.”
Even Bonnie Ruben, who is facing a possible legal battle with the city of Augusta over the condition of her vacant building, the former J.C. Penney store, which is located right next to Richmond Summit, says that the low-income housing complex is a major problem.
“Who would I rent the J.C. Penney’s building to?” Ruben asked the Metro Spirit in June. “What do you think happens to my building, especially being right next to Richmond Summit, and having the people who hang out on that block and the emptiness of the whole block?”
Ruben said she has found it virtually impossible to show the J.C. Penney building to potential tenants because of the residents congregating outside the Richmond Summit.
“When I have taken people over there, the first thing that we’re confronted with are the nice folks from the Richmond Summit who know me and call me by name,” Ruben said, adding she is always polite to the residents of the apartment complex, but they don’t always leave a good impression on those people looking to rent J.C. Penney building. “So whoever I take over there, they immediately see who their neighbors are going to be.”
There have been many proposals tossed about over the years on ways to improve the area surrounding Richmond Summit.
In 2003, then-Augusta Mayor Bob Young suggested that the problems surrounding Richmond Summit might be more easily resolved if the street running perpendicular to Broad Street, which was converted to a pedestrian mall and courtyard for the apartment’s residents, was reopened to traffic.
Young explained in 2003 that the courtyard — the site of the former Albion Street, which is now closed off at either end with yellow, metal posts — becomes a congregating spot at night for those engaged in suspicious or illegal activity.
“That street originally was closed for the residents of the Summit to have a place to congregate,” Young told the Metro Spirit in 2003. “But since we’ve got Bicentennial Park across from them in the middle of Broad Street and we’ve got the Augusta Common open now, we really don’t need an artificial park in the middle of the street. So actually, reopening it would not take anything away from the people who live down there.”
But the Richmond Summit property manager at the time argued that such a move would only serve to hurt the residents, many of whom take to the tree-shaded benches and brick planters of the courtyard for fresh air because the apartment has no balconies.
It was also pointed out that many of those residents are in wheelchairs or otherwise hindered in their mobility and have no other place to go and relax.
It didn’t take long for the proposal to fade away.
Wannamaker, the attorney representing Ambling Management, said there are a lot of stipulations and federal guidelines involved in Section 8 housing.
Therefore, change does not come easy, she said.
“The residents who live at both Richmond Summit and Bon Air have to qualify to live there. It’s not as easy as just signing a lease,” she said. “HUD essentially has to approve them.”
And the HUD leases are often an ironclad agreement with very little flexibility, she said.
“Because these properties are totally funded by HUD, HUD dictates what we say in the lease. We can’t change one word of that lease,” Wannamaker said. “And HUD’s position is, that unless the property is destroyed, I mean, hit by a meteor and is ashes in the ground, folks are not let out of their lease. Which is harsh.”
But Wannamaker also pointed out that the housing provided by buildings such as the Richmond Summit and Bon Air plays a crucial role in the community.
“We are not some cold-hearted management company that doesn’t care about what happens to its tenants,” she said, adding that Ambling Management has a good working relationship with the city and its residents. “I think it is great that Ambling and the owners of Richmond Summit are able to provide low-cost housing to poor people. There are a lot of apartment complexes where these folks can’t live. So, Richmond Summit provides a place for people to live who might not otherwise have a home.
“Let’s face it, for a lot of these residents, they have no place else to go.”