For more than a week, tenants at the Cedar Gardens apartment complex in North Little Rock went without air conditioning. In the near-100 degree Central Arkansas weather, the tenants have been doing whatever they could to prevent heat illness. They rigged up fans in their apartments and kept ice against their necks.
But in some cases, it wasn’t enough.
A handful of Cedar Garden tenants spoke about their experiences Thursday on the sidewalk in front of the complex grounds in a rally organized by Arkansas Community Organizations, a group that fights for basic housing protections across the state. Some talked about recent hospitalizations from the heat, and others complained of additional problems at the complex, including a revolving door of property managers, mold and water issues. Time was limited, because after so long in the heat, it was visibly taking a toll on the residents. (This reporter was in the heat for about an hour and quickly started to feel unwell.)
About two hours later, an ambulance was called for a resident of the complex. The air conditioning finally kicked back on around 4 p.m. on Thursday, but residents said the apartments are still reaching nearly 90 degrees inside.
Living without air conditioning worsened the symptoms of medical conditions, tenants said. Deena Stickford, 55, has lived at the Cedar Gardens complex for two years. She said she passed out from the heat on Saturday and the conditions are “unbearable.” Stickford said she relies on oxygen at night, has a collapsed lung and has been hospitalized for pneumonia. Her doctor told her that the situation is compromising her health, she said.
Tenant Patricia Hamby, 67, recently traded oven-cooked meals for ham sandwiches to avoid heating up her home any further. Hamby has been a long-time resident at Cedar Gardens; she’s called it home for more than 20 years. She said the conditions didn’t used to be so bad, but problems with the AC have happened before.
“I pray and hope each day I live through this,” Hamby said.
Barbara Heard, 66, talked over the phone from her apartment on Thursday, which she said clocked in at a sweltering 90 degrees. The complex has been her home since 2016, and she said there have been a number of problems with the heating and cooling systems. In the winter, tenants have used their ovens to heat their homes, she said.
With some health issues herself, Heard said the lack of cool air has caused her to use her inhaler more often than usual. When she asked management if a reimbursement for a hotel room would be possible while the AC was fixed, she was told no.
“I just can’t bear it,” Heard said.
Overall, the property managers are rarely on site and maintenance requests often go unfilled, Heard said. The management also frequently changes. Heard said tenants are asked to sign new leases about every three months with no explanation. She’s concerned about where her personal information is being kept.
Eva Dumas-Green, the regional manager for the Cedar Gardens apartments, said the AC was being fixed “as we speak” during a visit Thursday afternoon around 1:30 p.m. Dumas-Green said Arkansas Comfort Systems, a company that installs and restores ventilation systems, was called to diagnose the problem. A part was ordered on Monday, and, in the meantime, management distributed about $5,000 worth of fans to tenants, Dumas-Green said.
Cedar Gardens and the Hickory View complex next door are both operated through a Rental Assistance Demonstration, according to documents obtained by Arkansas Community Organizations. The Housing Authority of the city of North Little Rock is in a contract with Holly Knight, the CEO of Knight Development, to renovate, maintain and manage the complexes.
The management desk for the properties is set up at the Hickory View apartments, where the air conditioning didn’t falter, while the folks next door sweat through the night. Dumas-Green said a cooling center was set up for residents, and some folks were mingling in a communal, cafeteria-like area early Thursday afternoon.
The properties at Cedar Gardens are for people who receive federal rental assistance, meaning the residents pay a portion of the rent and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development takes care of the rest.
Tiawana Hatton, 46, said she was hospitalized after she passed out from the heat while the air conditioning was off. Hatton lives with her husband, Malcolm Hodges, and on top of facing the heat directly, Hodges has found the mold in the apartment is impacting his lungs.
Recently diagnosed with COVID-19, Hodges wore a mask Thursday and spoke passionately about how their living conditions were causing problems. He expressed anger about how water barely flows out of the sinks and they have to wash dishes in the bathtub. What water is available causes stomachaches when they drink it, Hodges said.
Al Allen, an organizer with Arkansas Community Organizations, said tenants like those at Cedar Gardens shouldn’t have to fight so hard to live in a safe, habitable place.
“You have a right to safe and habitable housing and I’m so glad that you’re taking a stand for it today,” Allen told them. “Otherwise they [landlords and companies] just get to get away with it while you have mold on your lungs. Otherwise they just get to get away with killing your neighbors. Otherwise they just get to get away with hospitalizing you and your wife.”
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