Cleveland, Miss.—Shattered debris littered the floor of Kanesha Head’s apartment, with canisters, trash and equipment making it look more like an active demolition zone than a home. Her rental home just outside Cleveland, Miss., had no water and no gas—the faucets squeaked uselessly when she turned their handles, the appliances all sat inert. Food sat spoiled in her fridge, flies buzzing in swarms around the rot left behind.
The indescribable stench turned her stomach. “It’s horrific. It’s this unclean smell mixed with the spoiled food and the smell of the mold,” she told the Mississippi Free Press on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022.
No war had savaged Bolivar County, leaving this destruction in its wake. The scenes in Head’s apartment were not the aftermath of a hurricane. These are the conditions that many residents of the 136 units of the Sunset Village apartment complex in Cleveland, Miss., say they are being forced back into after over a month of displacement.
On Aug. 30, 2022, Deshundra Tate, 31, and her daughter Kendra, 5, died following a gas leak at Sunset Village. What happened next was a mass evacuation, the residents shunted to nearby motels while emergency repairs commenced at the apartment complex. A strange pattern emerged as residents tried to adapt to life in one-room motels. They were expected to continue to pay rent and utilities for their units at Sunset Village even though they’d been forcibly removed from their apartments, while the apartment management firm paid for their motel rooms.
Now, lawyers from the University of Mississippi’s Low-Income Housing Clinic have alleged a litany of egregious violations of housing law against complex owner Sunset Moore MS TC, LP, and manager The Millennia Companies, which is based in Ohio. In a legal filing today against both entities, Housing Clinic Director Desiree Hensley alleges that management knew of the gas leak and failed to repair it prior to the death of both Tate and her daughter.
At the same time, countless residents reached out to the Mississippi Free Press on Saturday, Oct. 15, to warn that they are being forced back into their apartments despite potentially dangerous conditions. Hensley’s complaint asserts the same, alleging that Sunset Village’s apartments violate numerous federal housing regulations.
“I’m just so sad,” Head told this reporter. “I really want to cry. I feel like, if that’s my home, I should be able to live there. I shouldn’t have to live like I’m living now.”
Head’s world was split in two. Her home, she said, was an unlivable wreck, her fridge full of rot, and she feared for her family’s safety if they were forced to return. Five children waited for her back at the motel, where they have lived for over a month, sharing two beds. She is six months pregnant, and there was iron in her voice when she refused to return.
Company Hoped to ‘Minimize Some Inconvenience’
The notice on Vonetta McCoy’s door on Sept. 14, 2022, gave her 10 days to clear out of her apartment. “Should you not vacate the premises on the date set forth above,” it read, “legal action shall be taken against you to force an eviction.” This left McCoy with a difficult task ahead of her. She was not currently living in the premises listed on the letter, a small apartment in the Sunset Village complex just outside Cleveland in the Mississippi Delta.
By then, McCoy and her son had been living at the Super 6 in the city proper since Aug. 30, along with many other families from Sunset Village, sharing one bedroom, a cramped bathroom and a desk by the TV. Earlier, on the night of Aug. 30, she had come home from work to find the police swarming the complex, intercepting residents and directing them to the church down the road.
There, the Red Cross had set up a temporary shelter to receive them. She had heard that a family had died at Sunset Village, a mother and her child. An inspection of the property followed, and soon a full evacuation of Sunset Village’s 136 units.
Some residents found friends or family to stay with. Countless others ended up in rooms at motels nearby—a Quality Inn, a Super 6 or the C-Town Inn and Suites across the road, arrangements which Sunset Village management paid for. It’s where they were two weeks later on Sept. 14 when McCoy received the notice for an apartment she had not lived in for half a month. It was posted on her motel room door.
In all that time, McCoy said, workers constantly entering her apartment had neglected to lock the doors. Left unsecured for weeks, she said her apartment was burglarized. “My son’s laptop went missing. They stole both of our TVs. Anybody could come in at any time. But (apartment management) is not replacing my TVs and his laptops,” she said.
Valerie Jerome, the marketing and communications director of The Millennia Companies, spoke with the Mississippi Free Press on Oct. 14. Jerome declined to answer most questions directly, asking for additional time to put together a response to this reporter’s inquiries. On Monday, Oct. 17, shortly before press time, Jerome responded with a statement from The Millennia Companies.
With regards to threats of eviction, Jerome wrote that “it is standard practice for the property management team to review accounts and issue 10-day notices, notifying the residents of past due balances. This is a notice for the household to speak with management about their account. No evictions have been filed.”
Jerome’s statement also said that residents were expected to keep paying rent on units they did not inhabit because of potential “fair housing issues.”
“Since there are situations where a tenant is paying zero rent, to abate one person’s rent as ‘compensation’ may lead to fair housing issues; therefore, financial compensation is not planned at this time. The management company has covered the costs of the hotel accommodations and meals while residents were displaced; while these actions do not substitute for one being in their home, it is hoped that the effort minimized some inconvenience,” the statement read.
McCoy is not the only resident to reach out to the Mississippi Free Press with evidence of ongoing eviction threats. Others shared notices from the same time period, mostly for late or unpaid rent, showing efforts to dislodge residents from their apartments at Sunset Village weeks after they’d already been displaced. One notice threatened eviction proceedings against a resident over what appears to be a $7 charge.
‘Mold Thicker Than A Stack of Hundred Dollar Bills’
Deloris Weatherspoon has been living at Sunset Village for six years now. In her room at the Super 6 on Oct. 10, she alleged to the Mississippi Free Press that eviction threats were used as a punitive measure at Sunset Village, even as a punishment for unsanitary conditions that were inevitable given the horrific state of the units.
“My apartment had mold thick as a stack of hundred-dollar bills,” she said. “You could smell it through the front door.”
Weatherspoon described conditions that were dangerous long before the incident. Last year, she says, her bathroom ceiling fell through, and she refused to return to the unit until it was repaired. “They botched the repair,” she said. “It started leaking all through there. Mold came, and it only got worse. But (the apartment manager) was only concerned that ‘my apartment was clean.’”
LaShundra Carter, the property manager of the Sunset Village apartment complex, did not return multiple requests for comment starting on Oct. 10. Tamara Taylor, regional manager at Millennia Housing Management, Ltd, did not return an Oct. 14 request for comment. The Mississippi Free Press also reached out to another individual who is no longer an employee of Millennia Housing Management.
This reporter encountered Carter directly on premises at Sunset Village on Sunday, Oct. 16, and asked her if residents would be safe in their homes and if management had been aware of gas leaks on premises prior to the death of Deshundra and Kendra Tate. Carter refused to answer and quickly departed from the premises.
Rotting and damaged roofs and ceilings in Sunset Village featured in many resident complaints to the Mississippi Free Press. Indeed, Public Service Commissioner Brent Bailey told the Mississippi Free Press in a late September interview that officials are investigating potentially improper rooftop repair as a possible contributing factor to the incident that claimed the lives of Deshundra Tate and her daughter.
Jerome also declined to address questions about the death of Deshundra and Kendra Tate. “Regarding the questions about the incident, this is still an ongoing investigation, and there is litigation pending, limiting what information can be shared,” Jerome wrote.
In a visual inspection of multiple units on Oct. 15 and 16, this reporter observed a number of apartments with cracked, sagging or otherwise damaged ceilings.
Residents Unsure If Units Are Safe
The Mississippi Free Press spoke with dozens of residents in person and by phone over the course of this investigation. Many residents invited this reporter into their units to observe the state of their rentals both prior to their return and after their stay in the motels.
Over the course of Oct. 15 and 16, this reporter visited some units in which the lingering damage was extensive. One unit appeared to lack any electricity whatsoever: the stink of spoiled food from a disconnected freezer was overwhelming and water flowed openly from somewhere in the bathroom wall. Many units still lacked running water. Others had no gas.
As some residents had complained, unit doors were often left wide open upon arrival, their residents still residing at one of the motels. Water heaters and stoves stood disconnected in the middle of living rooms and kitchens inside some units.
Other units were further along in the repair process. This reporter observed some apartments with running water and gas. In some inhabited units, workers entered to fix issues with water heaters or other working appliances for residents who had already returned. One resident told the Mississippi Free Press she had returned to her apartment of her own volition. Motel life had been tough on her, she admitted, and she was simply ready to be home.
In inhabited units with functioning utilities, many residents still reported concerns with the safety of their dwellings. The most consistent complaint was the overwhelming presence of mold, growing on ceilings and walls. In one inhabited unit, the ceiling appeared heavily damaged and covered in tape.
Over the course of this weekend it became difficult to ascertain when many of the units would be ready for human habitation and when residents would be forced to return. Residents related what appears to be confusing, inconsistent guidance from apartment management. Some reported being told to check out of their motel rooms to return, but then finding their apartments unfit. Others simply refused to leave the motel.
It was difficult, too, to gauge how the presence of both legal-services providers and a reporter was altering the relocation, if at all. Management refused to speak to this reporter. However, not long after encountering LaShundra Carter on the morning of Oct. 16, this reporter witnessed the owner of the Super 6 informing Sunset Village residents that their motel stays would be extended, immediately before they had been previously told to check out.
Kanesha Head was there, too, baffled but grateful. She had been loading up her car at that very moment, trying to decide where, if anywhere, she could bring her family once the motel was no longer an option.
In her statement to the Mississippi Free Press, Jerome wrote that “the phased return of residents to Sunset Village has started. On Saturday, the first group of households began returning to the apartment development. In this first phase, there are 26 households returning to buildings 2, 4, 6 and 8. For this first group of buildings, all work to install new furnaces, hot water heaters, smoke/carbon monoxide detectors and gas line infrastructure has been completed and tested. As these steps are completed in the next set of buildings, another group of residents will return.”
But even as late as this afternoon, Rometria Carter-Henry, a resident of Sunset Village Building 4 who had to return to her apartment Saturday morning, sent a video to the Mississippi Free Press showing ongoing repair for her gas service. Carter-Henry told this reporter that she had not been able to heat her apartment since returning on Oct. 16.
“They told me I have air in my (gas) line,” Carter-Henry said. “I still have to wait in this cold. I’ve got kids here.”
‘They Still Deserve Basic Human Decency’
That the many tenants at Sunset Village have been displaced from their homes for well over a month has not meaningfully registered in local or statewide media. Nor have city or county officials made public comments addressing the fatalities or the mass displacement that has followed in the days and weeks after the death of Deshundra and Kendra Tate.
For weeks, Sharon Brown, herself a sports reporter for the Memphis Flyer, has been the lone whistleblower for the families displaced at Sunset Village. Deshundra Tate was a dear family friend, and the shock of her death spurred Brown into reaching out to the affected families in Cleveland.
Brown said her sister had witnessed the appalling conditions in Tate’s unit directly. “She said that the water was leaking into her apartment for two straight years. There was mold everywhere,” she told the Mississippi Free Press on Oct. 15. But affordable housing is difficult to find everywhere. “That’s the only place her daughter and her could go.” Brown wants management to face accountability.
Multiple residents allege that apartment management sought signed “liability waivers” from residents before attempting to return them to apartments that they say were unprepared for human habitation. The official Housing Clinic complaint replicates this claim and alleges that in demanding tenant waivers, Sunset Village management violated Mississippi State Code § 89-8-5.
Jerome acknowledged the existence of liability waivers early in the relocation, though not the specific legal claims asserted in the complaint. She wrote that “residents initially returned to the property because the incident was isolated, and all efforts were being made to minimize disruption and keep families in their homes. The waiver stated that residents agreed to returning to the property without gas service while the actions above were completed. However, after receiving feedback, the decision was made to complete the actions outlined above in every unit, leading to the temporary relocation of families,” she wrote.
“These people need basic services, and they need someone to care, because no one should be living like that,” Brown said. “They need to live in a safe environment for them and their children. People can’t help that they’re poor. They still deserve basic human decency.”
Elder William Cummings is the pastor at Vernon Memorial Apostolic Church in Cleveland. Tate and her daughter were his parishioners before they passed. In the weeks that have followed, the lack of official communication on the cause of the tragedy or the mass displacement mystified Cummings. “To be quite honest, there was never a press conference or anything given to the public,” he told the Mississippi Free Press on Oct. 10. “Usually there would be some kind of communication.”
Even today, the pastor said, the community remained mostly unaware of exactly what was brewing at Sunset Village. “I’m blown away,” he said. “If there were contractors on site, was OSHA called in? Was there an investigation?” Rumors and hearsay remain the popular understanding of what occurred, he said.
The Mississippi Free Press has not yet been able to confirm if Sunset Village management or other authorities have called in the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. As part of ongoing repair efforts, the Public Service Commission’s Pipeline Safety Division has been present at Sunset Village, although Bailey acknowledged that his agency’s responsibilities did not include investigating individual units.
Official Response Remains Scant
Sunset Village sits just at the edge of Cleveland, in Bolivar County, deep in the Mississippi Delta. The complex is contiguous with the college town of just over 11,000 people but not contained within its drawn borders.
The UM Housing Clinic complaint details the uniform utility shut-offs following the deaths and evacuation, and alleges that the conditions at Sunset Village remain far below the basic standards for any living arrangement.
Sunset Village is a site-based Section 8 housing provider, with majority-Black, lower-income tenants. Many residents informed the Mississippi Free Press that Section 8 assistance subsidizes their rent, and Jerome confirmed that “all units at Sunset Village are covered by a Project-Based Section 8 Contract, meaning tenants pay 30% of their income toward rent.”
The Bolivar County Sheriff’s Department shared a press release with the Mississippi Free Press sent out immediately after the evacuation of residents at Sunset Village. Sheriff Kelvin Williams Sr. declined to comment further on the deaths or the ongoing displacement.
Bolivar County Coroner Randolph Seals confirmed to the Mississippi Free Press that the autopsies of Deshundra and Kendra Tate were ongoing as of Oct. 14, and shared concerns that a backlog of autopsies in Mississippi could delay the results.
Cleveland Mayor Billy Nowell did not return a request for comment. Nor did a representative from the Bolivar County Board of Supervisors. On Friday afternoon, Gloria Shanahan, public affairs specialist at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, told the Mississippi Free Press that her agency was working on a response to inquiries.
This story is part of a series produced with assistance from the Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California as part of the 2022 National Fellowship at the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.