Bolivar County Chancery Court Judge Catherine Farris-Carter issued a 10-day temporary restraining order yesterday afternoon against the management of Sunset Village Apartments just outside Cleveland, Miss. The order requires that residents of the ailing complex be provided alternative housing and adequate meals until proper repairs and inspections are completed on their units.
“Defendants are hereby enjoined from attempting to relocate Plaintiffs to their rental units until electricity, gas, and water utility services and all appliances are restored to service at their units, (and) that all units shall be properly inspected and approved by the proper licensed authority …,” the judge’s order states. “Defendants are ordered to house Plaintiffs in hotel/rental units with adequate bedspace until utilities and working appliances have been restored to the units,”
Additionally, the order prohibits any attempts to evict the residents of Sunset Village for missing rent, a threat that multiple residents have received since the month of August.
“Defendants are hereby restrained from attempting to evict Plaintiffs for nonpayment of rent or electric bills for time periods that Plaintiffs are unable to live in their units due to lack of utility services at Sunset Village,” Judge Farris-Carter wrote.
‘Unsafe, Unfair Situation’
Since Aug. 30, 2022, following a gas leak and the death of Deshundra Tate, 31, and her daughter Kendra, 5, nearly 100 households living at the Bolivar County apartment complex have been displaced from their homes while emergency repairs are ongoing. Now, many of the residents who have relied on motel rooms for shelter during the long displacement say they are concerned for their safety if they are made to return to their units at Sunset Village.
Farris-Carter’s order comes in response to an emergency motion from attorney Desiree Hensley of the University of Mississippi Low-Income Housing Clinic, alleging serious violations of state and federal housing law against the ownership of the apartments.
“Defendants are violating Mississippi and federal law by forcing tenants into units without utilities and adequate facilities,” Hensley’s motion reads. “Defendants are part of the site-based Section 8 program, meaning that taxpayers’ dollars have gone to pay for people to be housed in conditions which (no) animal—let alone a human being—should be forced to live in.”
“These families are desperate for help,” Hensley told the Mississippi Free Press in an interview today. She expects many more residents to sign on to the case soon, and shared hopes that the temporary injunction was a precursor to permanent relief for the plaintiffs. “(Residents) realize that they’re in a really unsafe, unfair situation. They’re at a place where they don’t know where else to turn.”
Hensley first met the residents of Sunset Village on Oct. 14, as many were preparing for mandatory relocations to their units. “They’re just trying to find someone to protect them, which I hope that I’m able to do,” she said.
Over the weekend, the Mississippi Free Press met with tenants of Sunset Village both at their units and in the motels nearby where many have resided since being displaced on Aug. 30. Residents were deeply confused as to when they would be forced to return to their units—many had recently visited their apartments to find them in various states of damage and disrepair.
Kanesha Head was one of the residents who told the Mississippi Free Press this weekend that she was afraid for her safety and that of her family if they were forced to return to her apartment. This reporter visited her unit on the night of Oct. 15, observing non-functioning utilities, rotten food, and swarms of insects in her fridge and stove.
Today, Head said the judge’s order provided a temporary sense of comfort in what had been a whirlwind of uncertainty.
“Thank God,” she said. “For now, it’s a sense of relief. I don’t have to get up in the morning and wonder where I’m going to stay. My kids are comfortable for now.”
In the background, the sound of her children playing in their motel room was audible. But the relief, like the restraining order, is not yet permanent. “I just feel like this is only temporary,” she finished.
Vonetta McCoy, another Sunset Village resident currently staying at the Super 6 motel in Cleveland, told the Mississippi Free Press that she was ready for a change. “I just hope it gets better. I mean, it can’t get any worse,” she said bitterly. “It’s been like this for years. All this could have been fixed a long time ago. It should have been resolved. These apartments have been here for decades.”
Still, McCoy acknowledged that with legal assistance and public attention, she hopes to see change at long last. “This stuff is old,” she said. “It could have been fixed a long time ago. They should have knocked this building down and started all over again. But now I’m just glad someone finally listened to us. It’s been a long time coming.”
This afternoon, Valerie Jerome, marketing and communications director for The Millennia Companies, the property owner, responded to the Mississippi Free Press’ inquiries on the temporary restraining order with the following statement.
“We have not been provided with the exact testimony that had been provided prior to the judge granting the temporary restraining order. We do believe that there were some misstatements and overstatements,” Jerome wrote. “There will be a full hearing with both parties present in the near future. We do understand that residents have raised certain issues related to their units with the attorney that filed the order. We believe that these issues were not properly communicated to the property management team so that they could be addressed. We encourage all residents to notify the property management team immediately of any issues in their apartment homes so that they can be promptly addressed.”
The judge scheduled a hearing to address the complaint further on Oct. 25, 2022.
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.