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HUD Debars Sunset Village Landlords Long After Deaths In Mississippi Delta

The back view of a woman in a red top and a yellow sign with a visible 6 in the distance
Millennia Housing Management, the landlord of Sunset Village Apartments in Cleveland, Miss., have been federally debarred, a punishment that follows years of serious allegations of mismanagement and horrific conditions from residents like Vonetta McCoy. She is seen here in October 2022 after she and other residents had to move into motel rooms for months after two Sunset Village residents died due to a gas leak. Photo by Nick Judin

The landlords of a Cleveland, Miss., apartment complex where a gas leak killed a family and displaced a community are facing consequences for the mismanagement of properties across the United States.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has banned Millennia Housing Management from all new federal contracts for five years and has levied serious allegations of financial mismanagement at company ownership. Millennia is the company that owns and manages Sunset Village, the Section 8 apartment complex in Cleveland where dozens of families were displaced after a mother and daughter died in their apartment in 2022.

In a statement to the Mississippi Free Press on March 19, a spokesperson for the federal agency confirmed that “HUD has issued an official debarment order to Millennia CEO Frank T. Sinito and Millennia Housing Management Ltd. (Millennia), immediately prohibiting them from participating in any new business with HUD, its Office of Multifamily Housing Programs, including the Section 8 program, and with any federal government agency or federal programs for five years.”

Debarment is an action that prevents companies from engaging in further federal procurement or contracting. Millennia’s debarment is scheduled to last five years, and does not strip Millennia of ownership of its current federal housing contracts, but prevents it from seeking further contracts with the federal government.

The debarment order is perhaps just the beginning for Millennia. HUD confirmed that the agency “is pursuing separate enforcement actions and will take further action as appropriate and necessary.”

Read the full April 16, 2024 statement from a marketing firm representing Millennia.

HUD also shared an earlier statement that shed some light on the cause of Millennia’s debarment. “HUD found that Millennia Housing Management exercised financial mismanagement of tenant security deposit accounts and taxpayer funds providing housing assistance,” the spokesperson wrote. “As a result, HUD is holding them accountable by demanding repayment of misappropriated funds, seeking to impose civil money penalties on those responsible, and issuing a suspension and proposing debarment.”

That proposed debarment is now final.

In an April 16 statement to the Mississippi Free Press, Kendall Maggard, the manager of communications for a marketing firm representing Millennia, stressed the initial conditions of Millennia’s portfolio and the challenges of the contemporary economy and real-estate market.

“Regarding concerns with select properties, The Millennia Companies previously acquired the highly distressed GMF portfolio, spanning 39 assets and 4,600 units at HUD’s request. At the time of this acquisition, The Millennia Companies was in good standing with HUD and had no outstanding issues. However, the immense physical deterioration of all the (Global Ministries Foundation) properties, exacerbated by COVID, economic uncertainty, and interest rate increases, have presented challenges in rehabilitating a portion of these communities and others in The Millennia Companies’ portfolio,” the statement said in part.

The statement did not address HUD’s allegations of financial mismanagement, beyond noting that Millennia “is in the process of addressing all issues raised by HUD.”

Debarment Follows Years of Complaints

The Mississippi Free Press first reported the story of Millennia’s Mississippi properties in 2022 after residents of the Sunset Village apartment complex in Bolivar County found themselves forced out of their homes after a gas leak led to the deaths of Deshundra Tate, 31, and her daughter Kendra, 5. For months, residents lingered in shabby motels on the outskirts of Cleveland, still paying rent on apartments that were unsafe to inhabit.

Outside Cleveland motels, this reporter personally witnessed residents preparing to move back into Sunset Village on the orders of property management. Awaiting them were units with disconnected utilities, growing infestations of mold and insects, damaged ceilings and broken water pipes. Residents found their apartments had been left unlocked, often with doors wide open. Some reported theft of their personal property in the long months of their displacement. Others faced eviction notices during their displacement.

A woman and her younger daughter pose together in matching blue outfits
Deshundra Tate and her daughter Kendra died of carbon monoxide poisoning in a Sunset Village apartment in late 2022, sparking a long displacement and ongoing legal battle for residents there. Photo courtesy Sharon Tate

The University of Mississippi Housing Clinic took up the cause of fighting for Sunset Village’s residents, bringing Millennia Housing Management to court days later. In light of the extreme circumstances at Sunset Village, a Bolivar County judge issued a temporary restraining order against Millennia Housing Management on Oct. 17, 2022, forcing a reprieve for residents worried they would be forced back into unlivable conditions.

At the time, Millennia argued that complaints about the conditions at Sunset Village included “misstatements and overstatements” and further asserted that “these issues were not properly communicated to the property management team so that they could be addressed.” Multiple residents shared records of their attempts to communicate serious issues with their apartments to property management with the Mississippi Free Press.

That lawsuit against Millennia Housing Management is ongoing, with most residents now relocated to their apartments in Sunset Village after extensive renovations on the part of Millennia. But ongoing issues continue to require legal intervention, including residents who complain of continually dangerous and unlivable conditions.

Desiree Hensley, director of the University of Mississippi Housing, celebrated the news in an interview with the Mississippi Free Press on April 1. “It’s about time that HUD took action,” Hensley said. “Owners like Millennia, who harm families and threaten their health and safety in order to maximize their profits, should be barred from receiving HUD or tax credit funding.”

“Just in the last two weeks one of our (Sunset Village) clients—in a unit Millennia supposedly renovated—had such severe plumbing issues that sewage was flowing out of her bathroom and into the living room,” she added.

Hensley asserted that Sunset Village management refused to assist the resident of the sewage-filled apartment until the intervention of the Housing Clinic. Then, she said, they moved the resident into a unit that had been empty the whole time.

Sharon Brown, a Memphis-based sports journalist, friend of Deshundra Tate, and one of the earliest whistleblowers warning the public of the dire situation at Sunset Village, told the Mississippi Free Press in an April 11 interview that she was more concerned with residents still living at the Cleveland complex than limitations to Millennia’s future ownership.

“How is (the debarment) going to help the current residents still living there now in horrible conditions?” She asked. “What is (HUD) going to do to help these people right now?”

‘Like Being Gaslit’

While the tragedy and mass displacement at Sunset Village garnered significant public attention, it was far from the only Millennia Housing Management-owned property that drew a national outcry in recent years. Before the company’s debarment, tenant-rights organizations and activists charged the company with “failing to rectify horrific living conditions in many of its complexes.”

Millennia Resistance Campaign representative Foluke Nunn spoke to the Mississippi Free Press after HUD announced Millennia’s debarment.

“We see this as a major win,” Nunn said. “From the beginning this has been one of our biggest demands of HUD: to use all the tools at its disposal to hold Millennia accountable. For the longest time, despite abundant evidence, HUD refused to do that, and we didn’t understand why.”

Give women stand outside the Leflore County Courthouse in Greenwood, Miss.
Bratika Green, Jordan Hughes, Debra Peterson, Jessica Griffin and Kanesha Head stand outside the Leflore County Courthouse in Greenwood, Miss., on Oct. 25, 2022. The University of Mississippi Housing Clinic continues to represent residents of Sunset Village in court.  Photo by Nick Judin

As much as Nunn approves of HUD’s action, she stressed that it came far too late in light of the overwhelming evidence of declining conditions at Millennia-owned properties.

“It felt like being gaslit: (We’d bring) egregious issues, evidence of fraud to HUD, and there’d be radio silence. Now HUD is hearing the issues and acknowledging it,” he said.

Activists have been urging HUD to take action on Millennia-owned properties for years, even before the death and displacement at Sunset Village. But although Millennia Housing Management’s portfolio is replete with Section 8 housing, which involves federal money and is directly under the oversight of HUD, the debarment of Millennia now is the first serious action taken against the company.

Sean Keenan at Atlanta Civic Circle first reported on Millennia’s debarment last month. Soon after, the City of Atlanta finally consigned Millennia’s troubled Forest Cove Apartments to destruction. It’s one of numerous Millennia properties across the nation that have come under intensified scrutiny over deplorable conditions that pose dangers to residents.

In Little Rock, Ark., three residents died in a fire at Shorter College Garden Apartments. In Durham, N.C., residents of JFK Towers have suffered amid pest-infested units, sewage backups, elevator failures and a consistent lack of maintenance. In New Orleans, Hurricane Ida evacuees returning to Peace Lake Towers found their apartments unsecured and their personal items abandoned and unattended. Cordoba Courts residents in Opa-Locka, Fla., have dealt with half a decade of flooded, molding homes.

HUD Slow to Act?

The future of Millennia’s numerous properties is uncertain. In March, the company announced that it intended to sell “most” of its Section 8 properties, which includes three separate complexes in Mississippi: in Cleveland, Laurel and Amory. Millennia has not released details on which of the Mississippi properties may be sold.

Bridget Simmons is staff attorney at the National Housing Law Project, a California nonprofit that has participated in the Millennia Resistance Campaign. To Simmons, Millennia’s decision to divest itself of its Section 8 holdings is a worrying mirror of the company’s acquisition of those properties in the first place.

“Millennia always points to the fact that they acquired a large portfolio from Global Ministries, another bad actor,” Simmons told the Mississippi Free Press on March 18. “These properties needed tremendous amounts of money and investment. Unfortunately, HUD approved the transfer of (federal Section 8) subsidies to Millennia without being critical of their ability to properly capitalize each of these properties.”

A Mississippi Free Press investigation of units at Sunset Village in October 2022 found multiple units with severe mold infestations, structural damage and disconnected utilities. Photo by Nick Judin

The Global Ministries Foundation has its own long history of alleged mismanagement. Many of the same apartment complexes existing in a state of disrepair under the ownership of Global Ministries persisted in unlivable states once they became part of Millennia’s portfolio.

Global Ministries Foundation leadership has previously denied allegations of mismanagement.

But, as is often the case with low-income housing, Millennia’s acquisition of the troubled properties essentially reset the clock on the much-needed maintenance of its ailing properties.

“These grace periods are given because of HUD,” Simmons said. “Where HUD has subsidized the property, of course they are wanting to give the potential purchaser time to come in and to reinvest. But what we see often is HUD extending that grace period without any communication to residents.”

“In my perfect world, Millennia would sell the vast majority of its properties to competent owners,” Nunn said. But rescue by a principled corporation seems implausible at best, especially for the chronically underserved, majority-Black populations like those who inhabit Sunset Village.

“This speaks to the horrible landscape of affordable housing right now—I don’t know that there are competent owners to take on Millennia’s portfolio,” she concluded.

Therein lies the unspoken challenge for HUD’s enforcement of low-income housing providers: the supply of affordable housing.

“HUD often tells Congress and the media that they are trying to weigh their enforcement options with the concern about the stock of affordable housing,” Simmons said. “And that is a genuine concern.

Simmons cited National Low Income Housing Coalition data that found that no state in the U.S. has a sufficient supply of affordable housing.

Even in Mississippi, with its relatively low housing prices, the March 2024 study found that only 55 “affordable and available rental homes” exist for every 100 extremely low-income renter households.

“But that quote that HUD gives is short-sighted because it doesn’t acknowledge the agency’s failure to have proactively responded when tenants initially reached out with concerns. It doesn’t acknowledge their years of poor inspection protocols,” Simmons said.

Simmons explained that landlords are able to hire former REAC Inspectors who determine if housing meets federal HUD standards to teach them exactly how to slip substandard housing through future inspections successfully.

“That allows landlords like Millennia to literally game the system,” she said.

‘My Experience Was Pure Hell’

Kanesha Head, an expectant mother who feared for her own children’s safety if she was forced to return to the apartments, managed to find a new home: a house, this one in better condition than the total disarray of her unit at Sunset Village.

A bathroom wall and ceiling are shown crumbling with water damage
Images from Bratika Green’s apartment in 2022 show some of the severe damage at Sunset Village, problems that residents say property management failed to resolve. Photo courtesy Bratika Green

Head took the news of Millennia’s debarment—and HUD’s allegations of financial mismanagement—with muted cheer. “That’s good that they’re doing that,” she said. “I didn’t get my little deposit back either.”

But it hardly makes up for the stress put on her during a vulnerable pregnancy, she said. “My experience was pure hell,” Head said. “(Millennia) just took money from us, and we’re already low income.” She said she prays the other residents can find somewhere new as well.

One bright spot remains: Head’s daughter was born last year, healthy, happy, and far from Sunset Village. On this subject, Head has absolutely no complaints. “Her name is Twila,” she said. “She’s beyond wonderful.”

The Mississippi Free Press’ initial coverage of Sunset Village was 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.

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