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Reported Gas Leak Prompts Temporary Evacuation at Sunset Village Over A Year After Deaths

A photo of a mother and daughter are overlayed a photo of a off white apartment building in bad shape
The Bolivar County Fire Department temporarily removed residents from their homes at the Sunset Village apartment complex in Cleveland, Miss., late on Sunday, April 21, 2024, after reports of a potential gas leak in the same buildings where mother Deshundra and daughter Kendra Tate (inset) died of a gas leak in 2022. The photo shows Building 15, one of the apartments at Sunset Village in October 2022, before the property’s owners completed what a spokesperson called a “comprehensive rehabilitation” of the premises. Photo by Nick Judin / courtesy Sharon Tate

Residents fled their homes once again following a potential gas leak Sunday night in the same building where a gas leak killed residents Deshundra and Kendra Tate at the Sunset Village apartment complex in Cleveland, Miss., in August 2022.

Sunset Village resident Vonetta McCoy told the Mississippi Free Press on Monday morning that she awoke Sunday night to the sound of Bolivar County firefighters knocking at her door. “They said everyone had to get out because it’s a gas leak,” she said. The fire department evacuated everyone from Buildings 8 and 9.

With nowhere else to go, McCoy and her son spent a chilly night in her car, waiting for a sign that it might be safe to return or to be sent off to a motel; after the Tates’ deaths in 2022, complex management temporarily housed residents in local motels.

The back view of a woman in a red top and a yellow sign with a visible 6 in the distance
Vonetta McCoy, a resident of Sunset Village Apartments in Cleveland, Miss., pictured here during her first displacement in 2022, told the Mississippi Free Press that the fire department pulled her from her home late at night on Sunday, April 21, 2024, warning of a potential gas leak. Photo by Nick Judin

After several hours of waiting, responders returned residents to their buildings. McCoy said the room smelled of gas and that officials encouraged her to leave all the windows open; the stench remained through the night. As of Monday afternoon, she was without gas utilities and she said property management had declined to provide any information about her safety.

When this reporter last spoke to her on Monday afternoon, she was preparing for a 12-hour shift as a resident aide at a local assisted living facility, her voice still weary from a cold, sleepless night. “I don’t even know how I’m feeling right now,” McCoy admitted. After years of stress over the conditions at Sunset Village, she expressed doubts that management would resolve the problem. “This ain’t gonna be the last time,” she said.

The national property management company that owns Sunset Village, Millennia Housing Management, told the Mississippi Free Press through a spokesperson on Monday that they are investigating “a potential gas leak.”

Reports of Gas Leak Follow Millennia Debarment

The Mississippi Free Press first covered Sunset Village in October 2022 after a gas leak in the same building where Vonetta McCoy now resides killed a young mother, Deshundra Tate, and her 5-year-old daughter, Kendra.

After the deaths, property management removed residents from their homes and to nearby motels in Cleveland. They remained in the temporary lodgings for months, with some facing eviction threats during their long displacement. When management finally ordered residents back to their homes, this reporter witnessed units lacking basic utilities, with some in states of total disrepair.

Legal interventions delayed many residents from returning to their units until additional repairs were completed. But residents continue to complain of ongoing maintenance issues through legal representatives and to this reporter directly.

Just last month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development formally debarred Millennia Housing Management, which owns other federally funded low-income housing complexes like Sunset Village across Mississippi and the U.S.

The debarment, which bans an entity from taking on any new federal contracts, followed years of serious allegations of unlivable conditions at Millennia-owned properties, including the deaths and displacements at Sunset Village.

A wooden sign outside that reads Sunset Village Apartments
Sunset Village is a federally subsidized Section 8 housing complex, subject to federal laws and oversight by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Photo by Nick Judin

In a statement after the debarment, HUD alleged that Millennia was responsible for the financial mismanagement of tenant security deposit accounts and “taxpayer funds providing housing assistance.” The agency stressed that the company may face additional consequences in the future.

“HUD is pursuing separate enforcement actions and will take further action as appropriate and necessary,” a HUD spokesperson wrote on March 19. 

The debarment did not strip Millennia of its ownership or its federal contracts over Sunset Village, however. “HUD reiterated in its final debarment order that the agency expects Millennia Housing Management to continue performing any necessary repairs or maintenance at properties currently owned by Millenia,” the agency wrote.

Legal battles continue over the conditions at Sunset Village, and Millennia has announced plans to sell off most of its Section 8 housing units across the nation, but whether Sunset Village is included in those plans remains to be seen.

Just last week, Kendall Maggard, the manager of communications for a marketing firm representing Millennia, provided a statement to the Mississippi Free Press touting the “comprehensive rehabilitation” of the Sunset Village property.

“As part of The Millennia Company’s preservation model, the company recently completed a comprehensive rehabilitation of Sunset Village, totaling $12.8M or $94K per unit in construction costs. The improvements made to the property have resulted in Sunset Village currently having an extensive waitlist, with the management team working on processing applications and move-ins daily,” the statement said.

‘We’re Never Surprised’

Bolivar County Volunteer Fire Department Assistant Chief Shane Henderson confirmed that his department evacuated residents at Sunset Village last night but said that Atmos Energy had taken over after that. Atmos Energy provides gas for residents in the complex. The Atmos office in Cleveland did not return a request for comment by press time.

A legal representative for Millennia declined to comment for this story or provide additional information. Kendall Maggard provided the following statement on behalf of Millennia on Monday. 

Early this morning, the Sunset Village management team was alerted to a potential gas leak and is currently working with the gas service provider, fire department, and third parties to investigate the issue. Out of an abundance of caution, the gas service was disconnected for two buildings. The management team is working to investigate and address the potential issue and is in coordination with residents to provide support while repairs are being made,” Maggard wrote.

Two women stand outside speaking
Desiree Hensley, right, director of the University of Mississippi Housing Clinic, told the Mississippi Free Press in an April 22 interview that “Our position has always been that Millennia put new fixtures on old dilapidated buildings.”

A spokesperson from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development told this reporter that the agency would have more to say on the situation sometime Tuesday, but offered a brief statement on Monday. 

HUD is aware of the serious situation at Sunset Village and is engaged with property management to understand the situation and ensure the safety of residents,” the statement said.

University of Mississippi Housing Clinic Director Desiree Hensley, whose organization represents numerous Sunset Village residents in their legal fight against Millennia, told the Mississippi Free Press in a Monday afternoon interview that the reported potential gas leak was hardly a surprise to her.

“Our position has always been that Millennia put new fixtures on old dilapidated buildings,” Hensley said. “We’re never surprised to hear that there’s dangerous conditions.”

But she worries for the many residents still living in Sunset Village all the same.

“I’m afraid for the people who live there,” Hensley said. “There’s no way for us to know if they’re safe—we have to rely upon Millennia.”

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