FOX 8 Defenders: Questions surrounding fine levied against The Willows owner

Published: Jul. 13, 2022 at 10:59 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A New Orleans city councilman wants a stiffer punishment by code enforcement against the owner of The Willows apartment complex. The non-profit owner of the site still owes money from a code enforcement hearing two years ago.

Lake Willow resident Dawn Hebert says the tranquility of her neighborhood is disrupted by activities at The Willows apartment complex behind her backyard.

“We’ve had items thrown into our yards. We have heard gunfire on a weekly basis. It’s very unnerving,” Hebert explained. “It’s very unsettling and, at this point, something needs to be done.”

Hebert was among a handful of residents who logged on virtually last week to attend a code enforcement hearing. The hearing addressed the 11 violations found during inspectors’ visit to the complex in May, after Fox 8 reports highlighted the living conditions there. The district manager for code enforcement, David Grunberg, said our stories prompted inspectors to show up to the site.

“Your honor, this was media-driven,” Grunberg said.

The problems found during that inspection included the leaking ceiling in Caroline Bailey’s bedroom and the sinking wall in Cierra Dobard’s home. Plus, the complex swimming pool, filthy and unsecured. The head of code enforcement called it an “imminent danger.”

While Dr. Richard Hamlet, CEO of the Tennessee-based, religious non-profit that owns the apartment complex, didn’t show up for the hearing, his property managers and an attorney did.

“I think in terms of what is actually before the hearing officer today, the evidence shows the problems have been fixed,” attorney Charles Stern said.

While the issues in Caroline’s and Cierra’s homes have been addressed and the swimming pool is now secure, there are still plenty of problems at The Willows.

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Two weeks ago, we told you about Melvia Hodges. She showed us the extensive plumbing issues in her home, telling us management at The Willows wasn’t providing any relief.

During the code enforcement hearing, officer Ramona Washington said she could only rule on the 11 violations found in May, despite several other residents who say they’re also living in filth.

“It’s up to the citizens -- because there are a number of you on the line -- to call,” Washington said. “If you don’t call, then the city won’t know, ‘Hey you got mold in your house,’ ‘Hey, the plumbing is not working.’ They won’t know this until you call, so that’s your responsibility to do.”

But many of the residents we’ve spoken to say they have called the city repeatedly.

“Nothing was done,” Hebert said. “Nothing was done, until it was aired (on Fox 8) in May that reported the problems.”

The hearing ended with the Global Ministries Foundation ordered to pay a $1,250 fine. But the non-profit, which doesn’t pay any taxes on this property, still owes nearly $900 in fines from a previous judgment leveled against it in 2020.

City councilman Oliver Thomas, who represents New Orleans East, said, “I don’t know what the judge saw or did not see, but we’re going to continue to bring them to court, continue to cite them.”

Thomas says he’s been dealing with The Willows for years.

“I live right there in Lake Willow,” he said. “People like Dawn Hebert and I are neighbors. We’ve been monitoring that property for a long time.

“They have a total disrespect for our city. So we should not be cautious and slow to punish them for the violations that existed and that exist.”

Thomas promised to stay on top of the property and closely watch how the city handles the code violations found there. Meanwhile, he had a message for Dr. Hamlet.

“The Christian thing to do would be to make sure it’s safe, sanitary and affordable housing. Matthew 25 and 35 says, ‘Hungry, you fed me. Thirsty, you gave me drink. Stranger, you invited me in.’

“They wouldn’t invite anybody into The Willows.”

City Council president Helena Moreno said in a statement that she was disappointed and frustrated to see such meager fines for persistent and major violations. She said the city needs penalties matching the severity of the violations.

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