Vonniqua Jackson had paid her rent at the Westchester Apartments in Slidell for the entire year, but on Monday, the 22-year-old mother and her infant daughter were among about 14 families displaced by the imminent condemnation of the complex.
Jackson was one of a group of upset tenants who went to Slidell City Hall to talk to officials about their predicament, which began Thursday night when a resident called St. Tammany Fire Protection District No. 1 to complain that the ceiling of her townhouse had caved in during a heavy rain.
Fire officials determined there was a fire hazard. They got the power disconnected and told the tenants they could not stay in the Pontchartrain Drive apartment building.
Belinda Parker Brown, a community organizer, said a number of families had nowhere else to go and have been living in their cars.
Jackson had a better temporary option. She drove to Baton Rouge to stay in an apartment with her baby’s father and his roommates. But she is still worried about how she is going to be able to rent a new place.
Her landlord, former New Orleans Health Director Kevin Stephens, gave her a check for the rent she had prepaid, but the $5,850 check didn’t include her damage deposit or the pro-rated amount for March. She needed the money to rent a new apartment but said she was afraid that if she cashed the check, she would not be able to press for the rest of the money owed her.
Brown met with Stephens in eastern New Orleans on Monday, and he wrote a check for the additional amount owed to Jackson.
But Jackson wasn’t the only displaced tenant having problems since the complex was shuttered.
LaToya Thornton, who has two children, packed all her possessions in a U-Haul trailer after authorities made the tenants leave. She said the trailer is costing her money she can’t spare. Thornton was one of a number of residents trying to get a housing voucher from the Slidell Housing Authority.
Brown complained that the process of getting vouchers was cumbersome and slow.
As for the building itself, Chad Duffaut, a spokesman for the fire district, said water was pouring into light fixtures — a dangerous situation. “It wasn’t a matter of if there would be a fire, but when,’’ he said.
He returned to the building on Friday with the city’s building inspector. In daylight, the building’s condition was easier to see, and Duffaut said it was clear that the complex had been in bad shape for some time, with water damage and black mold.
Tara Ingram-Hunter, Slidell’s planning and building safety director, referred questions to City Attorney Bryan Haggerty, who would say only that the City Council will hold a special meeting Wednesday to consider condemning the property.
But Duffaut said building inspector Joe France had seen other concerns besides fire, including a potential for collapse. One tenant told inspectors that the place had been going downhill for a number of years, Duffaut said.
The decision to immediately cut off the power and make tenants leave was necessary for public safety, he said.
Stephens declined to comment on the matter, saying that he is only one of the owners. He would not identify the others. However, the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office website lists Stephens and his wife, Cheryll Stephens, as officers of Westchester Apartments LLC.
Stephens holds both medical and legal degrees and was health director for the city of New Orleans under the Nagin administration.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat .