JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After witnessing an active mice infestation while going door-to-door at apartments at Hilltop Village, a subsidized housing complex in Northwest Jacksonville, City Councilwoman Ju’Coby Pittman is mad. She described living there as like living in a prison.
Her inspection with members of Jacksonville’s Code Enforcement Department and a separate visit by U.S. Sen Marco Rubio’s staff came days after our I-TEAM report on a mice infestation at the 200-unit complex. We documented mice problems in 13 of 14 buildings on the property.
“They need to be shut down. I am to the point where I am reaching out to my senator, my congressman and (congress)woman,” Pittman said.
They saw what News4Jax cameras showed last week: mice scurrying through clothes, rodent droppings in a child’s dresser drawers and kitchen cabinets, even mice running through the ceiling lights as children play below in their living rooms.
Parents fear for their children’s health.
“She might pick up a toy and pick up rat poop -- you never know,” said resident Jasmine Hairston.
Tiara Buck saw her toddler pick up one of the mousetraps in their apartment.
“I noticed he picked up a trap with a mouse on it -- a dead mouse,” Buck said. “He’s 2 years old -- a 2-year-old baby.”
When residents call the property manager, they said they’re given more traps.
“Do you think rat traps stop the mice from coming? No, because if they did, I wouldn’t be seeing them,” resident Sedricia Tinsley said. “Pest control comes. It doesn’t do a bit of good because it’s like an infestation here.”
“No one should live like that,” Pittman said. “The people living in there, it’s like living in prison.”
“I can’t go in my kitchen and cook a meal without seeing rodents and rats,” Pittman said, in describing how residents may feel about the conditions.
Prison because tenants tell us they have no choice but to stay. They can’t afford to move.
Hilltop Village Apartments does offer low-income housing and, in return, receives tax credits and federal subsidies under HUD.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s staff inspected some of the apartments at Hilltop Village on Tuesday as a result of our I-TEAM story last week.
We learned from a letter Rubio sent to U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge that Hilltop Village apartments have not been inspected by HUD since December 2015. The department’s rules dictate that it should have been inspected in 2017, but that never happened.
The senator also criticized the local HUD office for not ordering an inspection after tenants have filed numerous formal complaints about the mice infestation with the city of Jacksonville’s Code Enforcement Department over the last two years.
Despite prompting by Rubio and the inspection by several Code Enforcement workers Monday, a HUD spokesperson made no mention of any immediate plans for a federal inspection in an email Monday night that reads in part: “We reached out to the property management and discussed in detail their mitigation plan to address the rodent infestation immediately. Cambridge Management informed us of their commitment to resolve the infestation and has allocated the necessary funds to get it done.”
Pittman said she will be back at Hilltop Village every week until changes are made.
“Just because you can’t afford any better doesn’t mean that you don’t deserve better, and these people deserve better,” Pittman said.
Code Enforcement told the I-TEAM that inspectors visited 104 units Tuesday and cited violations in 42 of them -- nearly half. But the city said none of what they found warrants condemning the property.
The inspectors returned Wednesday to continue inspecting units. We’ll follow up on what they found.
Surprise visit from city inspectors
We first reported on the rodent complaints at the Hilltop Village Apartment community on West 45th Street on Thursday, detailing the disgusting accounts from residents and uncovering that the problems date back at least two years.
After our investigation, Jacksonville’s code enforcement visited the apartment Tuesday and Rubio’s Office launched its own investigation.
News4Jax saw at least a dozen local code enforcement inspectors out at the property Tuesday. They wouldn’t tell News4Jax why they were at the property, but they did respond to Pittman’s questions and allowed her to accompany them.
“I’m appalled by how these residents are living,” Pittman said Tuesday.
Since our story aired last week, 11 more tenants have reached out to the I-TEAM, complaining about mice where they live. A tenant in Building G sent us a video of a mouse running around inside a ceiling light in her apartment. She said some of them die and the smell is awful. She also shared photos of two others she’s caught on glue traps.
A tenant in Building B found a dead mouse on a trap in her utility closet. She lives in her unit with four young children and said the rodent droppings are gross. Courtney James, who lives in Building M, said she has been battling mice since last June. “I’m not a dirty person. I clean every day, and no matter how much I clean, they still come,” James said.
She is afraid of mice crawling into her 2-month-old daughter’s crib.
“I sleep with her with me. I know people don’t want that for an infant, but I have to. I don’t want her in her crib alone,” James said.
James said she’s called property management more than 15 times and she called the corporate office also to no avail.
“They tell me they’ll call me back. Last time I called corporate, they called the front office and told them I called them and the lady from the front office got upset and came and told me that it’s normal to have mice because I live across the street from a graveyard site,” James said.
Pittman said she has a plan to ensure changes.
Cambridge Management, the corporate office for the property managers at Hilltop Village, sent News4Jax this statement on Friday after the I-TEAM’s initial story aired last week:
Community management and ownership are fully committed to providing quality housing for our residents. As it became clear that standard treatments were not effective, the owners and management moved to more rigorous treatments. On April 22nd management signed a new contract as part of a customized plan for pest control treatment and work is underway.
The scope of work, as described in the contract includes “…concreting all roof returns and transitions, sealing all HVAC and utility entry/exit points, sealing all plumbing and gable vents, soffit repaired and secured where possible, replaced and secured where necessary. Installation of exclusion doors so animals can leave but not come back, interior trapping in the attics/crawl spaces until animals are all out, and sterilization of the attics/crawlspaces once completely removed...”
Residents have been provided with information about the work that has commenced and are encouraged to contact the office by phone, email or through the online resident portal with any concerns or questions about treatments.
Rubio’s letter to HUD
Rubio sent his letter to HUD’s secretary Tuesday after his own team of investigators went to the apartments Monday to inspect the conditions and speak with families.
Rubio’s letter to the secretary says in part, “...my staff met with tenants and found disturbing evidence of a severe rodent infestation and chronic garbage overflow throughout the entire property.”
The letter goes on to say, “It is unacceptable that the residents of Hilltop Village Apartments have been obligated to live under these conditions…”
Adding that, “Residents should not have to wait almost six years between safety and sanitation inspections to be guaranteed appropriate living conditions.”
Rubio is demanding immediate action, including inspections of the property, elimination of the rodent problem and enforcement of any penalties that may apply to the owners or management.