Questions linger as Calloway Cove families line up for food

Lawson hosts food distribution to help fire victims, but questions HUD oversight

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A North Florida congressman has questions for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development following a massive fire at a government-subsidized apartment complex that sent seven people to the hospital and displaced 11 families. 

According to HUD, 28 more families were evacuated days after the fire at Calloway Cove in an abundance of caution. U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Democrat representing Florida's 5th Congressional District, partnered with Northeast Florida Distribution Warehouse Farm Share and other organizations, to host a food distribution Wednesday for victims of last week's fire. 

Lawson spoke with the News4Jax I-TEAM by phone during the event that fed more than 100 Calloway Cove residents and surrounding community members. He said he wants to help the community, but has questions about the oversight HUD is providing for government-subsidized housing. 

“What is being done with the oversight for these facilities?” asked Lawson. “In the last two years, HUD has assured Congress that they are going to do a better job, they are going to have more control over these management groups and manage these facilities and cut down on the problems that they are having and I am not sure that is taking place.” 

Calloway Cove, formerly named Washington Heights under previous ownership, failed HUD inspection in 2016. Inspectors found 20 deficiencies, some life-threatening, including a broken smoke detector and a broken pilot light on a gas stove. 

The I-TEAM obtained a copy of the most recent HUD inspection for the complex. The inspection was done in February 2018, six months before the new property owner, Millennia Housing Management, began renovations. 

According to the report, inspectors found 20 deficiencies, including a lead hazard, more than 20 obstructed accessibility routes and 24 missing or inoperable kitchen appliances. 

After the inspection, HUD gave the complex its highest inspection score since 2016: an 82C. 

An I-TEAM investigation found three days after the fire at Calloway Cove, the complex failed a city fire inspection. City inspectors found expired fire extinguishers, broken smoke detectors and six other violations in an annual fire inspection. 

The complex had previously failed two fire inspections in 2018, before passing in October 2018. 

Gas service company TECO Energy told the I-TEAM it investigated a report of gas smell in the complex in April 2018 and investigated multiple other reports of a gas smell following the last week's fire. A spokesman for the company said TECO Energy reported any gas leaks to Millennia Housing Management. 

“They were in the process of trying to turn things around and what they didn’t do, we need to know, because HUD, in my opinion, has been pretty lenient in the inspections that they have had in these facilities,”  said Lawson, who plans to be in Jacksonville next week. 

While the focus Wednesday was feeding and supporting families who lost nearly everything in the fire, the focus in the future will be finding answers.

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