Inspectors descend on Eastside complexes where ‘life-threatening’ conditions have been reported

I-TEAM investigation sparks calls for change from city, state, federal leaders; ‘I feel like I let them down,’ councilman says

VIDEO: Less than a week after it was revealed that two deteriorating Eastside apartment complexes had failed miserably in their recent Department of Housing and Urban Development inspections, city and HUD inspectors were at the properties to investigate conditions again.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Less than a week after it was revealed that two deteriorating Eastside apartment complexes had failed miserably in their recent Department of Housing and Urban Development inspections, city and HUD inspectors were at the properties to investigate conditions again.

Anything under 60 is a failing grade for HUD. In their recent inspections, Eastside Terrace Apartments received a score of 6c/100, and Eastside Gardens Apartments received a score of 24c/100.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, explained that the “c” in the score indicates that life-threatening conditions for tenants were observed during the Real Estate Assessment Center inspections.

News4Jax saw more than a dozen inspectors from both Jacksonville city code enforcement and HUD at the complexes on Tuesday, checking about 100 units for safety violations.

Code Enforcement inspectors arrived Tuesday morning at two apartment complexes on the Eastside that failed recent HUD inspections. (WJXT)

City of Jacksonville director of neighborhoods Bryan Mosier coordinated the effort Tuesday

“We’ve got two teams out here checking conditions and seeing what we can find,” Mosier said. “Recent conditions discovered at Hilltop as well as recent REAC scores that were published, we felt the need to come out and take a look at these units. We were informed that these units scored very low, so we’re looking to see what conditions we find.”

He said his teams collaborated with HUD, Jacksonville Fire and Rescue and building inspectors to come out and take a look.

The Hilltop Village Apartments were the subject of a separate I-TEAM investigation that also found unlivable rodent infestations.

Mosier explained that the inspectors are looking for minimum housing standard conditions, anything from peeling paint, to the appearance of mold and mildew or unsanitary conditions to improperly functioning appliances or air conditioners.

City Councilman Reggie Gaffney, who represents District 7, which includes the Eastside Terrace and Eastside Gardens complexes, said he had no idea about the living conditions there.

“I feel like I let them down. I’ve been in council for six and a half years and had no idea that we had individuals in District 7 living that way,” he said. “Often these things are not addressed until they bring it to y’all’s attention and y’all bring it to our attention, but once it comes to our attention, I think the city’s been proactive.”

Gaffney said he knows both Rubio and Rep. Al Lawson are now getting involved.

“So it’s all hands on deck now to see how we can come up with some kind of solution to help that community out,” Gaffney said.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry said fixing the problems is a top priority.

“We are asking these questions now and pressure is being put on the landlord. My administration is working with that pressure and we are working with them to get it right. And if they don’t, you see how this could end,” Curry said.

Rubio called on HUD’s secretary to take action following the I-TEAM’s initial investigation into the Eastside Terrace Apartments in April, which found mice, roaches and piles of garbage. Our report prompted Rubio to bring his own team in to investigate both properties owned by Andrew Podray.

Rubio’s team witnessed black mold, a pest infestation and crumbling staircases, and Rubio sent a letter to HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge requesting updated REAC inspection scores for both of the properties.

The results were not good.

“The fact that the slumlord at Eastside Gardens and Eastside Terrace Apartments has gotten away with forcing tenants to live in ‘life-threatening’ conditions for this long is stomach-churning,” Rubio said in a news release. “Andrew Podray is a slumlord who should be held accountable for his actions. HUD must pursue any and all further enforcement mechanisms necessary to protect the tenants at both properties.”

Podray is currently facing more than $300,000 in civil money penalties for each property, totaling approximately $600,000 because of the scores. If the health and safety issues at the properties are not completely resolved, Rubio said he will urge the HUD to consider further enforcement actions.

News4Jax reached out to Podray about Tuesday’s inspections. He said he’s monitoring the situation from South Florida, but he just doesn’t have the money to make any repairs right now.

Residents said they need immediate action because their health is at stake.

Cheryl Chandler said she’s lived at Eastside Terrace for eight years and it’s the worst it’s ever been. Last week, she showed the I-TEAM a leak and mold, and she said she doesn’t believe the building is salvageable.

“What is that going do about the rats and the roaches,” she said. “They need to demolish and rebuild. That’s my thought.”

For what it’s worth, I-TEAM crews have seen work being done on the property by contractors the owner hired, but residents say it’s too little too late.

Tenants said they’re trying to move, but it’s difficult to find another place.

The owner told News4Jax he doesn’t think the government’s involvement will help the situation. He said he’s probably going to have to board up and get rid of the property, meaning people will have to find somewhere else to go.

The I-TEAM checked HUD rules: if the complex is shut down or sold, residents will either get to move into another government-subsidized complex or will get vouchers for a different living situation.

The I-TEAM initially found mice, roaches and piles of garbage at Eastside Terrace, and our report prompted Sen. Marco Rubio to bring his own team in to investigate both properties owned by Andrew Podray. (WJXT)

In a previous statement, Podray, who has owned the complexes for 13 years, called the earlier action by Rubio a “political stunt” and said he was “railroaded” in the government inspection and report.

“I’m disappointed with Marco Rubio,” he responded. “I feel that he should have done some research first and reached out to me. I’m not difficult to reach.”

He said the properties have slipped in the past year and a half because of the pandemic. Due to an eviction moratorium, he can’t kick out residents even if they don’t follow the rules for upkeep. And he said pest control from unit to unit is difficult with COVID-19 concerns, especially when people were less aware of how it spread.

“So normally if somebody is not cleaning up their apartment or if they have guests that are ‘unwanted,’ we would say ‘look, you’re going to lose your subsidy, we’re gonna go ahead and evict you.’ We could not do that in 2020,” Podray said. “So instantly of this bad situation, we have all these people moving into the apartment complex that don’t belong there.”

He described “unwanted” guests as those who move into the complex without a background check and authorization, piggybacking off actual tenants. He pointed out many of the deductions from his HUD score were for violations he considered out of his control.

“Ironically, a lot of the points that I lost had nothing to do with the buildings themselves,” he said. “They actually had to do with the fact that there are some furniture outside of my control in front of a window. Other things that they cited me for or my tenant’s picture frames. If there’s any glass that was cracked on the picture frames, I lost points as a landlord for it. Another thing I lost points for was that they were pots and pans inside of an oven that was not on.”

Podray told News4Jax he replaced the roofs, the washing machines and upped the pest control, spending over $100,000 of his own money. However, fixing these problems will be much more than he can handle, given the small margin he makes. As a result, he said the apartments could be shut down or he could be forced to sell.

“This is not a business model that people should be getting into if they don’t know how to do this,” Rubio said. “Because these are real human beings that are suffering as a result of it.”

About the Authors:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.