Berkley Court residents in Franklin have a right to get hot water back, housing lawyer says

Franklin 600 Campbell Avenue explosion (April 15)
Posted at 3:56 PM, Apr 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-29 20:14:56-04

FRANKLIN, Va. - For two weeks now, residents of the Berkley Court Apartments have been without hot water inside of their units following an explosion at the complex.

"Something like hot water is something that you would consider an emergency and something that needs to be a priority to fix," said Amy Disel Allman, the director of advocacy for the Virginia Legal Aid Society, a non-profit organization providing free legal information, advice and representation in civil cases to low-income families and people in the central, southside and Western Tidewater regions of the state.

She explained the rights these tenants and other renters have in Virginia.

"You know, normally of course whenever there's any kind of issue, your first attempt is to work with the landlord," she said.

If that doesn't lead anywhere, tenants can take their landlords to court, including people living in subsidized housing like the Berkley Court apartments. They can file what's called a tenant's assertion if they're up-to-date on their rent.

A judge could then hold their rent in escrow, meaning it's controlled by the court and not given to the landlord, until the issue is fixed.

"No one should be sitting there that long without hot water and being made to live in those conditions. That's something that needs to be fixed," Allman said.

There's also a law in Virginia where under certain circumstances tenants themselves can pay to fix a problem and then withhold that amount from the rent.

"I think what the current system implies is that the tenants have to know all these rights they have," said Del. Marcia Price (D-Newport News).

Currently, if someone complains to their local government about a property, they can come and inspect it. If they find code violations, they can issue fines or even condemn buildings, but often times Price says it's cheaper for landlords to pay a fine instead of fixing the problem.

"Let's say for instance you have this situation where the cost of repairs is $3,000, but the fine is $100. If you only have $100, your landlord is going to pay the fine and it doesn't incentivize you to fix the issue," Price said.

State lawmakers passed the bill that would've added teeth to what local governments could do, but Gov. Youngkin vetoed the bill, saying it wasn't necessary.

"The localities could've sued for the actual fixes, where the court could actually hold the landlord in contempt of court until those issues were fixed," Price said.

Under the current system, Allman says the residents of Berkley Court have a right to turn their water back on.

"Tenants have a right to know what's going on and to be aware of what steps are being made to fix this," Allman said.

Severn Management Company, who managers the property, told News 3 Friday they have been meeting with residents to communicate what's going on.

To turn the hot water back on, they need to get the gas lines inspected. The company says it's currently a "moving target" on when that will happen. They are currently offering residents temporary showering stations, and they've arranged for residents to shower at a nearby truck stop.

News 3 reached out to state leaders about the situation. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Newport News) told News 3 in a statement, “My staff and I are following this unfortunate situation as it develops. There should be an exhaustive investigation by state, local and fire officials into the cause of the explosion and we expect all involved to restore utilities to residents as quickly as possible. In addition, I will be following up with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to see what can be done to assist those utilizing federal housing programs and are currently displaced."

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development told News 3 in a statement, "HUD is aware of the accident that occurred on April 15. Our number one priority is the safety and well-being of those who live in HUD-assisted housing. We understand residents’ frustration with outages, and we are doing everything in our power to ensure prompt action is taken. HUD officials were on site last week and have encouraged a 100%-unit inspection of the property be performed as coordinated by the owner. We have been informed the inspections are in progress to ensure hot water can be restored safely. We continue to be in close communication with the owner and property management, with our next formal meeting scheduled next week."

One of the two people who was critically injured in the April 15 explosion died Friday, Franklin City Manager Amanda Jarratt and Franklin Police confirmed to News 3.

Upon learning the news of the victim's passing, the Virginia Legal Aid Society expressed interest in getting involved and possibly providing relief. Anyone who needs assistance can reach the Suffolk office by phone at 757-539-3441 ext. 801.