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AG’s Office: Southwood housing discrimination inquiry ‘open and is ongoing', but advocates say no communication since transition

enants in Richmond’s largest Latino community were ready to assist lawyers from the Virginia attorney general’s office with a housing discrimination inquiry into their landlord.

But since firing the attorney who started the probe, new Republican Attorney General Jason Miyares’ office has not yet committed to meet with residents at the Communities at Southwood.

“There has been no further communication [since the firings],” said Jon Liss, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, an advocacy group that has worked closely with tenants at the apartment complex to fight for better conditions.

The shake-up occurred on the eve of Miyares’ transition into an office previously led by Democrat Mark Herring. It spurred concern about whether the inquiry into the apartment complex and its property manager, Seminole Trail Management, would continue and, if so, how it would be handled.

Liss and his staff recently had an initial meeting with staffers from the attorney general’s office. Afterward, they followed up with two dates for the lawyers to meet with tenants directly.

Two days later, Miyares fired Helen Hardiman, the housing attorney leading the inquiry, in a move Democrats and tenant advocates decried and Republicans defended as a routine part of the transition.

“Our hope is that [Attorney General] Miyares will properly staff the office and quickly and thoroughly investigate the bad and potentially discriminatory treatment of Latinx tenants at Southwood Apartments,” Liss said.

Victoria LaCivita, a Miyares spokeswoman, said recently that the firings would not stymie the work and that the new attorney general “will look at every lawsuit, investigation and opinion with a fresh perspective.”

Asked Friday what Miyares’ next steps were for the Southwood inquiry and whether he had tapped a new lawyer to lead it, LaCivita said in an email: “This inquiry remains open and is ongoing by the Office of Civil Rights within the Civil Division. Any wrongdoing found will be fully pursued, but due to the ongoing nature of this case the Office of the Attorney General has no further comment at this time.”

Herring’s Office of Civil Rights initiated the probe in early January, following a three-month Richmond Times-Dispatch investigation. Reporters observed homes where children live rife with mold, rat and roach infestations; obsolete appliances; and other maintenance issues the landlord is legally responsible for repairing.

Tenants say management ignored requests or failed to adequately address problems brought to their attention.

Over the course of three months, reporters sought to interview Carroll Steele, Southwood’s property manager, about the conditions.

Steele ignored or declined the requests before agreeing to respond to questions in writing. She blamed tenants from “third-world countries” for infestations and claimed her office had no record of maintenance requests from residents who spoke with reporters.

Richmond officials condemned Steele’s comments and expressed support for the housing discrimination probe. They also pledged greater oversight at the property, including monthly inspections of at least one building at the roughly 1,300-unit complex. Code enforcement temporarily shuttered two units after finding infestations, mold and fire safety issues on an initial visit last month. Management made the repairs afterward.

The local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the oldest and largest Latino civil rights organization in the country, expressed outrage at the “inhumane” conditions at Southwood outlined in the report by The Times-Dispatch, according to a letter addressed to Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and the Richmond City Council and obtained by The Times-Dispatch.

The organization called for an immediate investigation into the complex and for tenants to be protected from intimidation, retaliation and displacement for cooperating with investigators.

“All members of our community deserve safe, clean, dignified, and affordable housing in which they can live, care for their families, and thrive. We will settle for nothing less.”

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