Bedbugs bring contention to forefront

Published 9:29 pm Monday, September 30, 2019

It might have started out being about Donté Hall, but the bedbug issue at the Chorey Park Apartments brought to light more than just a pest problem.

Hall’s case was the first public awareness of bedbugs and their prevalence at the public housing apartments for elderly and disabled residents at 804 W. Constance Road.

But as that awareness grew, and the scope of the problem emerged, there was backlash against Hall. Some residents, according to his mother Geneva Hall and two sisters — Veronica Hall and

Email newsletter signup

Suffolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority Commissioner Regina Hall — told Donté Hall that he should have known about the bedbug problem 11 years ago when he first moved in.

Geneva and Veronica Hall spoke to commissioners during last week’s meeting, with Veronica Hall wearing a plastic covering over her head, a mask draped around her neck and plastic gloves to demonstrate how she dresses every weekend to clean her brother’s apartment.

No one knows the precise answer on how long the problem has existed. Depending on who you talk to, the answer to that question could be anywhere from months, to a year or two years, to even longer.

Prior to July 2018, Housing Operations Director Michell Layne has said, there were only isolated issues of bedbugs at Chorey Park, but after that, the problem became more prevalent.

Between September 2018 and this summer, a contractor has been at Chorey Park to treat apartments there at least three times, and the authority used its own heaters to treat apartments. In a January inspection of all 100 apartments, 35 showed signs of bedbugs. At that time, Donté Hall received a letter threatening eviction if he did not cooperate with the treatment plan. His family said they did not find out about the letter until July.

Commissioner Hall said in July after the issue became public that the whole building was infested, and that all of the residents had been bitten by bedbugs. She noted a distrust of the authority by residents, especially after they had received letters stating they were in violation of their lease agreements and that their leases would be terminated if they did not comply with the treatment plan.

Authority Executive Director Tracey Snipes told commissioners last week that the wording of the letters had been changed and would not include any threatening language.

In July, Snipes said bedbugs had been a sporadic problem for about a year, and conversations among the commissioners began about finding another pest control company. Commissioner Jeffrey Robertson suggested that the authority seek out three bids. At a special meeting last month, Robertson expressed frustration with authority attorney Delphine Carnes, accusing her of not providing information he requested about potential bidders and of advising the authority not to give it to him. The authority had just one bidder, which Robertson would later motion to accept, and the commissioners did.

A censure resolution from commissioner Hall and introduced by Robertson accused board Chairman Ben Fitzgerald, Vice Chairman Quinton Franklin and Carnes of holding an illegal meeting with Commissioner Hall and telling her that she could not participate in the closed session, which was to discuss pending litigation.

Following that closed meeting, Robertson introduced the resolution to award Accurid Pest Solutions a $100,400 contract to treat all of the apartments at Chorey Park. That work is expected to begin in October.

Amy Disel Allman, a managing attorney for Virginia Legal Aid, had told the board last month that it was representing Donté Hall and several other residents, and that if the bedbug issue were not resolved, she would not be afraid to go to court. To date, Allman said no lawsuits have been filed, but she added that she is not getting cooperation from the authority in her offers of assistance.

“SRHA’s actions continue to show a lack of transparency and an unwillingness to acknowledge the current problems and work towards fixing them,” she said. “SRHA needs to start listening to their tenants and working with them instead of against them.”

But the issue took another turn last week when Franklin, who was not at the meeting in which he, Fitzgerald and Carnes were censured, responded to that resolution.

Franklin accused other commissioners of holding illegal meetings, and said commissioners Hall and Robertson should be censured also — Hall for her participation in the meeting, and Robertson for his behavior toward members of the board and the authority, citing reports of what he said was his “bullish behavior, sexism and racism” — charges Robertson denied.

Franklin said he spoke up to uphold his reputation.

“My character will not be assassinated,” Franklin said.

Robertson said they couldn’t accept that they did something wrong. Reached Friday, Robertson declined comment, except to say, “I’m always open to mending fences. That’s the best thing to do.”

In an email, Franklin declined comment, saying it is the authority’s policy to defer comment to the board of commissioners chairman or to its executive director.

Fitzgerald, in an email, said he was surprised by Franklin’s remarks from the meeting, but “I share much of his concern regarding matters featured during his comments at the last board meeting.”

“At the time of its presentation, I (was) taken by surprise at the call for a censure,” Fitzgerald said. “Yet, after researching, I realize that three or more commissioners must avoid meeting at one time to discuss anything that is considered SRHA business — no matter how brief the meeting or benign the subject matter.”

Fitzgerald said he is hopeful that the bedbug issue will be solved with Accurid’s involvement.

“While there have been disquieting moments and a few tense exchanges during some of the board meetings,” Fitzgerald said, “I remain optimistic knowing that the executive director, SRHA staff and the board of commissioners (are) passionate about eliminating the bedbug issue in Chorey Park. I look forward to the results promised by Accurid.”