Tenant affected by neighboring fire faces pushback from property officials

Chesterfield County

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — More than a week after an electrical fire displaced 14 residents of Hyde Park Apartments & Townhomes, Crystal Flippen and her son are the only two tenants still in the affected building. But it’s not by choice.

Flippen had signed a temporary, 30-day lease, and was planning to re-sign at the end of the month. Then the fire happened.

Now, Flippen says property management officials are requiring her to provide 30 days’ notice to terminate the lease, just as she would’ve done under normal circumstances. That would require her to continue to make payments on the apartment through early to mid-November.

“I’ve been in the complex since 2015, and I’ve been in this apartment since May of this year,” Flippen said. “A week before the fire, the electrician came in and fixed the plugs and things upstairs, and then I still have some lights flickering and stuff like that in the apartment.”

Flippen says there were warning signs for residents of the building in which the fire started.

“The day of the fire, I know that the neighbor whose house it started in downstairs said that her lights went out, that she had contacted the rental office and Dominion Power. They weren’t able to find any issues. She wasn’t really sure if the maintenance actually came out from the rental office because she was at work,” Flippen said. “The very next-door neighbor, whose house the fire came up through, said that they had contacted the rental office maybe an hour prior to them ever seeing any fire, and no one ever came out to check to see what was going on. They called emergency maintenance.”

Flippen says her own apartment had electrical issues all summer. When an electrician came to fix them, he told her the process would be longer and more complex than what the rental office wanted him to do.

“So he ran a line from the electrical board through the closet, into the switch, so that the lights would then work,” Flippen said. “But he did say that was a quick fix; it wasn’t what he really needed to do.”

Flippen and her 18-year-old son were home the day of the fire. She works in psychology, and was on a telehealth call with a client at the time. But she had no idea what was happening until her son ran inside to warn her.

Now, Flippen and her son are left with an apartment that reeks of smoke, and their health is suffering.

“My house, I’m so blessed that it didn’t burn down or I don’t have to replace all my items and stuff like that. But I do have the smoke damage and the ongoing electrical issue with the flickering of the lights and stuff, so I just didn’t feel comfortable coming back and staying here, especially with the smoke and everything, and my son and I having asthma.”

Flippen and her son have since moved into a hotel, which is being paid for by Flippen’s rental insurance company. But there’s no kitchen, so they’re eating out every night, which is adding up.

Martin Wegbreit is the Director of Litigation at Central Virginia Legal Aid Society (CVLAS) in Richmond. When he heard about Flippen’s situation, he explained that damage, which causes a place to be uninhabitable, is reason enough to terminate a lease, either on the part of the tenant or landlord.

“There’s no bright line between what is habitable or uninhabitable,” Wegbreit said. “It relates to the particular tenant who is involved. And so if a tenant, like in this case, has asthma and the fire itself, even though it may not have caused a lot of structural damage, still has a lot of smoke and other problems with the air, I think those problems alone would render the place uninhabitable, at least for this particular tenant.”

Flippen says she has given the leasing office 30 days’ notice so that, in the worst-case scenario, she may stop paying rent after November. But Wegbreit says this seems to be a case in which Flippen should be allowed to end her lease early without penalty.

8News reached out to Hyde Park Apartments & Townhomes for comment, but only an automated response has been received as of Friday afternoon.

Since publication of this piece, Flippen has been granted an October 31 release from her lease.

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