South Carolina Public Housing Debacle – Allen Benedict Court Deaths

Institutional and societal neglect turn historic Allen Benedict Court community into a carbon monoxide death zone. 

By Rebecca Martin

In 2018, James Chapman was one of over 400 residents at a government-run housing complex  in Columbia, South Carolina.  He is now thought to be the first of three known victims of the Allen Benedict Court public housing project in Columbia, South Carolina. For Part Two of this story, click here.

History of Allen Benedict Court

What was once a vibrant black community at the Allen Benedict Court is now nothing more than empty field because the Columbia Housing Authority’s failure to prevent it from becoming a carbon monoxide death zone.

The 80-year old public housing project, Allen Benedict Court, is one of the oldest public housing communities in the United States. When construction began in February of 1940 the Allen Benedict Court was envisioned to provide predominantly Black housing, complimenting the predominantly White Gonzales Gardens completed previously by its developer M.B. Kahn Construction. The twin housing developments utilized similar land use and floor plans. When construction began on the property which would feature 244 living units, 182 were immediately pre-leased and it was evident that the demand for affordable public housing was present in 1940. As a result, the Allen Benedict Court project became an 80-year-old repository of black history. The community it created looked like a dead end to some, a launching pad for others destined for greatness and to most, a hopeful community of hard-working Black families.

In 2018, however, residents were finding it extremely difficult to find a silver lining in Allen Benedict Court. Age and neglect had taken its toll. The Federal government had fallen short on its promise to maintain a decent level of living in the public housing project.

A Pattern of Code Violations Emerges at Allen Benedict Court

By 2018, residents at Allen Benedict were complaining of increasing problems. Residents complained about increasing crime. Infestations of vermin were reported including bedbugs, rats and roaches. Structural problems occurred such as leaking pipes and crumbling ceilings.

“If you have the opportunity to go into one of those units, you would be appalled, said Hemphill Pride, a Columbia lawyer who is representing two residents of Allen Benedict. “Roaches, rats, bed bugs, sewage backing up; absolutely pure neglect…”

Another common complaint was the presence of the odor of gas. Authorities had been called to Allen Benedict Court no less than seven times in 2018. In 2012, carbon monoxide detectors had become mandatory for compliance with fire codes, however no carbon monoxide detectors were observed during any of the inspections resulting from complaints of gas odors or suspected gas leaks. The tragic events which ensued in the following months would lead to a full investigation by the Columbia Fire Department. Fire Department Chief Aubrey Jenkins would eventually call for the evacuation of Allen Benedict Court.

“We discovered that they have no CO detectors, even some of their fire alarms were inoperable,” Jenkins said. “We just discovered gas leaks from around the stoves, burnt marks in the closets where they had their hot water heaters.”

Further investigations would reveal the presence of gas and cyanide on the premises.

Social and Economic Factors Contribute to Allen Benedict Court’s Demise

Both social and economic factors were at work in 2018 to set the stage for the tragedies which followed.

White residents of public housing projects were viewed in a more positive light and with the help of federally backed mortgage loans, were leaving the projects for the suburbs. As the exodus of Whites from the projects continued, Black families were barred from receiving those same benefits and became the predominant population of the federal housing projects. The public and lawmakers were less likely to address what they deemed a Black issue.

The movement of Black families out of the housing projects has not improved. It has gotten worse.

“The gap between White and Black homeownership rates is wider now than it was in 1960, when housing discrimination was rampant and legal, U.S. Census Bureau data shows. In 2022, 74.6% of White households owned their homes, compared with 45.3% of Black households — a gap of more than 29 points. In 1960, the White homeownership rate was 65%, and the Black rate was 38%, a 27-point gap.”

The recession from 1981-1988 led to major cuts in funding at HUD. This cut in funding was reflected in neglected repairs and renovations as well as in maintenance of public housing. The public view of public housing became one of dilapidation and increasing crime. Rather than a solution it was viewed as a problem. In the years since, that sentiment has carried on in federal funding debates. As a result, federally funded housing declined steadily over the next decades. Our present political climate suggests that a federal solution is not forthcoming in the foreseeable future.

The First Victim: James Chapman

In 2018, James Chapman was living in the Allen Benedict Court apartments. He had lived there since 2008. He was suffering from numerous health problems in 2018 including dizziness, breathing problems and nausea. He had complained to the Columbia Housing Authority and other tenants on numerous occasions about conditions in his apartment, “including his detection of the odor of gas on the property, infestations of roaches, a lack of adequate heating, and the absence of hot water on numerous occasions while living in the Allen Benedict Court complex,”

James Chapman died July 7, 2088 from those health complications which were later linked to gas leaks and conditions at Allen Benedict Court. A special administrator for Chapman’s estate filed a wrongful death suit against the Columbia Housing Authority June 25, 2020.

“Upon information and belief, the appliances and heating systems at Allen Benedict Court Apartments had been poorly maintained and not timely or properly repaired or replaced for months or years on and before July 2018 which resulting in repeated and ongoing known and suspected gas leaks at Allen Benedict Court Apartments in a substantial number of apartments,” the lawsuit said.

Six months after Chapman’s death, two more men would succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning. In January, 2019, the two men would be found dead inside their apartments. Allen Benedict Court would be evacuated and it would be determined that over 400 residents would be vacated permanently due to the conditions at the property. What followed was a sad look into the state of public housing in the United States. [To Be Continued]

For more on maintenance neglect issues in apartments, click here.

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