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Bed bugs, mold, mistreatment: Insiders describe troubling conditions at Phoenix Towers

Phoenix Towers in downtown Bloomington.
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A litany of complaints filed with the city and the Illinois Housing Development Authority detail recurring problems over the past few years. Yet no punitive action has been taken against the multibillion-dollar company that owns Phoenix Towers in downtown Bloomington.

In the final days of her life, the wishes of a Phoenix Towers resident known as Miss Katie were simple. She wanted to feel safe in the last place she called home. When she transitioned to hospice care, she wished to die with dignity and in peace.

A caregiver and a decades-long friend of Miss Katie’s said none of those desires were met once she moved into the 13-story public housing building that overlooks the City of Bloomington.

“She just didn’t feel at home,” Bridget Sebastiani said. “She’d gotten to the point where she was dissatisfied with her living conditions. She did just want to be at peace.”

Miss Katie came to Phoenix Towers in 2018 as a sort of escape from a different housing situation; Sebastiani said Miss Katie was so eager to leave it behind, she packed her belongings into a cart and pushed it by herself to the imposing structure at 202 W. Locust St. as soon as she was able to move in.

Bridget Sebastiani
Miss Katie, who lived in Phoenix Towers.

“When she first got there, she felt like it was better than where she came from,” Sebastiani said. “But that changed. It soon changed.”

Soon, Sebastiani said Miss Katie was trying to clear her apartment of bedbugs, even going so far as to block a gap between the floor and the door to try to keep them from getting inside. Roaches crawled on her kitchen countertops; once, Sebastiani said, Miss Katie opened the door of her 12th floor apartment and a man who didn’t live at Phoenix Towers lay there, sleeping at her doorstep.

The troubling things Miss Katie experienced continued until her final moments of life in 2019. Sebastiani said on one of the last days Miss Katie lived, she was laying in bed under hospice care in her apartment, and Sebastiani saw a bed bug crawl up the wall behind Miss Katie. She plucked it off the wall and found it engorged with blood.

“When I turned the key in that I had to get into her apartment and I walked out of the building, I told myself, ‘I will absolutely never be back in this building again,’” Sebastiani said. “I haven’t been back and I hope I never have to be.”

This was Miss Katie’s story, but its themes of neglect, mistreatment and unsanitary living conditions are still a reality years later for the people who continue to call Phoenix Towers home, according to residents, City of Bloomington staff, and local advocates for people with disabilities. A litany of complaints filed with the city and the Illinois Housing Development Authority detail recurring problems over the past few years, yet no punitive action has been taken against the multibillion-dollar company that owns Phoenix Towers.

Who's in charge

In the topography of housing available in Bloomington, Phoenix Towers occupies a somewhat unique space. By definition, it is a public housing unit, meaning it offers subsidized apartments to people with disabilities and senior citizens. But unlike some other complexes in the area, it does not fall under the purview of the Bloomington Housing Authority.

Instead, Phoenix Towers is privately owned by multinational, multibillion-dollar real estate firm Related Companies, which is headquartered in New York City. According to its website, its assets total nearly $60 billion, including “approximately 60,000 affordable and workforce housing units located throughout the United States.”

Related Companies retains management of the property and maintains a contractual agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regarding its public housing offerings — which is formally called Project-Based Rental Assistance (PBRA).

In Illinois, another contract that finances the development in part is administered by the Illinois Housing Development Authority, meaning the state is also responsible for ensuring Phoenix Towers complies with HUD’s “uniform physical condition standards,” according to IHDA spokesperson Andrew Field. To monitor this compliance, inspections are completed every three years throughout the duration of the contract; the last inspection at Phoenix Towers was in September 2022.

PDF: Read the UPCS Physical Inspection Report for Phoenix Towers (September 2022)

That inspection of 23 individual units, common areas and the exterior revealed numerous “health and safety deficiencies,” and 13 inspected units were marked as “fail” in reporting documentation. The building was also cited as being in "poor" condition.

IHDA's Field cited the building’s age as a contributing factor to its failures; Phoenix Towers has been offering public housing since at least the 1970s, according to documents.

“It is common for buildings that are 40+ years old to have deficiencies during an inspection, so that should not come as a surprise,” Field wrote. “For IHDA, it is critical that any health and safety deficiencies are remedied immediately.”

IHDA granted a Freedom of Information Act request from WGLT that included tenant complaints from 2020-2022; although IHDA didn't have any records after October 2022, residents still maintain that conditions are as poor as they ever been.

“It didn’t used to be as bad as it is because most of the turnover was (due to) death or people having to go to a nursing home,” said a resident to whom WGLT granted anonymity due to fears of retaliation. “Now, it seems almost every weekend or every other weekend there is someone moving out at 8 or 9:00 on a Saturday night. People don’t do that unless they are desperate to get away.”

As was the case with Miss Katie, LIFE Center for Independent Living Advocacy and Advancement director Conan Calhoun said many of the nonprofit’s clients are often so eager to find housing that they accept what is available, no matter the warnings.

“We do have full transparency toward the options in which they’re looking,” he said. “We’ll tell them, ‘Hey man, we’ve had a lot of complaints of bedbugs, gnats, roaches, standing water, flooding — all of these things. People don’t have any choice. They move in there and then everything that we bought that was brand new is ruined within a month … People are literally so disappointed, they’re crying. It’s so sad to see it play out like that. And then they have nowhere to go.”

Because WGLT inquired about the state’s knowledge of the conditions at Phoenix Towers, an internal email sent between IHDA staff on Jan. 25 noted two employees “have been handling a media complaint on this development regarding heavy bed bug infestation.”

Later that day, Phoenix Towers was described as “noncompliant” in documentation about a possible capital grant Related Companies was seeking, although an email noted “the owner is aware of the issue and may be working on a resolution.”

On Feb. 24, Field said in an email to WGLT that “the development remains out of compliance based on physical condition issues.”

Via the state’s Limited Rehabilitation Preservation Program, the company had been anticipating over $460,000 in grant money for “critical infrastructure repairs,” but Field said final papers from the company had not yet been received and the grant, therefore, not yet finalized.

Due to Phoenix Tower’s status with IHDA in this process as “noncompliant,” Field said “internal steps are being taken to report this with the IRS.”

“When a development is financed with Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, they have to stay compliant per Section 42 of the Internal Revenue Code,” he said.

After that, two additional emails seeking clarification from IHDA went unanswered.

In a statement to WGLT late Thursday, a spokesperson for the company denied its status as having been non-compliant.

"Phoenix Towers is fully compliant with IHDA and management works to create an environment that supports the well-being of the community," the statement read. "We will continue to address issues as they arise and appreciate residents’ patience and cooperation during this time."

Complaints filed with the city

In the case of other housing, if a landlord or property management company within Bloomington were to be repeatedly found in violation of city ordinances regarding health and safety, the consequences could involve going to Administrative Court, an arm of city government that deals with ordinance violations.

Phoenix Towers and its owner has never been taken to Administrative Court or formally cited for ordinance violations, according to city spokesperson Katherine Murphy.

“I’ve asked the legal department and they say from a municipal prosecution standpoint, we don’t cite HUD properties and they are not aware of the City ever citing a State Housing Authority owned property either,” Murphy said. That “doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened — it’s just not known to our current staff.”

Since 2020, around 40 complaints about the conditions at Phoenix Towers have been filed by or on the behalf of residents with city staff.

Until around 2020, only 34 complaints had been filed since 2013 — about four or five each year.

Bloomington’s Economic & Community Development Director Melissa Hon said there are now 84 complaints on file from 2013-present, meaning the bulk of complaints have been filed within the past two years.

WGLT obtained copies of those complaints, many of which are about bedbugs and roaches, but also include issues with ““no air,” “no heat,” and “brown water.”

“I have open maintenance requests from 2018 that have been open for years and not done,” a resident said. “There are people living in pesticide-coated apartments. There are people living with tiles missing and mold in their showers. If we were a nursing home, we’d be shut down, let’s put it that way.”

One complaint filed with the city noted a woman’s ceiling had collapsed; the resident who spoke with WGLT confirmed that had happened to a woman in her 90s after repeated flooding in the apartment above her.

“She has had a ceiling collapse on her, yes. (She) had newspaper in her windows last winter to keep her apartment warm,” the resident said. “If something's going to happen, it's going to happen to her, and I hate it. She just doesn't deserve that. I understand we're poor. I understand that we are mostly unwanted by our families, but people should not be living like this, especially when the government is subsidizing it to that extent.”

Photos taken by a former resident who sent a written complaint to both IHDA and HUD show bugs, moldy carpet and dumpsters overflowing with trash, some of which comes from bedbug-infested rooms.

“We're seeing bed bugs in common areas. We're seeing bed bugs in the elevator,” the resident said. “It's in the lease that everything must be wrapped up if they're being told to throw something away. They are refusing to help residents who are disabled get rid of anything that's infested. They're refusing to provide reasonable accommodations and help them — they're not supplying any sort of wrap for them to put it in. So people are just dragging bed bug-infested furniture all through the building and on the elevators, which is just making the problems worse.”

Despite no shortage of complaints from residents to outside entities like LIFE Center for Independent Living, HUD, the City of Bloomington and even to Related Companies’ offices in New York City, little, if anything, happens afterward.

“It’s a lot about the bugs, the lack of maintenance, and the city's attitude about the bugs as well,” the resident said. “They’re like, ‘Well they’re turning in receipts so we can't do anything.”

Hon told WGLT in an email that “the management staff and maintenance staff at Phoenix Towers have always responded positively and quickly. It seems the biggest issue over the last few years is infestation, and they are on a continual treatment plan and follow required pest control regulations for treatment applications.”

Michael Hurt, the city’s ADA coordinator, said he often gets phone calls from people seeking help at Phoenix Towers.

Incidents that are not singularly discriminatory are not the purview of his job, he said, but he tries to guide residents to the appropriate source. Hurt said he has even called Related Companies himself.

“Either nobody answers or there’s a voicemail,” he said. “They gave me … a direct number and never even answered the phone. All I wanted to do was come out there and talk to the residents — I think we were doing a survey at the time — but I never got a return phone call.”

Michael Hurt, the City of Bloomington's ADA coordinator.

Hurt said he and other city staffers attended a meeting with residents in early 2019 at Phoenix Towers. He saw then what residents were frustrated with and remain frustrated with to this day.

“We could see stuff in the room they had us meeting in: Dirt. Mold. Water. We could see it all. It was horrible,” Hurt said. “You listen to the residents, how some of them were getting sick, how some of their already existing conditions were being exacerbated by their surroundings. It’s horrible.”

Hurt said the city “did what we could do in terms of … these people, these entities that we hired, employed and funded to come in there and do something. Apparently, not all that was done.”

Asked who the people and entities were, Hurt declined to provide specifics, but said “the expectation was that we would see some sort of improvement.”

“I’m not sure if there was some legal issue, or if there was some technical issue that prevented them from doing what was expected,” he said. “I’m not really sure — and maybe they did what they could do.”

Ward 6 council member De Urban, whose ward includes Phoenix Towers, declined to provide on-record comments about the situation. Ward 8's Jeff Crabill, who worked with former ward 6 council member Jenn Carrillo, acknowledged that the problems at that public housing development have been ongoing and “not new.”

Prairie State Legal Services managing attorney Adrian Barr also confirmed the low-income oriented nonprofit is currently managing cases from residents at Phoenix Towers, but the legal and individualized process means things may proceed slowly and so far have not been solved on a wide-scale basis.

“We do know that tenants are having conditions issues there — a variety of types of issues,” he said. "And we encourage them to contact us. We want to be helping people with those issues. That's important. I hope people do call us. If they can't call us for whatever reason they're definitely welcome to come in while we're open to get help on that issue.”

Hurt said he believes a financial consequence could serve as means of motivating the owners to improve the conditions long-term at Phoenix Towers, but added that he does not think the city, currently, has the authority to do that.

“Let's just say if it was up to me, and if I could create the type of department that I wanted that would address these issues, it would be something a lot more than a toothless tiger,” he said. “It would be somebody that could actually walk in, levy fines, demand changes on behalf of the residents. And on behalf of these residents that have got to keep paying rent (now) even though they live in these horrible conditions, they could put down sanctions or put a moratorium on rent until you get all these things fixed.”

Currently, the rent for a one-bedroom at Phoenix Towers is $840. Because most residents are on a fixed, low income, they pay only a percentage of that figure and the government covers the rest.

A resident told WGLT signage had been put up in the building to let residents know they were trying to increase the fair market value of a unit to around $1,000 a month.

“It’s not going to affect us as tenants, but the government will have to pay more for us to continue to live in this mess,” the resident said.

“I hate to sound like (this) but that’s what it’s come to in this building. You get told, ‘No,’ so many times, people have just given up. We've written ourselves off as just a lost cause because nobody cares about us.”

Bridget Sebastiani said she would have liked to have seen more evidence that all building staff members had been trained to interact with people with disabilities and older adults with “compassion and empathy, not in a bullying, manipulative, overbearing way.”

Of the former, she said, “I didn’t see any of that there.”

Miss Katie on her birthday, at Phoenix Towers in Bloomington.
Bridget Sebastiani
Miss Katie on her birthday, at Phoenix Towers in Bloomington.

Miss Katie died on Sept. 1, 2019, with Sebastiani at her side.

She had been distressed enough by her situation at Phoenix Towers to apply for a new apartment in a different public housing unit in Bloomington, although she was in poor health.

“I think it was the day or two after she died, I got the call that an opening came up for her to move into there,” Sebastiani recalled. “She just really felt like it would be safer. Just a peaceful last few days was what she wanted.”

Asked if Miss Katie would have transitioned to Phoenix Towers from her previous West Bloomington apartment had she fully known the conditions, Sebastiani hesitated.

“The situation at Market Street was pretty bad for her and she was desperate to get out of there. But in the end, she was desperate to get out of Phoenix Towers, too,” she said.

Updated: March 17, 2023 at 11:19 AM CDT
This story has been revised to reflect that the Illinois Housing Development Authority has a separate contract it administers in relation to Phoenix Towers. That contract is related to financing the development, in part, through Low Income Tax Credits.
Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
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