Compliance Masks Challenges In Senior, Affordable Housing | WGLT

Compliance Masks Challenges In Senior, Affordable Housing

Feb 17, 2020

Every community struggles to find adequate housing for aging residents who lose their independence. And not all residential complexes are perfect all the time. There can be problems and poor living conditions.

Dave Griggs lives at Phoenix Towers, a low-income housing development for seniors and residents with disabilities in downtown Bloomington. He has been there for 14 years. Griggs has had cockroaches in his apartment. When he tells management, he said they tell him their policy is no see, no spray.

“When I go down to management and I ask them to at least check (my apartment), they are good about checking me, but if they don’t see something, one bug, they tell me they can’t spray, because it costs money,” Griggs said.

Griggs said the pest control company tells him he has to kill them and bag them to prove he has roaches.

“That’s a bunch of malarkey for lack of a better word,” Griggs declared. “I think don’t think that’s right and it makes me feel like an idiot to be honest with you.”

Griggs said he has had problems with bedbugs in the past but reporting it does nothing.

“I’ve talked to management about it, but I just feel like I’m not getting anywhere with them,” he said. “I just throw my hands up in the air, I don’t know what to do.”

So he called his city council member, Jenn Carrillo.

She helped organize a meeting of Phoenix Towers residents. Carrillo said she had a visceral reaction when she asked how many have had a problem with bedbugs at some point and a majority raised their hand.

“That affected me, as someone who has had bedbugs once it was embarrassing and it was mortifying,” Carrillo said. “There’s so much stigma first of all, so it’s not a thing you want to share with folks.”

But when asked who's responsible for the problem, fingers point in several directions.

Cathy Kiper has lived at Phoenix Towers for 17 years. She largely blames fellow residents for not picking up after themselves.
 

"We don't have enough mechanisms for inspections or enough mechanisms for enforcement really."

“You wouldn’t believe some of the places how they leave them, it’s disgusting,” Kiper said. “This place used to be a wonderful place and I just can’t believe it.”

Kiper acknowledged many tenants have health conditions, limited mobility, and are older.

“Some of them are really sweet people, they really are, they try, but most of these people they just don’t belong here, they really don’t,” Kiper said. “They need a place where there’s an overseer that keeps after them.”

Griggs is among those with mobility problems. The 45-year-old is diabetic with numbness in both feet that makes it hard to walk. He mostly gets around in a wheelchair. He has dialysis three days a week for kidney failure.

Griggs said tenants could pick up better after themselves, but he said cleanliness is a two-way street. Others said tenants are too ashamed to tell management about bedbugs, so the problem spreads.

Others say the problem has forced them to dump bug-infested furniture. Phoenix Towers charges them $50. Management told them that's what they have to pay haulers.

Carrillo said after talking to management, she believes staff is simply overwhelmed.

“Management is doing what they can, but I also think they are overwhelmed,” Carrillo said. “This is a massive building, a lot of folks, a lot of issues. I’d like to see how we can support them cleaning this place up.”

Griggs said he doesn't blame management.

“I don’t think it’s so much with management, it’s more with the corporation to be honest with you,” Griggs said. “I really honestly wholeheartedly believe that’s where the problem is lying.”

The firm Related Apartment Preservation owns Phoenix Towers. The New York-based company declined WGLT's request for an interview, but the company’s management offered this statement:

“We have always taken resident concerns regarding bedbugs seriously. In addition to providing weekly integrated pest management services, we have had our pest control firm conduct a complete inspection of all units and common areas for bedbugs, so that we can swiftly address current concerns.

“The majority of our residents who have reported any issues inside their apartments timely to the management office and cooperated with the pest control firm have seen quick response and good results and we look forward to working closely with any and all others to resolve any problems together.”

Rental Inspections

Tenants who feel their living conditions aren't adequately safe or clean can file complaints with the city of Bloomington. The Town of Normal has a similar program. Bloomington and Normal city officials say they have robust rental inspection programs to ensure resident safety.

Carey Snedden manages Bloomington's code enforcement division. He said the city has 3,000 rental properties and more than 12,000 units to inspect. He said they try to get to each property at least once every three years. But if they get a complaint, they'll be there within two days.

Snedden said the Phoenix Towers tenants have filed 39 complaints since 2013. He says that's not bad, especially for such a large high rise.

“There’s 158 units in that structure, plus common areas and exterior. Since 2013, I would say that is not an alarming number," Snedden said. 

Nearly half of those complaints have come in the two years since the city inspected the building. Of the 19 complaints in two years, Snedden said the city verified 10 and ordered corrective action. He said Phoenix Towers complied each time.

That's not always the case with property owners. In 2015, Bloomington started sending violators to an administrative court. It fines violators a minimum of $50 each day a property isn't fixed. There is also a $110 court fee.

A flashpoint came in 2018 when fire destroyed an apartment building on Gettysburg Drive. The apartment had hundreds of code violations.

Community Development Director Bob Mahrt said that prompted the city to beef up enforcement against bad landlords.

“Following the issue at the Gettysburg property, the city council recognized the need to be a little bit more strict on compliance,” Mahrt said.

The city created a special classification for what it calls chronic violators that can be fined up to $500 a day.

Snedden said fines were initially supposed to force compliance, and the city often waived them once the landlord fixed the problem. The city has since sent the message it won't waive fees anymore. Snedden said that has helped.

“The fines became stronger and we were able to get more teeth with that,” Snedden said.

Snedden said it has also helped that Phoenix Towers changed an apartment access policy. Staff is now entitled to enter each room to clean.

“Their outreach for their tenants has been better than it’s been in the past, from my understanding,” he said. “They are able to get into certain areas they maybe were not allowed to get into before.”

Bloomington has seen a drop in the number of rental complaints in administrative court. The 208 cases last year marks a 20% decline from 2017.

Normal tries to inspect each rental property ever year. That could become more difficult. The town plans to leave one of its two rental inspection positions vacant, to save money.

Town inspections director Greg Troemel said staff may have to rely more on spot inspections of a couple apartments in a complex rather than combing through every unit to cover its nearly 1,000 rental properties and more than 9,000 units.

“We communicated with council that there’s obviously going to be a little dip in our ability to respond from a timing perspective, but our game plan is to still administer the program as best we can,” Troemel said.

Town fines for apartment violations range from $25 to $100 a day. Troemel said the town usually addresses a problem before fines start. Normal also has an administrative court but has had only 12 rental property cases going back to 2015; that's about 1% the number Bloomington has had.

Troemel suggested one reason for the difference is about 60% of the town's rental stock is student housing. Most units are empty in the summer, allowing property owners to get in and clean. He said students also tend to be less likely to complain if there's a problem.

“That’s directly associated with parents helping their students move in,” Troemel said. “Many times those phone calls are coming from the parents of the students and then we show up the following week and they are like, ‘Yeah my mom didn’t want to let that one go.’”

Back in Bloomington, city council member Jenn Carrillo said she's concerned those who have the right to complain may lack the resources and ability to fix the problem themselves. She said the city needs to do more.

“On the west side particularly, we have a lot of slumlords and we don’t have enough mechanisms for inspections or enough mechanisms for enforcement really,” Carrillo said.

Carrillo said it's easy to suggest residents should do more themselves, but that alone won't fix the problem.

“Everybody can pick up after themselves, but at the end of the day, there’s a responsibility from a landlord to a tenant to maintain a space that it healthy and dignified,” Carrillo said.

Upkeep might become harder as a tenant ages. The city's Carey Snedden said Bloomington's code doesn't account for that. He said all properties are treated equally and problems don't just happen in buildings that serve older populations.

“Just the number of people and then the activity that goes on, the amount of garbage in a facility that size, just the general activity period, I wouldn’t think necessarily age would have anything to do with that.”

Both Bloomington and Normal staff generalize that 90% of landlords are good, or at least comply when told to. Some tenants say it's the remaining 10% that need more attention.

Phoenix Towers resident Dave Griggs says after meeting with Carrillo, he's still trying to round up fellow tenants to push for action to improve living conditions. Griggs said he feels like he's fighting a lonely uphill battle. 

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