Residents of Huntington Meadows could be the victims of mold, asbestos, foreclosure or good, old-fashioned lust for developable land, depending on whom you ask.
Ola Jones and her husband are among the hundreds of residents ordered to move out of the apartment complex in two weeks. The couple receive $816 a month in Supplemental Security Income. Their rent at Huntington Meadows is $350 a month. They say they will have to pay at least $400 a month for a similar apartment elsewhere.
Signs inside the building alert visitors to the danger of asbestos. Outside, Jones' daughter, Carolyn Smith, points to flowers her dad planted. They offer the only color against the backdrop of mostly empty brick buildings.
Ola Jones sits in her apartment Aug. 7 with most of her belongings boxed. She's still not sure where she's going to go.
All that's certain is she has to be out by Aug. 31.
"That's a cold kick out, ain't it?" Smith says.
No need to run
Huntington Meadows Limited Partnership, which owns the 1,169-unit rent-controlled complex, filed bankruptcy in June 2001. Habitat America, the court-appointed receiver, is managing the property.
The managers commissioned an environmental study by the Clayton Group. Released last month, the report found Huntington Meadows needs about $10 million to fix environmental problems, including asbestos and mold.
Signs went up around the complex warning of asbestos hazards and residents became concerned for their health. For a while, letter carriers and utility meter readers stopped entering the complex.
But despite the panic associated with the findings, the health risks at Huntington Meadows were not alarming, according to Walter Handy, assistant health commissioner for the Cincinnati Health Department.
Asbestos becomes a health hazard when it is friable — that is, crumbling particles are small enough to be inhaled and lodge in the lungs. The Clayton Group did not find such particles, according to Handy.
"What they found and what they told us they found with the air sampling should not have been a cause for alarm," he says.
In the past, the health department has found apartments at Huntington Meadows that needed to be cleaned and found garbage in hallways.
"These are routine problems," Handy says.
Handy says he tried unsuccessfully for two weeks to get field notes from the Clayton Group. The only thing the company provided was the air sampling for asbestos.
When the health department inspected 400 units in July, they found only four occupied units with moderate mold levels. A community health nurse contacted those residents and asked about allergies, kidney ailments or problems of the immune system.
The health department's medical director determined none of the units required immediate evacuation, Handy says.
The health department found raw sewage in some basements and crawl spaces that had been boarded off by management.
"There is apparently a number of sewage pipes that are malfunctioning," Handy says.
The health department ordered the violations fixed.
"We expected, quite frankly, because of the Clayton Group's report, to find an awful mess," he said.
But after inspecting almost 500 units, the health department found problems that could be fixed, although repairs will be expensive because of a faulty sewage system.
The hard part
The official cause for vacating Huntington Meadows is a court order issued in late July. In a foreclosure action by the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae), Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Thomas Crush found Habitat America insolvent, unable to operate the property due to insufficient income and cash flow.
"Continuing the operation of the mortgaged property is not in the best interest of the parties or tenants, in light of the inability of the Receiver to pay for continued operations," the court order says.
Habitat America received authorization to close the property and terminate all existing leases. The company was to notify each household by Aug. 1 that their leases were being terminated Aug. 31.
The court order is an "agreed order" issued with the consent of a small group of residents who intervened in the foreclosure case. The agreed order provides relocation assistance to tenants who agree to sign a termination agreement, according to Gary Pieples of the Legal Aid Society. Tenants who signed the agreement received free rent in August and $500 to move.
But at least two of the residents who intervened in the case say they did not consent to the court's agreed order and in fact told Pieples to turn down the deal. Huntington Meadows residents Patricia Wilson and Juanita Mitchell have now retained attorney Kenneth Lawson, who has filed a motion asking Crush to reverse the order.
Lawson says Wilson and Mitchell did not agree to the "agreed order." Pieples denies he disregarded his clients' wishes.
"We had their agreement to sign off on the entry that was signed off on," Pieples says. "They never told us that they didn't agree."
More is involved than just moving and getting $500. Tenants who sign the agreement release Habitat America and Fannie Mae from all legal claims, known or unknown.
If people sue the owner, Huntington Meadows Limited Partnership — for health damages, violation of their rights or any other cause — they're going to be told the company is bankrupt, according to Lawson.
Pieples says Legal Aid is investigating whether Huntington Meadows has insurance to cover the cost of potential claims.
"I think the tenants have lots of potential claims," Pieples says. "The hard part is finding someone who has the money to pay them."
The agreement is disagreeable for other reasons, too, Lawson says. The relocation allowance is not automatic.
"So long as the tenant vacates the premises by the termination date and leaves the premises in a broom clean condition, the receiver shall pay $500 (the 'relocation allowance') to tenant," the agreement says.
Lawson says tenants should receive the $500 irrespective of the condition of the property, because tenants have already given damage deposits.
Pieples says the management at Huntington Meadows will make the initial determination whether an apartment is left "broom clean," and there is no process in place to resolve disputes. He acknowledges the need for a dispute resolution process.
"The overwhelming majority of tenants want to move and they wanted time and they wanted money and we tried to get those things for people," Pieples says.
Who will gain?
Cincinnati City Council last week approved $50,000 in relocation assistance for residents. Vice Mayor Alicia Reece proposed the assistance.
Reece has also asked the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to assist with emergency funds for the relocation.
In her letter, Reece mentioned possible future plans for the site — a prospect that has some people wondering whether more is at play than a foreclosure.
"I am also asking for your assistance with the demolition and redevelopment of this site for future home-ownership units," Reece wrote HUD, "so that this soon to be abandoned property does not become a home of fires and other criminal activity."
Reece's letter raises again the question of making the $500 grants conditional on cleaning the apartments.
"Why would you tell them to leave it in broom clean condition if, as the vice mayor states, they want it torn down?" Lawson says.
In his motion to reverse the agreed order, Lawson hints at unnamed plans for Huntington Meadows once the tenants are gone.
"Counsel believes evidence exists of redevelopment plans for the property that is different from its current use," the motion says. "As this court is well aware, the procedural and factual history of this case demonstrates that this wholesale eviction process is unusual and is motivated by some form of corporate greed. After this agreed order was signed without the authorization of the tenants, over 600 families have been told that their leases will terminate at the end of this month, and if they do not leave their property will be put out."
Reece, whose family owns nearby Integrity Hall and other businesses in Bond Hill, has supported having parts of the neighborhood designated a Community Reinvestment Area, eligible for tax abatements (see "More Conflict for Reece," issue of May 30-June 5).
Reece did not return a series of calls left at her office and on her cell phone.
Under a shade tree at Huntington Meadows, Tonya Freeman sits on a lawn chair wondering what she's going to do. She says she needs the $500, so she has to sign the agreement. A white sheet of paper lists phone numbers and prices, and she writes another as she telephones potential landlords.
Freeman receives federal Section 8 housing assistance, but the $500 relocation allowance isn't enough for a security deposit on a new apartment, she says. With five kids to house, she's not sure where she'll go.
"The cheapest one is $740, which still leaves me to have to come up with $240," she says.
But Freeman's problems are bigger than coming up with $240 in additional rent. She says she owes $5,000 to the Cincinnati Gas and Electric Co. When she stayed in her last apartment, a two-family house in Walnut Hills, a family of 12 lived upstairs and left her the bill.
"I'm stuck paying for them and for us," she says. "I can't come up with that."
Legal Aid believes residents who do not sign the termination agreement have a right under federal law to remain at Huntington Meadows, because their leases can't be terminated without good cause, Pieples says. A judge would have to decide whether insufficient funds to operate the apartment complex constitutes good cause.
If the tenants aren't out by Sept. 4, they could face eviction, the possible disconnection of water and utilities and a city order to vacate the buildings. The agreed order says, however, management can't cut electricity, gas and water service without a court order.
Men with masks
Darlene Weaver lived in a townhouse in Huntington Meadows for 15 years. She says she was evicted for having a dog, although she says permission to keep the dog was grandfathered in her lease with previous owners.
Weaver now lives in Lincoln Heights. Her rent is cheaper and she says she's much happier. Huntington Meadows deteriorated over the years, she says.
"When I first moved over there, it was peaceful and quiet," she says. "It was nice."
But Weaver says she had constant problems with roach infestation and repeated disputes with management. When she moved, she says, she left behind the same carpet her apartment had for 15 years.
Weaver says she became suspicious and worried when she saw men with masks working in the basement.
"They always estimated my gas and electric, 'cause the gal wouldn't go down there — and now I know why," she says. "All the kids played in them basements."
Weaver says she's been taking antibiotics for two years for a cold she can't shake. She also says her daughter has chronic breathing problems. She worries their health has been affected by conditions at Huntington Meadows.
Last week Reece and Councilman David Pepper asked Hamilton County to match the $50,000 the city has offered for relocation assistance.
County Commissioner Todd Portune has urged city council to complete an audit to find out what happened to money given the owners to renovate Huntington Meadows. In 1997 the county issued $17.5 million in bonds for renovation and the city gave approximately $3.5 million.
City staff is reviewing the contract, Pepper says. He also wants the city's lawyers to study the city's legal options.
Pepper says he understood the funds were provided not just to bail out the company financially, but also to help solve health and environmental issues.
Pepper and Reece sent a letter to Portune saying they look forward to working with the county to assess what happened to the millions of dollars the city and county invested in Huntington Meadows, and pursuing legal options the city has to recoup its investment.
In the meantime, residents such as Ola Jones and Tonya Freeman are left wondering whether they'll have a place to live.
"The bottom line from the residents' perspective is they don't want to be thrown out by the end of the month," Portune says. "The city needs to support a different approach. No one's really stepping up on (the tenants') behalf." ©