By Dedra Cordle
A recent inspection of properties in Urbancrest has village officials vowing to take action to improve the living conditions at Bending Brook Apartments.
Last month, Mayor Joseph Barnes Sr. and councilman Lacy Wallace Jr. said they were conducting a visual audit of the buildings in the area when the roadways at the apartment complex on Augustus Drive caught their attention.
“We noticed a very large number of very large potholes and then when we went to further inspect them, we noticed trash that was piled up on the walkways and spilling outside of the dumpsters,” said Wallace.
As they continued to walk around the 12.4-acre property, they took note of “exposed wires hanging out of security fixtures,” “water marks on the stairwells near tenant windows,” and the occasional “old and rusted” door knobs to shared common areas and individual units.
Barnes said that while it was surprising, nothing could have prepared them for what they would see next.
According to Barnes, a number of residents invited them into their apartment units so they could see the state of the interior at some of the tenant quarters.
“They wanted us to know what they had been living with for months, if not years,” said Wallace.
In these units, Barnes and Wallace said they saw “carpets full of mildew,” kitchen appliances that were hooked up to the living area due to non-working outlets, and what they believed to be “visible black mold” around the toilets, in the bathrooms, and on the floorboards.
“I was very shocked to see the conditions of these apartment units,” said Wallace. “You have people who literally have to use their living room as a kitchen area because no outlets work. You have people with medical conditions who appear to be living in a place that has black mold. These are fire hazards and health issues. This cannot be tolerated.”
Shortly after their inspection of the exterior of the complex, and a few more interior units as well, Barnes said they reached out to Homeport, the owners of the property, and Wallick Communities, the managers of the complex, to discuss their concerns and those of the residents who call Bending Brook their home.
According to Wallace, a member of the management team told him that they were aware of the influx of trash outside of the dumpsters and also some of the maintenance issues that had been called in. The problem, said Wallace, was the fact that they have a limited number of maintenance workers available to quickly address maintenance issues.
“We were made aware that they only had one individual available for all of Bending Brook because of staffing issues,” said Wallace, noting that the apartment complex has hundreds of units.
Barnes said the representatives at Homeport were able to provide clarification as to what they will do to address the exterior of the property. During the August council meeting, he shared correspondence with Homeport that stated they were in the process of obtaining bids to address the condition of the roads; that they were working with their trash vendor to see if additional dumpsters could be placed on the property; that they would replace new carpeting in one of the common areas with hard surface flooring; and they would reach out to Wallick Communities to see if they could contact a third party vendor to assist with additional maintenance work.
Barnes said while he believed these actions to be a “first step” in the process of making the exterior safer, he felt they did not “adequately” address the concerns of the interior of some of the units, particularly how they could remove the apparent mold that was growing in the bathrooms and the smell of “raw sewage” that occasionally comes from the pipes.
Councilwoman Dr. Stefanie Day recommended they contact the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) since Bending Brook Apartments falls under the classification as Section 8 Housing, or the Housing Choice Voucher Program for low-income individuals and families and also the disabled population. Councilwoman Deborah-Larkins Jackson recommended they contact the county health department and asked whether the village code enforcement officer could provide assistance.
Barnes said because the apartment complex is privately owned, the village code enforcement officer was limited in what actions could be taken. He added that the village has always had a good working relationship with Homeport and the management team at Bending Brook Apartments and he believes they should be given a chance to address the safety issues they brought forth.
“We will take those steps (of contacting the health department and the federal government) if we do not feel they are working toward finding solutions for the problem,” he said in an interview after the meeting.
Wallace said he agrees with the mayor and reiterated their support for the tenants.
“They feel voiceless,” he said. “And we have to be their voice.”
At the meeting, he shared letters, all written anonymously, from several tenants who say they have tried to contact Homeport and Wallick Communities about the living conditions but feel their concerns are brushed aside.
One resident wrote: “The only thing they do is tell you what they think you want to hear and sweep everything under the rug. Just because we live in low-income housing doesn’t mean we should be treated like trash.”
The Messenger reached out to Homeport and the Bending Brook Apartment management team via the Wallick Communities website for comment. As of press time, no official statement has been provided by Bending Brook or Wallick Communities but a representative with Homeport said the non-profit organization is taking action to address the tenant issues.
“As of August, our management partner Wallick Communities increased office and maintenance staff at our Bending Brook community,” wrote Ray George, the director of communications, in an email. “The Bending Brook Apartments on-site office is open for residents to visit during regular business hours, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and our resident hotline is available 24 hours a day. Homeport is pledging to inspect every apartment and listen to resident concerns. In the meantime, our response team has been activated to tackle exterior updates and maintenance at the Bending Brook community starting with safety lighting, roofing, and pavement.”
In mid-August Barnes and Wallace said they held an in-person meeting with Homeport, which he called “productive.”
He said they have been updating the exterior of the property and have scheduled inspections of the units. He added that due to the size of the apartment complex and the number of issues that need to be addressed, it could take “some time” before all of the residents see results.
“I think some progress is now being made,” said Barnes, “but it may take some time to get to where we need to be. And that is the place where residents feel like their voices have been heard and they see those results with living conditions that are clean and livable.”