Landlords lauded for fighting crime, criticized for curfew

Messenger photos by John Matuszak
Pinetree Village resident Rick Burney cools off by being soaked by his grandson, Saul Burney, but he remains hot under the collar about curfew restrictions imposed on tenants at the eastside complex, which is the first in the city to be certified under the national Crime-free Multi-Housing Program.
Inder, Neil and David Sethi, owners of Landis Properties and Pinetree Village Apartments, receive a proclamation from Columbus City Councilman Andrew Ginther June 23 in recognition of becoming the first landlords in the city to be certified under the national Crime-free Multi-Housing Program.

The owners of Pinetree Village apartments have worked for years to keep their property crime-free, but the residents don’t want to feel like they’re the ones behind bars.

"Most of the adults feel like they’re in a prison camp," complained tenant Steve Norton of the 9 p.m. curfew imposed as part of the latest crime crackdown at the 22-building complex near Barnett Road and Bexvie Avenue on the eastside of Columbus.

Norton voiced his concerns at the June 23 ceremony to recognize the owners of Landis Properties, including Pinetree Village, for becoming the first in Columbus to be certified through the Crime-Free Multi-Housing Program.

The event, which included balloons and face-painting for the kids and a "safety social" to instruct residents in crime prevention methods, was sparsely attended, despite the incentive of $20 off the next month’s rent for participating.

Rick Burney, a 54-year-old Vietnam War veteran and former professional football player, said he feels like he’s being treated like a child and is considering moving.

People want to sit outside in the evening to avoid the expense of running their air conditioners, he said.

Norton, who is also a sub-contractor for the property owners, said other tenants are thinking about moving, and a petition to loosen the restrictions is being circulated.

Norton was also quick to praise the owners for taking pride in the property and getting things repaired quickly.

Landis Properties founder Inder Sethi has Norton prepare every unit for new tenants "like I’m going to live in it," he said. "He says I don’t care what it costs, get it done."

The owners were also willing to take on the expense to comply with the standards of the crime-free program, explained Columbus Police Commander Richard Bash.

It was Bash who attended the training in Arizona and brought back the recommendations for enhancing the safety of the apartments that had already become a model in the neighborhood.

This latest effort is part of a 25-year commitment to create a clean and safe living environment, explained Neil Sethi, executive vice president for the company his parents, Inder and Lida Sethi, started in 1982.

As an immigrant, his father saw how much sub-standard housing was on the market, Sethi said, and wanted to give people a decent place to live.

When he bought Pinetree Village, only one-fifth of the apartments were occupied, and "every window had a hole in it," Inder Sethi recalled.

Many of those who did call the place home were involved with drugs and gangs, and police calls were frequent.

The representative of the bank financing the purchase refused to set foot on the Pinetree property.

In addition to getting the buildings back in shape, Inder installed security cameras, the first landlord in the city to do so.

They now have 32 cameras with Internet access for better surveillance, Neil Sethi said, and intrusion alarms on all 166 units.

They carefully screen prospective tenants and evict the troublemakers.

The Sethis are proud that they have been able to accomplish all of this without government subsidies, and have kept their rents affordable at the same time.

Prior to the Sethi purchase, Pinetree Village was "property-crime central," Bash remembered. Now calls for service are infrequent, he added.

Having achieved and maintained a major turn-around, the Sethis were still willing to take the next step.

Sharon Ware, with the Mid-East Area Community Collaborative, presents certificates of achievement to Columbus Police Officer James Tripp, left, and Commander Richard Bash, for their crime-prevention efforts.

Sharon Ware, with the Thunderbird Acres Neighborhood Association and the Mid-East Area Community Collaborative, was made aware of the multi-housing training through Napoleon Bell, a former police liaison officer now with the city’s community relations commission.

Ware and other community activists pushed for the department to send an officer to Arizona for the training, and urged property owners to agree to meet the standards. Only the Sethis stepped up.

One major component has involved enhancing "natural surveillance," Bash explained, by cutting back trees and shrubs that can hide criminals and block the view of tenants watching for crime.

Bash defended the curfew that has rankled renters.

"Having fewer people outside makes our jobs easier and makes your lives safer," he said.

Cornell McCleary, the head of security, said the restriction is aimed at removing loiterers who may be involved in unlawful activities.

"The criminal element hides behind the legitimate element," McCleary said.

Residents who are written up for violations of the policy two or three times can be evicted, according to McCleary.

The curfew has further reduced police calls, the security head said.

"You have to give up a little to gain a lot," he told tenants.

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