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Sandra Hornsby

Sandra Hornsby, 72, sits in her living room chair surrounded by two space heaters. The furnace in her apartment in Bridgeton hasn't been working since October. Post-Dispatch photo by Tony Messenger. 

Sandra Hornsby started her week in the emergency room.

She woke up Monday morning in her living room chair. She was dizzy.

Hornsby sleeps in her chair, not her bed, because her bedroom is too cold.

Since October, the furnace in her apartment in Bridgeport Crossing Apartments hasn’t worked. She is one of many residents in the 300-unit complex in Bridgeton who hasn’t had working heat this fall. The complex has been owned by T.E.H. Realty since 2016. That’s the landlord facing increasing pressure from city, county and state regulators over its failure to take care of more than 2,400 units it owns in the St. Louis region, as well as other properties it owns in Kansas City and Indianapolis.

Hornsby called me after I wrote about a neighbor, Brittany Jackson, whose lack of heat is aggravating the pain she feels from her sickle cell anemia. Jackson lives in her apartment with her two boys. Hornsby, a 72-year-old retiree, lives alone.

Like many residents in the complex, Hornsby turns on her oven for warmth during the day. She has two space heaters in her living room. She tried to plug more in to warm up other parts of the apartment but kept setting off a circuit breaker and killing the electricity coming into her second-floor unit. She turns the oven and space heaters off at night, fearful of starting a fire.

“I got up in the morning all dizzy in the head and had to go to the emergency room,” Hornsby said. “It’s becoming a real crisis for me.”

Her blood pressure had spiked and the doctor gave her a prescription to bring it down.

It didn’t used to be this way.

When Hornsby moved into Bridgeport Crossing 20 years ago, it was a dream. The all-brick buildings were solid. There was green space and off-street parking. She decorated her apartment with ceramic butterflies — her friends call her the “Butterfly Lady.”

She was eight minutes from work and close to the community center where she exercises with other seniors. This spring, she retired from the job she held for more than two decades as an accountant. She planned to “live her best life.”

And she did. Hornsby traveled, visited her grandchildren in Atlanta, went to dinners and events, volunteered to raise awareness of breast cancer — she’s a two-time survivor.

Her real troubles began in April, when spring weather turned warm, and her air conditioner wasn’t working. It took awhile but she got the apartment complex to fix it.

So in October, she was proactive, fearing she might have a furnace problem.

She called management, who said they’d check on it.

They told her to call an HVAC contractor, and she did. The visit cost her more than $300 out of her fixed retirement income, and the contractor said the furnace was so old it couldn’t be fixed.

On Tuesday, Hornsby walked me into the basement to look at it. It’s a pile of exposed wires, and the cover is gone. The unit appears to be at least 30 years old. In the basement was the only other tenant who lives in Hornsby’s unit, and that man and his son are moving. They’ve had enough with T.E.H. Realty.

“This is horrible,” Hornsby says. “I cannot see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Neither can Stephanie Rhoten.

The 26-year-old lives just down the road from Hornsby in the same complex with her two boys, ages 6 and 3 months. This is — make that was — her first apartment. She moved here like lots of young parents so her son could attend Pattonville schools. She has no heat or hot water. Like Hornsby, she has paid her rent on time.

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“I can’t give my kids a bath every day. We have to boil water just to wash up,” Rhoten says. “On the cold nights, we all cuddle up together.”

Rhoten spends her days driving between Edwardsville, where she’s moving back in with her in-laws, and her son’s school. Her son has missed some school days because of the burden of driving back and forth multiple times a day.

“Since they said they won’t fix my gas leak I’m going to have to start over, move my family back to Illinois, live with my in-laws, buy a storage unit, get my son transferred to a new school and Boy Scouts,” Rhoten said. “I have stayed calm and polite to the management but when they’re putting my kids in danger, that’s where I cross the line. I told them that I was done and that I was ending my lease.”

On Thursday, the city of Bridgeton plans to start a legal process to hold the owners of T.E.H. Realty accountable. The city has cited the landlord for an ordinance violation for failing to provide heat for at least 20 of its tenants. The landlord is due in court on Thursday, but city administrator Kevin Bookout isn’t optimistic that the owners of the company will show up for the court date.

Hornsby is glad the city is acting. But for her, Rhoten, Jackson and others, the effort is unlikely to keep them in the places they once called home. It’s time for many of them to move on.

Meanwhile, two faded signs sit outside the management office of Bridgeport Crossings.

“Now leasing,” says one. “Move in special,” says the other.

If Hornsby were in charge, she’d add a third sign. “Bad, sub-level conditions,” it would say.

“The renters are doing what they’re supposed to do,” Hornsby says. “It’s the lousy landlords who need to do their job.”

Big apartment owner faces complaints across St. Louis area

T.E.H. Realty acquired a dozen big apartment complexes here since 2014. Those apartments are an important provider of affordable housing in the St. Louis area, but many are in bad shape. The Post-Dispatch has chronicled efforts by tenants and others to address those conditions. 

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