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At rundown apartment complex in Bel-Ridge, complaints fly about mold, heating and plumbing

At rundown apartment complex in Bel-Ridge, complaints fly about mold, heating and plumbing

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BEL-RIDGE — One of more than a dozen residents who spoke here at City Hall about substandard living conditions at Springwood Apartments stopped to ask if any of the property owners were present.

Though at least one T.E.H. Realty representative, a lawyer named John Singer, sat near the back taking notes, he didn’t speak up. Nor did he answer questions at the end of the meeting, which was held Tuesday night to address problems at the 271-unit apartment complex near Interstate 170 and Natural Bridge Road.

“He didn’t say a word,” Mayor Willie Fair said. “With him not being able to defend that place, that tells you that we have some real issues over there.”

In 2018, Springwood Apartments was cited for more than 160 unsafe conditions and building code violations. Bel-Ridge condemned a few buildings and many units.

Though he didn’t speak, Singer showed city officials paperwork after the meeting indicating T.E.H. Realty was trying to meet a 10-day deadline to install about 100 smoke alarms. There’s also a 30-day deadline to fix about 50 heating and air conditioning units.

“There is so much stuff, man,” inspector Raymond Winston said in an interview. “It’s heating, plumbing, mold, fix the walls.”

Springwood Apartments became in December 2014 the first of at least 10 apartment complexes that T.E.H. Realty affiliates acquired in the St. Louis area. With at least 2,400 rental units, it’s one of the largest providers of affordable housing in the region.

Last spring, the firm took over Park Ridge and Northwinds apartments, near three other large complexes near West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, an area that has one of the highest concentrations of subsidized housing in Missouri.

Park Ridge and Northwinds, which have a combined 774 units, were refurbished about a decade ago with the lure of at least $42 million in low-income housing tax credits, yet have struggled with crime and occupancy. After T.E.H. Realty bought the properties, representatives wouldn’t sit for an interview to explain its approach and goals.

In October, Ferguson authorities told residents to move out of one Park Ridge building in 24 hours because of a block of concrete that fell from a second-floor balcony. After inspectors with the St. Louis County Housing Authority following up on the collapse cited T.E.H. for other violations, the company ordered several residents who receive subsidized housing to leave. The Housing Authority said the move was illegal.

Residents have also complained about living conditions at Southwest Crossing Apartments, near Interstate 55 and Germania Street, and Bridgeport Crossing Apartments, in Bridgeton. A concerned resident said by phone Wednesday that he didn’t want to be named because he still lives at Bridgeport Crossing and it’s hard enough to get things fixed.

The pool at Bridgeport Crossing Apartments

The swimming pool at Bridgeport Crossing Apartments in Bridgeton, owned by an affiliate of T.E.H. Realty, as seen Aug. 15, 2018. Photo by Jesse Bogan, jbogan@post-dispatch

He said the swimming pool had been advertised as an amenity, yet had been closed for three years. He said that management was slow to fix things and that the main office number — 314-739-6937 — went to voicemail and wouldn’t take more messages.

He said he was surprised Bridgeton officials hadn’t cracked down on T.E.H. Realty.

Bridgeton Public Works Director Robert Gunn said Wednesday that Bridgeport Crossing had struggled with management turnover. He said the complex had received numerous building code violations, mainly for the condition of exterior walls.

He said a recent inspection of many of the units mainly turned up broken windows and screens. He said he wasn’t aware of any structural issues, though.

“For the most part, they are keeping up with it,” he said. “I mean, they are old apartments. They are going to be as cheap as they can get away with, but they are functional and habitable.”

He said it didn’t seem as bad as the situation in Bel-Ridge.

No action was taken at the Bel-Ridge meeting Tuesday night. It was an opportunity for elected officials to hear residents describe living conditions at Springwood Apartments in their own words.

Fourteen of the 15 speakers were critical of the property. Complaints ranged from no water to too much water, from squatters to crime.

Constance Johnson El, 52, said she was robbed twice in her apartment. She said she’d complained to management about her front door, plants growing in the gutters and a broken heater.

“When you turn it on it smells like it’s burning,” she said. “It’s been a lot that we’ve been enduring.”

Though some work has been done, residents said, the apartment complex hasn’t come close to meeting their needs.

Rent is $495 a month for some residents.

“If we get behind, it’s almost like it takes two months to catch up,” said Johnson El. “Half the time, there’s no one in the front office.”

Robert Swearingen, a lawyer at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, told the crowd of 30 residents that he’d represented numerous people from the complex that were living either with mold or without heat and air conditioning.

“You should not have to pay rent if the apartment is not habitable,” he said.

He said in an interview that he’d filed on Tuesday two lawsuits against an affiliate of T.E.H. Realty, including one alleging the firm mailed a letter to a Springwood resident, threatening to have the police remove them from their apartment if they didn’t pay rent in two days.

Yet, Swearingen said, it seemed like the firm was “milking the place for everything and doing minimum Band-Aid-type repairs, so much so that it’s obvious that they don’t care.”

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