ST. LOUIS COUNTY — A woman inside one of the 218 units at Windham Chase Apartments put her ear to the wall in early February and heard a disturbing sound: running water. There was so much that it was pooling in the basement.
She summoned a St. Louis County building inspector who found a broken water pipe, damaged walls, ceilings and flooring, and a backed-up sewer. A violation notice to property owners said all damage must be repaired in one day, and “if the violations are not abated by the compliance date, we will forward the matter to the St. Louis County Counselor’s Office for prosecution or other legal action.”
That’s not what happened, though. Officials said complex officials moved out the lone tenant in the building and closed off the messy area. And that’s pretty much how it remains today. Only similar problems are popping up in other nearby buildings.
Windham Chase Apartments, in the Spanish Lake area of north St. Louis County, shows what happens when local code enforcement inspectors are overwhelmed and property owners avoid making costly improvements.
At a time when a lot of housing stock in the county is nearing the end of its life cycle, and many properties have been turned into rentals, neighbors and officials say investments need to be made. But putting $7,000 worth of shingles on a $50,000 house can be a tough business decision to make.
And county inspectors often struggle even to find out who the owners are. Properties frequently change hands. The sale of enormous apartment complexes doesn’t trigger an inspection in St. Louis County — if the new owners don’t change the name.
Is that good government?
“No, I wouldn’t say it’s good government,” Marcellus Speight III, manager of county government’s code enforcement and the problem property units, said last week in a lengthy interview. “I may not understand why it’s done that way, but I can tell you we probably would make a little more headway in the process if (a change in) ownership as well as renaming required a (re-occupancy inspection).”
He said an effort to change county building code in recent years lost steam when an attorney well-versed in the matter died. He said government consolidation and leadership changes also slowed momentum down.
“Things just get put on the back burner constantly,” he said. “It’s not something I am saying I won’t continue to try to pursue.”
There are many other issues at play, with so many calls for help and not enough inspectors to go around.
Speight said the county could have done a sweep of Windham Chase Apartments in February to see if other buildings had the same issues, but didn’t.
“I don’t have the manpower,” he said.
Last Monday morning, across the parking lot from the condemned area, rainwater poured through a hole in the roof of a different two-story building. Dorothy Brown, 77, was awakened by a soggy ceiling and water crashing down on her in bed.
“I just got out of the hospital,” Brown, who suffers from arthritis, diabetes and scoliosis, said in an interview that day. “The roof fell in on me. I thought I was in hell.”
She was treated and released from the hospital for a bruised spine.
“We need to move, to hurry up and get the hell out of here,” she told her granddaughter, Destinee Williams, 30.
As Brown rested on the coach, Williams called every agency she could think of. She ventured off to explore other units in their building. Surprised by what she found, she held her nose as she walked through ground floor units, which were full of wet carpet, mildew and what appeared to be mold creeping up the walls.
Sharlene Banks, 63, answered the door from a unit located above the mess.
“I’ve been going to the doctor a whole lot because I was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago,” said Banks. She said she’s enjoyed living at Windham Chase for a long time but has noticed a difference in the past couple years.
Her bathroom ceiling started leaking. Maintenance has attempted to fix it. Still, she puts a towel on her head when she uses the toilet to keep mysterious drips from hitting her.
“I just signed a lease, so I am here until July of next year,” she said. “I can’t afford to pay them for my whole lease. If I don’t get this stuff done, that’s a different story.”
Management at Windham Chase later told the Post-Dispatch to leave the property. A county building code inspector wasn’t allowed immediate access to see the building in question, which Speight said was within the rights of the property owner.
But he said the legal department indicated that if inspectors weren’t given access soon, “perhaps we will look at getting an administrative warrant.”
On Friday, inspectors were allowed access to Windham Chase and found numerous violations across the complex, including standing water in the basements of each building.
Asked why inspectors weren’t immediately allowed in earlier in the week, Michael Fein, an investor in T.E.H. Realty, which bought Windham Chase apartments in January, didn’t comment. But he said the firm has bought large, low-income apartment complexes in St. Louis County in recent years that have been decaying — and been subject to inspection — for decades.
“It’s not that we come in overnight and suddenly everything changes,” he said. “It’s a process. And we are trying to get through the process. It’s taking longer than maybe we expected.”
Of the 11 apartment complexes T.E.H. Realty owns in the region, five are in unincorporated north St. Louis County; seven of them have F ratings from the Better Business Bureau, mainly for maintenance issues and rental deposits. Some of the complaints were filed before T.E.H. purchased the properties.
But the Housing Authority of St. Louis County, which has paid T.E.H. Realty $1.25 million in rental subsidies in the past five years, said it has seen a common trend with the firm and its affiliates. Property conditions go downhill after T.E.H. buys them, so much that the housing authority is cutting back on placing people in the complexes.
“I have only seen them partially improve property when they are getting prodded,” said John Fraser, deputy director of the housing authority. “That’s the only time I’ve seen them move.”
In March, T.E.H. Realty was forced to abruptly vacate a building at the 174-unit Crown Manor Apartments that had 20 families living in it. County officials said the building flooded from a “rogue” roofing job being done at that time.
Speight said inspectors didn’t do a sweep of other Crown Manor buildings at the time because roofers were not seen on other buildings. But today, some residents complain about moisture and crumbling ceilings in other buildings. One woman didn’t want to give her name because she didn’t have anywhere else to go and hoped T.E.H. would move her into a different apartment complex.
Speight said the county’s response is complaint-driven. He said people don’t need to leave their name on the problem property hotline, which is (314) 615-4100. Even though he is “overwhelmed every day with phone calls and complaints,” he said: “If you don’t communicate what’s going on with us, we can’t help you.”
At a July 15 community meeting about Jamestown Mall and other issues in north St. Louis County, some residents complained about a lack of action when they did report poorly maintained homes to the county’s problem property unit.
Responding to a question from the audience, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said the county’s budget is strapped but that “we need to put enough into the problem properties (unit) to keep up.”
Maintaining safe living conditions are one part of the challenge. Vacant buildings are another.
Though a new roof passed inspection on the vacated building at Crown Manor, it still sits empty. It’s not away from public view like at Windham Chase, but beside busy Chambers Road. There’s no mandatory time line to fix the building from the county. It’s up to the owner and Fein said repairs are delayed by the insurance payment.
“It can sit there forever and a day, however, you are subject to our property maintenance requirements,” Speight said.
The broken screens can flap in the wind. The building doesn’t have to be painted. Just keep the grass less than 8 inches tall. And keep the building secured and clear of vermin.
“It’s going to still be an eyesore in anybody else’s eye, but in the law of our ordinance, the property must be maintained,” Speight said. “It doesn’t even say well-maintained. It must be maintained.”
Jacob Barker of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.