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No place like HUD

ABLE Attorney Robert Cole comments in this article on the living conditions of the Greenbelt Place Apartments in downtown Toledo. Read below, or view on Toledo City Paper website.

No Place Like HUD
Hopes, fears hang in the balance at Greenbelt Place

Michael Pierce | Toledo City Paper

Residents of the downtown Greenbelt Place Apartments are hopeful that living conditions will improve now that the complex is under new management. If not, they have little choice but to tough it out.

Two years ago, the federally subsidized housing complex at 800 Cherry St. drew the attention of the community when its residents complained of deplorable living conditions including cockroach, rodent and bedbug infestations.

Then in May, 2013, two young girls were shot while sitting on the steps of their apartment.

Today, many of the residents cite signs of progress, including the resurfacing of parking lots, updated and enhanced exterior lighting, insulation added to attics, and regular spraying that keeps the roaches and mice away.

Built in the 1970s

The 172-unit Greenbelt Place, built in the 1970s, came under new ownership in December when Texas-based Eureka Multifamily Group bought the complex for $3.5 million from Hampstead Cherrywood Partners LP, the property's previous owner, which enlisted Intercoastal Financial to manage it.

"Some people see problems; we see opportunity," said Jimmy Arnold, president of Eureka Multifamily Group. He has been managing federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) properties for nearly 30 years, and his company manages similar properties in a handful of states including Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

"We are doing our very best," Arnold said. "It takes time to turn these things around."

A number of residents say they've seen improvements under Eureka's ownership. "They are doing some things," one tenant said.

Yet others said the new landlords have not done enough to improve the quality of life.

"You want something to photograph?" said a man in his mid-60s who would only give his first name, Pawn. "Come look at this!" He walked over to an interior stairwell and pointed to a corner where someone had defecated. "I've been trying to get someone to clean this up for weeks," he said.

Difficult to move out

For residents dissatisfied with the safety or sanitary conditions, moving out of Greenbelt Place can be a daunting—if not impossible—task.

"The problem is, in my opinion, Greenbelt Place is sort of the property of last resort. If you can't find any other place, you end up at Greenbelt," said Robert Cole, an attorney with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, a regional nonprofit law firm. "If there were a lot of vacancies elsewhere, I don't think people would end up at Greenbelt Place...Whenever people can move and get into another apartment, they do.

"Our position is that this property is not sustainable as a public housing complex. It has not addressed security issues," Cole said.

One major obstacle keeping Greenbelt Place tenants from moving is that their HUD subsidies cannot be transferred to other federal housing. The tenants receive their rent subsidies through HUD's Section 8 Housing Assistance Program, and unlike some HUD programs, these subsidies are tied to the property, not the tenant, Cole explained.

Rent at Greenbelt Place ranges from $584 a month for a one-bedroom unit to $1,094 a month four-bedroom apartment, including utilities. Residents pay 30 percent of their adjusted gross income, with a minimum payment, regardless of income level, of $25 a month. The government pays the difference.

Trying to change policy

ABLE and United North, a neighborhood-based nonprofit, have been trying for two years to convince HUD to let Greenbelt Place residents keep their rent subsidies when they move. So far HUD has refused to change its policy.

"We should be able to have a voucher and move to different properties," said Reea Watson, a Greenbelt Place resident for 19 years. "I'm 46 and I'm ready to run away from here."

"I wish I could move, but my family can't," said Je'la, a 12-year-old girl who has lived at Greenbelt Place for four years. She declined to give her last name. "I do not think things have gotten better, because of the violence and the kids out here."

The latest management change is likely to delay any possible changes in HUD policy, Cole said, because HUD officials want to give the new owners time to make improvements.

Greenbelt Place, which buffers on Cherry St. and Erie St. just east of the Greenbelt Parkway, is in a buffer zone between gang territories, according to Toledo police.

Gang shootings in the area have increased over the last two years.

Shot outside apartment

One-year-old Greenbelt Place resident Yealaysia Williams was shot outside her family’s apartment in May, 2013, and survived being struck in the back by a stray bullet fragment. In the same incident, a bullet grazed the arm of two-year-old Kaiejah Williams (the two are unrelated). No suspects were arrested.

In August, 2012, one-year-old Keondra Hooks, a resident of Moody Manor—a housing complex about five blocks north of Greenbelt Place on Kent Street—died when a bullet struck her in the head. Her sister, Leondra Hooks, now three, took a bullet to the chest but survived. Keshawn Jennings and Antwaine Jones, both members of a gang known as the Manor Boyz, were each sentenced to 40 years in prison for the crime.

In 2012, ABLE assisted residents at Greenbelt Place in making agreements with the property management firm at the time, Intercoastal Financial, to try to solve the ongoing security problems. "Our primary position was that management had to address the safety issues and living conditions in order to make the property safe," Cole said.

Doors to common hallways, from which individual apartments have access, do not have locks, according to Cole, and "anyone can get in and do whatever they want," he said. Greenbelt Place residents are so fearful that "nobody goes out of their apartments at night."

Eureka has boosted security at Greenbelt Place, hiring Brawnstone Security to patrol the grounds. The guards are outfitted with tactical gear and vests resembling SWAT uniforms.

"The Bloods, the Crips, and the Cherry Woodz Boys all preside over the Greenbelt Apartments," said Cody Musser, a Brawnstone guard.

Security teams routinely conduct walk-throughs of Greenbelt Place to ensure the hallways and vacant apartments are not occupied by vagrants or squatters.

Watson said the new security has helped. "It used to be it didn't matter if you were home, [thieves] would kick in the door and walk out with your TV set," she said.

"We do everything we can to promote safety," Musser said. "When management and security changes occur, things seem to improve—for a time. After a short period of time, however, things generally get worse again. I don't know that it will ever get better."

Issues are ongoing

Terry Glazer, community organizer and CEO of United North, also is trying to improve the quality of life for those living at Greenbelt Place and its surrounding Old North End neighborhood.

"There have been issues for many years. We haven't noticed any substantial improvements taking place […] The primary problem is safety," Glazer said.

Greenbelt Place is next to the Historic Vistula Neighborhood, which housed many of Toledo's wealthiest residents more than a century ago. The area is now a hub for the poorest in the city.

Richard Martinez of the Historic Vistula Foundation is among many Toledoans dissatisfied with living conditions in the area.

"It's been a real problem for the city—gangs, drugs, domestic abuse, cockroaches, unsafe utilities—the list goes on and on," he said. "It's been going on for quite a few years and many of the area residents are very dissatisfied.

'It's not safe'

Residents' safety is also the concern of Karen Rogalski, project coordinator for the Cherry Street Legacy Project. "It's not safe. It's not going to be safe until we make system changes, until we address the safety issues and fiscal conditions," she said.

Arnold pointed out that HUD sets a standard on physical conditions requiring units to be "Decent, Safe, and Sanitary" (DSS). "If we do not meet the DSS standards of the HUD program, we are not supposed to get paid," he said.

"The crux of it is: What do you do when residents do not want to cooperate?" Arnold asked. "Then you're at the limitations of state law, and there are a lot of judges who, rightfully so, will not put a family on the street over these types of issues. In reality, landlords do not have the power that many people think that they do."

Eureka prides itself on having the ability to turn distressed HUD properties into profitable investments.

"Right now, as it stands, we're not making anything because all of the cash flow is being directed back to the property," Arnold said. "We're operating at a break-even or less level at this point, as we turn the property around. Like any distressed business, the initial months of operation aren't immediately profitable."

Positive about future

Arnold is positive about the future of Greenbelt Place. "I like the property and its proximity to downtown. I can't speak for what has transpired in the past, but I'm optimistic… there is no magic solution, just hard work," he said.

It is still not clear whether Greenbelt Place's downward spiral can be reversed in the long term.

"What happens when there's a change in management, not to mention ownership, is the fact that you're starting over from square one," Rogalski said. "The only way to stop the cycle is to hold [the local management] accountable by sitting down and talking to them and watching what they do, and pushing them and nudging them into the right direction."

Arnold espoused the motto that people will rise and fall to the level of expectation: "If more is expected out of an individual or a group, those individuals will have a tendency to work towards meeting those expectations," he said. "Likewise, if little is expected out of someone, that person will operate with a much lower benchmark."

With new owners, new programs, and new neighborhood coalitions in place, there are signs of hope and improvement at Greenbelt Place Apartments. But as Arnold observed, much of the responsibility for positive change hinges on the residents themselves.

"Our expectation is that people really do want to live in a place that is decent, safe, and sanitary, and we want to provide such an environment," Arnold said. "But ultimately, change will not happen until the people who live there decide that they want change."