Richfield city officials considered the sale of the Seasons Park apartment complex a rare victory for affordable housing. In their eyes, its savior was nonprofit developer Aeon, which bought the blighted buildings for $36 million.
But more than a year after the developer agreed to manage and renovate the sprawling, 422-unit complex, conditions for many residents have yet to improve significantly, according to the city.
Tenants complain of mice and cockroach infestations, flooding in lower-level units, mold and deteriorating walls and carpeting. Health inspectors have made 25 checks at the complex so far this year, according to records.
Aeon officials say that Seasons Park was both larger and in worse shape than their typical acquisitions, and that they're seeking more funding to speed up improvements. On Wednesday they will begin meeting with tenants.
But city officials, while aware that many of the problems are the result of years of negligence by previous owners, are underwhelmed with Aeon's efforts to make things better. To date, only 42 units — just 10 percent of the total — have been remodeled, according to the nonprofit.
"Their intentions were laudable," Richfield Mayor Pat Elliott said. "The execution of it is what's causing the problem."
The issues have put Aeon, widely regarded as a leader in preserving affordable housing in the Twin Cities, on the spot.
"We're not making any excuses, and we do acknowledge that it's a large undertaking and that we have a lot of work still left to do," said Blake Hopkins, Aeon's vice president of housing development. "We are doing our best to get through the property, but it's taking some time."
City leaders have asked Aeon to resolve immediate concerns and update them on their progress.
"We'll do anything we can to help them, but they need to step up and honor their commitments and their promises to those residents," Elliott said.
Years in the making
Aeon has a long history of preserving affordable housing. When it bought Seasons Park last September, it was the nonprofit's largest acquisition — surpassed later only by a $77 million purchase of 10 apartment buildings in several metro cities.
The sale was seen as symbolic by a city still adjusting to the upscaling of a larger apartment complex, Crossroads at Penn, that displaced hundreds of residents in late 2015 and early 2016.
"We're making a big impact with one fell swoop," Aeon President Alan Arthur said at the time.
Seasons Park was different from others in its portfolio, Hopkins said. It was larger, with 422 units spread across 20 buildings. It was also in worse condition, he said. Debbie Goettel, a Hennepin County commissioner and former mayor of Richfield, called the buildings "abysmal."
"We knew it going in that it was going to be a challenge," Hopkins said. "It's a big boat that was not headed in the right direction."
Rents at Seasons Park have remained affordable for those making below 60 percent of the area median income, or about $54,000 in Richfield, he said.
The complete renovation of the complex is expected to take years, with Aeon following a 10-year capital improvement plan. For now, the work is estimated to cost nearly $6 million, and Hopkins said the company is looking for more funding.
The next step is to upgrade the common areas, including hallways, entryways and laundry rooms. A civil engineer is expected to help pinpoint flooding issues on the property.
Advocates for low-income housing, including the nonprofit Home Line, remain supportive of Aeon, saying that a for-profit developer buying Seasons Park would have caused much greater upheaval.
"There is just so much that was ignored at that property that it's probably a pretty big ordeal to overcome all of it all at once," said Eric Hauge, executive director of Home Line.
Richfield Council Member Maria Regan Gonzalez agreed, adding that it's important for the residents living there that Aeon be held accountable.
"We need more, and we need more done now," she said. "What is it going to take to make that happen?"
Poor conditions, poor health
Conditions at Seasons Park shed light on health concerns faced by people living in substandard housing.
A report released by Bloomington's public health division in May examined the effect of living conditions on the health of low-income renters in Richfield. Researchers interviewed dozens of residents, including 11 from Seasons Park.
The report found that problems such as infestations, dampness and dirty carpets can cause asthma, allergies, stress and other chronic diseases. It recommended the City Council adopt policies aimed at reducing those triggers.
"When renters are stably and safely housed, they are able to shift their focus to health behaviors and investments that protect their health," the report stated.
Aeon has begun to address complaints. It announced that it would hold regular meetings with tenants, beginning Wednesday. Four new staff members were expected to start working at the complex this month, and a resident newsletter was recently launched.
A note shared with residents by management said that every apartment was treated for pests recently and would be re-treated every week until all pests are gone.
But that's only a start. One longtime tenant, who did not want to be named, said she is worried about loud and drunken behavior taking place in the complex's playground after hours. Tenants have called police more than 240 times so far this year, according to city records.
Lourdes Vargas, who moved to Seasons Park from Crossroads at Penn, shares the same concerns.
She has seen mice and cockroaches in her apartment, and she said the loitering around her building makes her feel uncomfortable.
"At Crossroads, I used to say that things were bad," she said in Spanish. "But they're worse here. Much worse."