Rosalie Hall, 75, said she used to stroll each evening after dinner through the wide hallways and leafy courtyards of Heights Manor, a three-story public apartment building in Columbia Heights that houses mostly senior citizens.
Now, she rarely ventures outside her one-room apartment after dark.
“We used to be like a family,” said Hall, a retired store clerk. “We would make puzzles and play cards until late at night. Now everything is upside down and crazy and people are so scared.”
Heights Manor, much like subsidized senior housing across the state, is being pulled apart by a recent influx of younger people with mental disabilities, who are being forced by a tight rental market and a shortage of affordable apartments to live with the elderly. Statewide, the percentage of disabled people in public housing increased 24 percent between 2009 and 2012, the last year for which data are available, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The mix of elderly and younger disabled populations can be volatile. At Heights Manor, elderly residents have complained of an increase of physical threats, drug use, thefts, loud music, late-night parties, and disorderly behavior. Over the past year, calls to local police have risen enough that residents have set up a neighborhood watch program — something they would have considered unthinkable not long ago.
Not reported to the police, however, are the everyday clashes occurring as elderly people used to living among people like them seek to enforce building rules on the newcomers. In some cases, the younger disabled people feel discriminated against by the older residents.
Disability advocates say such tensions are likely to intensify as the state moves forward with ambitious plans to further desegregate housing for the disabled. Under pressure from the federal courts, which recently admonished the state for not moving quickly enough to integrate disabled people into the community, state and local authorities are preparing to move thousands of people with mental and physical disabilities from group homes and other institutional settings to individual apartments.
“All of a sudden seniors find themselves surrounded by 26-year-old kids with serious disabilities who like to go outside and smoke,” said Jim Kordiak, Anoka County commissioner and member of the Heights Manor advisory board. “It creates a culture clash.”
The tensions came to the surface last month, when seven seniors who live at Heights Manor received lease violation notices for making “harassing comments” toward other residents based on their actual or perceived disabilities. These residents, who call themselves the “group of seven,” said they feel wrongly punished for trying to keep the building safe and orderly.
“There are some undesirable people moving in here who are not playing by the same rules as everyone else,” said Scott Murphy, 66, a delivery truck driver who has lived at Heights Manor for five years.
A spokeswoman for Nationwide Housing Corp., which manages Heights Manor, said the building is authorized by HUD to provide housing to low-income people who are senior citizens or disabled, or both. The company considers applications on a first-come basis, and does not hold apartments for people with disabilities.
“I can tell you that Heights Manor believes strongly in providing quality housing for residents that is free of harassment and discrimination based on legally protected classes,” said Debra Godtland, a vice president for Nationwide.
Heights Manor residents fear their building may face the same fate as another nearby housing project, Parkview Villa North, where about half of the residents are now disabled. The city of Columbia Heights, which owns Parkview Villa, is preparing to sell the high-rise to a nonprofit early next year in part because it could no longer afford to serve the swelling number of disabled residents in the building, said Walter Fehst, city manager for Columbia Heights.
At Heights Manor, elderly residents refer to the recent tension as simply, “the troubles.”
The troubles began early this year when a group of younger people with mental disabilities moved into the 85-unit apartment complex, residents said. One of the new residents would walk around the building while jabbing at the air with her hands, saying she was “chasing away the devil,” residents said. Another new resident, a young man, was seen smoking marijuana on the third-floor balcony and playing rap music late at night. When elderly residents urged him to turn down the music, he screamed at them to leave him alone, Hall said.
A flat-screen television was stolen from the building’s community room, and residents started locking up the cabinets in the community kitchen after food was stolen. The building’s small library, where elderly women would gather to chat and do jigsaw puzzles, has grown largely silent after dark.
On July 4th, a half-dozen local police officers descended on Heights Manor after a disabled resident in a wheelchair pointed a BB gun at a resident and then locked himself in his second-floor room. After kicking in the man’s door, police discovered a semi-automatic pistol as well as a rack with knives and a revolver mounted on a display in his bedroom, according to a police report.
The incidents have shaken many of the residents at Heights Manor, reinforcing their feeling that order has broken down at the facility.
“You have to remember that a lot of folks here sit in their rooms and watch a lot of television. They see what’s happening in places like Ferguson and then they look out the window, and see young people horsing around in the parking lot, and think it could happen here, too,” Hall said, referring to the violent clashes following the police shooting of an unarmed teen.
On a recent weekday evening, as residents discussed “the troubles,” one elderly woman came rushing into the community room. “It’s out there!” she said. “The Jaguar!” Convinced that two young men in a Jaguar were dealing drugs in the parking lot, the woman expressed regret that no one had called the local police to report them. “We missed our chance,” she said.
The Columbia Heights police have responded to 32 incidents at Heights Manor so far this year, up from 25 incidents over the same period a year ago. Many of the calls are for minor disturbances, such as loitering, suspicious activity and noise concerns.
For now, the “group of seven” who received lease violation notices are preparing to ask Nationwide Housing to retract the letters and have them removed from their files. “We have the right to speak our minds,” Hall said.