Jaime Flores and her daughters Arianna, 3, and Rainah, 7, outside, moved into Hickory Ridge Townhomes three months ago. Flores and Arianna showed how a window screen in the girls’ bedroom is missing a lock and can be pushed out. Flores also learned the unit had a gas leak.

David Joles, Star Tribune

Melissa Kuffel (with her dog, Peanut) needs to live in a unit that can accommodate her wheelchair. She waited a year and a half for the management company to build a ramp in the back of the unit. It did, two weeks ago.

David Joles, Star Tribune

Jaime Flores, with her three daughters, Arianna, foreground; Tianna, being held, and Rainah, by the swings. Flores says the playground at Hickory Ridge Townhomes has unsafe equipment and that the grounds are covered with litter. They moved in three months ago.

David Joles, Star Tribune

Neglected housing: Coming to an end at last?

  • Article by: LORA PABST
  • Star Tribune
  • August 4, 2009 - 11:42 PM

After 25 years, Hickory Ridge Townhomes in Maple Grove are showing signs of neglect. A gas leak in one apartment went unnoticed for months. A wheelchair-bound resident waited 18 months for a ramp to be installed in her back yard. Leaky pipes have bred outbreaks of mold.

Some residents of this federally subsidized housing complex say their maintenance requests are routinely ignored, and they worry the aging 32-unit complex is destined to deteriorate.

Lagging repairs prompted the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, which oversees Section 8 housing, to warn the owner in June that Hickory Ridge needs work and offered a $748,000 grant to make it happen. It was the agency's second offer in five months.

So far, Nationwide Group Inc., the owner of Hickory Ridge, has rebuffed the money, leading some to speculate that it plans to sell or redevelop the complex. But Nationwide Vice President Ellis Gottlieb said Tuesday there are no plans to abandon the Section 8 program. Gottlieb defended his company's maintenance record, but after inquiries by Whistleblower, he said Nationwide would do more to reach out to residents.

Resident Melissa Kuffel said such changes are long overdue. "We can't live like this," she said.

Most of the low-income residents, recipients of federal housing assistance called Section 8, sat on a waiting list for years to get a spot at Hickory Ridge. Now, many say they fear they will get kicked out if they speak out about problems.

Kuffel, who uses a wheelchair and has limited use of her arms, waited 18 months for a city-ordered ramp to be built outside her back door. Last month, Kuffel got her ramp -- two pieces of plywood nailed to the ground. Gottlieb said the delay was a mistake.

In February, Kuffel complained when a water pipe burst in her utility closet, causing mold to spread across the walls. The damage didn't get fixed until a city inspector visited in July. Gottlieb believes a maintenance man fixed the pipe and removed the mold, but it grew back later.

Resident Jaime Flores noticed a strange smell and many other problems when she moved into her unit three months ago. She refused to sign a move-in form, citing a long list of things she wanted fixed. Soon, she and her three young daughters started getting headaches and rashes. Every time the property manager or maintenance worker came to her apartment, she pointed out the smell. But she said no one ever checked out the cause.

A city inspector went to Flores' townhome two weeks ago and immediately determined the family had been living with a gas leak.

Gottlieb said he would look into why Flores had to do so many of her own repairs and make sure she is reimbursed for any expenses, such as the deadbolt she installed in her back door.

He plans to increase training for property managers and create a system where residents can make anonymous complaints. He was deeply troubled that some residents fear retaliation for complaining.

"If we did screw up, I take blame," he said. "The fact that there was no dead bolt bothers me. That shouldn't have happened. It shouldn't take a call from you."

Pressure from the state

Officials at the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency say conditions could get worse if owners don't offer a clear plan for the property's upkeep and address a rotating cast of maintenance workers. A June inspection report says the overall physical condition of the property is below average, citing "deferred maintenance" and other problems. The flooring in the units is "quite worn" and the kitchen cabinets are "beginning to deteriorate", the report said.

Bob Odman, the state's assistant commissioner of multi-family housing, said he can't imagine why Nationwide would hesitate to take rehabilitation money that doesn't have to be repaid.

"This [money] would clearly go a long ways toward meeting those needs," Odman said.

The agency provides such grants to make sure older, low-income housing doesn't fall into disrepair. The only condition is Nationwide would have to commit to keeping the homes in the Section 8 program through 2023, 10 years after the current contract expires.

The company, whose president is former state attorney general Doug Head, operates 12 other Section 8 properties across the state but none of them have major repair problems, Odman said.

Situated on a quiet, wooded lot, the townhomes are next to luxury apartment complexes in an area close to transportation, shopping and jobs -- feeding speculation by state and local officials that the property might be redeveloped in 2013.

Gottlieb refused to end that speculation, saying he can't say with certainty what will happen after 2013. But he said the company plans to spend as much as $500,000 over the next five years for updates and repairs at Hickory Ridge.

In the last 18 months, he said the owners have spent about $38,000 on capital improvements, plus another $192,000 from an insurance payment for new roofs and paint.

So why won't the company take the state's money?

Gottlieb said he still hasn't reviewed the state's offers.

Lora Pabst • 612-673-4628

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