Showdown on Armour Boulevard over ‘social liability’ of Bainbridge Apartments

03/31/2014 11:23 AM

03/31/2014 11:23 AM

Nobody claims the Bainbridge Apartments at 900 E. Armour Blvd. are a crime-free oasis in midtown Kansas City.

Not Eagle Point Cos. of Maine, the firm that owns and manages the low-income housing development, and certainly not its middle-class neighbors in historic Hyde Park or other nearby pre-World War II apartment buildings recently restored on Armour.

Though Eagle Point maintains it has done a good job managing and reducing crime at the Bainbridge since buying and renovating the seven-story building in 2007, neighbors describe it as ground zero for the social ills troubling their area.

And in a showdown between the neighborhood, city officials, Eagle Point and the federal government, a city blight study has concluded that the Bainbridge is a “social liability.”

If the city isn’t satisfied by Eagle Point’s response, the Kansas City Council could approve a move to ultimately condemn the property and seek new management.

The blight study originally was to have been reviewed by the City Plan Commission in January, but has been postponed repeatedly and is now on hold.

City officials say they’re trying to force Eagle Point to respond to criticism about its management of the Bainbridge and two other nearby buildings, the Georgian Court at 400 E. Armour and Linda Vista at 1301 E. Armour. Combined, there are 303 apartments, all reserved for low-income residents under the Section 8 federal housing program.

Eagle Point officials say the effort was launched to force them out, citing internal emails obtained from the city planning department through a Freedom of Information Request.

“The record shows the ‘study’ is the result of meetings some people in the city have been having for quite a long time with the goal of ‘removing the developer’ through means like ‘default,’ ‘legal action’ and ‘condemnation,’ ” said Laura Burns, CEO of Eagle Point.

The struggle on Armour dates long before Eagle Point arrived. The boulevard’s once grand apartment buildings, which during their heydays between World Wars I and II were home to many young professionals, by the 1970s had become predominately low-income housing.

Eight years ago, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development foreclosed on the Bainbridge and the other buildings, and neighborhood residents and their City Council members hoped new ownership would end their exclusive use as Section 8 housing.

The neighborhood argued that it was unfair to them and the poor people living in the buildings to be concentrated, and that federal low-income housing should be scattered throughout the city.

“This has been going on for quite some time,” said Councilman Jim Glover, who represents the area. “The concentrations in those buildings and the accompanying problems happened before Eagle Point and have continued.”

But Eagle Point officials say their buildings have been unfairly targeted by the city blight study. Though acknowledging problems, they say the buildings are better managed now than ever. HUD also defends the firm.

“We’d never pretend to think there isn’t still crime in and around our properties,” Burns said, “but there’s a perception that all crime in the neighborhood is somehow attached to our properties, and that’s not true.

“The data in their own (city) blight study shows crime is down. We’re open to partnering with all elements of the community to reduce crime.”

Burns also said her company was “blindsided” by the report and learned about it only indirectly in late December when the City Plan Commission scheduled a meeting to consider it. She also said the company had received no previous complaints, a claim the neighborhood and city dispute.

For their part, neighbors say they were surprised in 2006 when former Mayor Kay Barnes and her aide, Donovan Mouton, negotiated a deal with Eagle Point to buy the Bainbridge. Mouton now is representing Eagle Point as a consultant.

“There’s been a continuing large amount of crime from trespassing to armed robbery, rape, homicide and assault,” said Gene Morgan, president of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association. “That’s what we’re striving to reduce. It’s been difficult for Eagle Point to admit there’s a problem.”

There also has been a middle-class renaissance on Armour since Eagle Point renovated the Bainbridge. A New Jersey firm, Antheus Capital, has redeveloped a dozen other apartment buildings on Armour into market-rate apartments geared toward urbanites.

Peter Cassel of Mac Property Management, which runs the Antheus properties, said Mac was pleased the city was addressing the crime issue.

Police have been familar with the Bainbridge for a long time. In 2005, before Eagle Point took over, police investigated three murders at the building.

But problems have remained even after Eagle Point spent $57 million in 2006 to renovate the Bainbridge, Georgian Court and Linda Vista.

One notorious incident occurred in November 2011, when two men killed a barber during a robbery at 3402 Troost Ave. One of the bandits accidentally shot himself, and police followed the bloody trail to the Bainbridge and his girlfriend’s apartment.

And in October 2012, a 19-year-old woman was shot dead by an 18-year-old woman during an argument over stolen property inside a Bainbridge apartment.

“I’ve been working with the Bainbridge most of my time on the council,” said Councilwoman Jan Marcason. “It’s been a very difficult place for families and young children to be living, and not a good environment for a lot of folks.”

The city blight study prepared by Sterrett Urban LLC, a private consultant, used police statistics on the number of calls received for the Bainbridge from 2006 to 2012. The report then came up with a formula that determined the “z-score” for the Bainbridge.

A z-score determines whether a property is a crime “hot spot,” meaning a greater than average number of crimes were reported there compared to neighboring properties.

“The reopening of the Bainbridge Apartments had a tremendous impact on crime, both with respect to total crimes and violent crimes, as the z-scores made a dramatic jump beginning in 2008,” the study said.

The study analysis indicated by 2012, however, the total crimes, which combines violent, property and ‘society’ crimes reported in the three buildings, had declined to where they were no longer hot spots. The Bainbridge itself, however, continued to be a hot spot for violent crime in 2012.

The study’s author also interviewed nearby residents who reported the Bainbridge had an “incredibly negative impact.” The Georgian and Linda Vista were not as bad, but still a problem. Police supported that appraisal, but with some qualification.

“Interviews with (police) echoed the same sentiments, except that causes behind the high level of crimes are likely more attributable to poor management of the facility, the long history of crime problems associated with the property, and close proximity to mass transit stops,” the study said.

Eagle Point officials, however, believe they’re being penalized for being more active in reaching out to police than previous managers of the Bainbridge. They also point out that after a spike in crime in 2008 and 2009, the numbers have declined.

Eagle Point has hired off-duty police to be present a total of 24 hours weekly, and private security is on duty 195 hours a week. Visitors are screened, and if they’re found to have arrest warrants, Eagle Point calls police.

“Every applicant to our apartments is screened for credit and criminal history, and if they have a criminal history, we don’t admit them,” Burns said. “Residents also have to submit to periodic inspections of their apartments, and the police are invited to come along.

“If there is drug paraphernalia found, we evict them.”

The federal government supports Eagle Point. In a statement released by HUD for the City Plan Commission, the agency found there was no physical evidence of blight, and all the Eagle Point properties were well managed.

The HUD report slammed the blight study, saying it ignored its own analysis that there had been an overall drop in crime since Eagle Point began managing the three properties.

“An analysis of the z-scores used in the blight study shows an overall significant decrease in crime that is seemingly ignored, given that the sole basis for the recommendation of blight is crime,” HUD said.

HUD pointed out that 95 percent of the residents living in the apartments were African-American.

“A finding of blight based solely on a crime rate that has significantly decreased in recent years, and any subsequent action by the city based on the blight study, raises potential fair housing concerns given the demographics of the property,” the HUD statement said.

Neighbors, however, say HUD is violating its own policy by concentrating low-income housing into single buildings.

“HUD is the villain here,” said Dave Scott, a Hyde Park resident. “HUD needs to be proactive about solving the problems they’ve created.

“Nobody believes the answer is to reduce the number of Section 8 housing, but most people working on this know 100 percent Section 8 is a bad idea.”

Local officials would like to see a solution that would allow low-income residents to co-exist with the area’s new residents.

“We want to see the progress in the neighborhood continue and continue in a manner that avoids concentration, but doesn’t reduce the amount of affordable housing available in the neighborhood,” said Al Figuly, executive director of the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority, the agency that commissioned the blight study on behalf of the city.

For now, the city has decided to delay any further action until Eagle Point officials have a chance to meet with the City Planning Department. Burns said Eagle Point hopes to resolve the issue at a meeting scheduled for Wednesday, and have the city retract its blight study.

“We need serious partners who’ll sit down and talk and look at the facts, and see how we can make adjustments to factual conditions,” Burns said.

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