Government & Politics

After mold, damage complaints, KC expands Healthy Homes to inspect federal housing

As Kansas City voters mulled whether to approve a new inspection program for the city’s rental homes last summer, Councilman Dan Fowler took a tour of Englewood Apartments and was appalled by what he saw.

Mold and collapsing ceilings plagued some residents of the apartment complex on Northwest Waukomis Drive.

“The insulation was black...” Fowler said during a committee meeting Wednesday, describing one apartment where the ceiling had fallen in. “Fiberglass insulation is not black. It’s either orange or yellow. I could see where it had been yellow.”

But despite the concerns, Englewood didn’t fall under Kansas City’s “Healthy Homes” inspection system, which allows the Health Department to investigate complaints from tenants in rental housing. Englewood, part of the federal Section 8 housing program, and other properties like it were exempt from the measure voters passed last year, as were nonprofit homes.

The Kansas City Council voted unanimously Thursday with very little discussion to change that, bringing both nonprofit properties and those in Section 8, run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, into the Healthy Homes program.

Data from Healthy Homes’ first year of operation shows about 20 percent of complaints came from HUD or nonprofit housing. Naser Jouhari, senior public health manager for the city, told the Neighborhood Planning and Development Committee that Health Department staff have to turn those residents away, no matter how hazardous the conditions they described.

“The picture on the left,” Jouhari said as he clicked through a slideshow of substandard housing, “this is not wallpaper. That’s mold.”

Fowler said a change to the program was necessary.

“So really we can’t use the tools of the Health Homes ordinance to address those specific complaints,” Fowler said, “and when you’re getting 20 percent of your complaints from your source you can’t do anything about it, then you need to do something about it.”

Still exempt under the ordinance are homes rented for less than 30 days, including Airbnb vacation rentals.

Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for HUD, said the federal agency generally supported “any measure that would improve living conditions for the families we serve.”

Sullivan said HUD has been pushing Englewood’s owner, The Millennia Companies, to fix deficiencies.

According to Millennia, crews started renovation of the complex in June. But an email exchange obtained by The Star shows HUD expected work to begin much sooner. Edward Manning, director of HUD’s Kansas City Asset Management Division, told Millennia CEO Frank Sinito on Tuesday that the department was “concerned with the constant slips to the construction schedule at Englewood.”

“In November 2018, you committed to begin the rehab on 1 February 2019 with the first building being ready at the end of March 2019,” Manning said in the email. “You failed to to begin as you promised and now, with the most recently announced delay, the project is over five months behind schedule.”

Manning then said he was told the apartments would be ready Aug. 19 only to be pushed back to early September because of “normal construction delays.”

“I expected you factored in ‘normal’ delays when you gave me the August completion date,” Manning said. “As a result of these delays tenants will continue to live in substandard conditions for a lot longer than previously anticipated.”

In an earlier email, dated May 19, Sinito told Manning the property was the firm’s “first priority” and that it was finalizing financing with the Missouri Housing Development Corporation.

Sullivan said Missouri’s elimination of the state Low-Income Housing Tax Credit slowed the project but that the department was still not happy with the pace of improvements.

“There’s a long history here of assurances being made to us that didn’t happen,” Sullivan said.

Valerie Jerome, a marketing technologist for Millennia, said the first building in the 152-apartment complex was expected to be finished in mid-September.

“With a project of this scope and magnitude, unexpected delays can occur as we coordinate with the trades and reveal unexpected conditions during construction,” she said in an email. “Often with large-scale construction projects, the first building is the most difficult to complete.”

She said the company’s goal was to “preserve affordable housing for those who need it most and enrich the lives of our residents” and that any resident issues will be promptly addressed as soon as the company is made aware.

A news release from the city last week said that of the 879 complaints, water and wastewater issues were the most common (353), followed by mold and ventilation problems (324) and pests (191).

About half of the complaints involved properties that were exempt, where the tenant could not be reached, or where there was no identifiable issue. Another 40 percent of the were resolved, most with compliance plans either pending or completed by landlords.

The city said tenants with complaints can call the City’s Action Center (3-1-1) or fill out an online form on the 3-1-1 web page. They can also call the Healthy Homes Rental Inspection Program (816-513-6347) or walk-in to its offices at 2400 Troost Ave., Suite 3600.

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